One of the simple pleasures of traveling to cities much older than Atlanta is happening upon works of art in churches off the beaten path.
I’m talking about seeing pieces I had only seen in art history books in random houses of worship in Spain, France and Italy. As I result, I feel a near-constant pull to walk into these sanctuaries and wander around, respectfully.
You never know what you might find.
A reader enlightened me to something similar, but much closer to home.
Northsider Wheeler Bryan and his wife Anne are members of the Decorative Arts Trust, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit that promotes and fosters the appreciation and study of the decorative arts.
Through the trust, they met Josh Probert, a historian specializing in American decorative arts who earned his master’s degree at Yale University and his doctorate at Delaware University. His dissertation was titled “Gilded Religion in the Age of Tiffany, 1877-1932.”
When I read “the Age of Tiffany,” I assume Tiffany & Co., the luxury jeweler with the distinct robin egg-blue boxes and white ribbon.
I almost had it right.
The founder in 1837 of the iconic Tiffany store is Charles Lewis Tiffany. His son, Louis Comfort Tiffany, steered it to national and international prominence in the early 20th century. That same son is also responsible for Tiffany Glass Co., which split off from its more famous sibling in 1885 and took on three other names in the years that followed until closing in 1932.
Louis Comfort Tiffany was less a businessman and more an artist.
He started as a painter, trained in the Hudson River School style of landscape painting. He eventually turned his attention to the decorative arts — wallpaper, furniture, textiles. His philosophy was to break down the notion that art is only hanging on a wall. Ordinary things should reflect the creative spirit, like the famous Tiffany lamps.
Equally famous are his stained-glass windows, several of which are in churches in Atlanta. Bryan brought Probert to Atlanta back in February to talk about Tiffany’s windows and explain what makes them extraordinary.
I had been in just about every church in his program — All Saints Episcopal Church, North Avenue Presbyterian Church and First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta. While I had spent a few idle moments looking at the windows over the years, they seemed like any other stained-glass windows.
However, Probert’s lecture showed how wrong I was and that there are world-class, world-envied works of art adorning our houses of worship.
It has everything to do with Louis Comfort Tiffany’s innovations in stained glass. He created texture and mixed colors, a style called Favrile. It created a sense of depth and light unique to his namesake windows. He welcomed imperfections, which better reflected the natural world. He also had skilled artists paint details on the glass. The faces in his windows are works of art themselves.
As Probert explained what to look for, the details instantly magnified. I found myself looking at these windows I had seen — especially in the case of First Pres — most of my life with a new appreciation.
How these windows ended up in Atlanta is not as interesting a story.
Tiffany was an artist, true, but he was also a businessman. His New York-based shop produced these windows for buyers around the country. The church received a catalog and picked out the windows it wanted at the cost it could afford.
Designers made custom tweaks to make them unique, but these windows were available to anyone for a price. That doesn’t make them any less beautiful or artistic.
During this time of COVID-19, if you want to see some of the most famous stained-glass windows in the world, you just have to poke your head inside a local church.
Not all of the windows in the churches I’ve mentioned are by Tiffany, by the way, but if you know what to look for, you’ll spot them instantly.