An exhibit of the religious art of Louis C. Tiffany gives a glimpse into an era when houses of worship were built in growing cities.
Tiffany lived in a time of a quickly growing, and increasingly urban, United States. Church expansion — some 4,000 new churches were built between the 1880s and 1910 – was an integral part of the era, which played out under the still-haunting shadows of the U.S. Civil War.
“People were turning to the power of cultural memory, and where did they find it? In churches and synagogues,” Pongracz said.
The growing ascendancy of well-heeled Protestant churches in urban areas meant that middle-class and well-heeled congregations had the money to pay for the superbly crafted stained-glass windows, altarpieces, mosaic floors and other decorative work created by Tiffany’s firm.
The Protestant Tiffany knew no sectarian boundaries; his words are also found in Roman Catholic and Jewish houses of worship.
“This happened at a time when it was thought to be important for a congregation to invest in their church building,” Pongracz said, “and people really did put money into these buildings.”
Tiffany had a whole department dedicated to ecclestiastical arts, proclaiming an aesthetic he called a “Gospel of Good Taste.”
As an accompanying essay by art historian and curator Jennifer Perry Thalheimer notes, “demand from churches for decorative art was so great that Tiffany designated an entire department of Tiffany Studios for the creation” of church art. By the time of the 1893 exposition, Thalheimer notes, Tiffany’s studio “had established itself as the premier ecclesiastical design firm.”
The result? Thousands of older churches and religious institutions in the United States have a Tiffany piece of one kind or another. One of the best examples of Tiffany work is at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Paterson, N.J., which boasts 12 Tiffany windows and a Tiffany altar rail.
While many regular church-goers know about this part of Tiffany’s work, the popular culture may be unaware of the breadth and quality of the work.