NEW YORK — Louis Comfort Tiffany was the quintessential tastemaker of the post-Civil War Gilded Age. His iridescent leaded-glass windows and lamps decorated public buildings and homes of rich and famous clients. But most of his commissions were for America's houses of worship at a time of unprecedented church-building.
"Louis C. Tiffany and the Art of Devotion" at The Museum of Biblical Art in New York City is the first major exhibit to focus exclusively on Tiffany's religious output of elaborate altars, baptismal fonts, mosaics, chandeliers, windows and other liturgical ornamentation. It features 84 objects, including 10 stained-glass windows, three of which are on loan from churches that are still active. The free exhibit runs through Jan. 20.
While most of his commissions were for Protestant churches, synagogues also sought out the master designer for their interiors, most notably New York's stunning Temple Emanu-El, which has a majestic window of the Ten Commandments. The museum has scheduled tours of the temple's monumental May Memorial Window on Dec. 6 and Jan. 9.
During a fertile period of church building – some 4,000 were constructed between 1888 and 1915 – Tiffany Studios positioned itself as the go-to firm for ecclesiastical decorative arts. The firm, which operated from 1880 until Tiffany's death in 1933, was celebrated for its Favrile glass, an opalescent glass with swirls of color variegation and three-dimensional effects that Tiffany patented in 1881.
"In his windows, drapery looks like drapery. It literally has folds," said Patricia Pongracz, the museum's director of curatorial affairs. "If you have a petal, the flower has a texture and a quality to it that suggests to you physically and tactically the notion of a flower petal."
The exhibit is arranged around three themes: innovation and design; commemoration; and Tiffany as businessman.
"Tiffany was not simply in the business of creating beauty, he also was keenly aware of the importance of memory," said Pongracz, adding that most of the objects he created for a church were commemorating someone who had died.
The exhibition offers a unique opportunity to see many of Tiffany's liturgical works up close, and some that have not been on public view in decades, said Pongracz.
There is a 1908 marble-and-glass mosaic baptismal font on loan from the Christ Church in Pomfret, Conn., that was created in memory of a father and daughter who died within 18 months of each other.
"It's a very emotional experience to see it," congregant Linda Goodwin said of the overall Tiffany effect. "It's very inspiring."
"You take a deep breath when you see the font because it's so beautiful," Goodwin added.
Tiffany was an astute businessman who "was fantastic at creating his materials and marketing them," Pongracz said. A brilliant tactic that sealed Tiffany Studios' reputation as a premiere ecclesiastical design company was a marble-and-glass mosaic chapel created for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
"It wasn't consecrated, but it was so powerful and evocative that ... men walking in removed their hats," she said.
Tiffany considered it among his greatest achievements. It was reinstalled in his New York showroom and today is the centerpiece of a museum in Winter Park, Fla.
Tiffany also produced electrified sanctuary lamps he called electroliers. The exhibit features an 1897 example with metal and glass prisms from the United Presbyterian Church in Binghamton, N.Y.
The museum said no cost records exist for the objects, which today remain priceless.