CHICKEN WIRE AND TIFFANY. This Saturday, seven windows of Louis Comfort Tiffany are open at Grace-St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, and his brilliant lamps shine through Jan. 13 at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.
What you see is up to you.
You might see rare and wonderful art, or learn a thing or two about creative genius, or, who knows, you might see the face of God. But, hey, you should take a look.
In the Middle Ages, churches were centers of learning – at least for clergy – religion was the basis of art, and Gothic cathedrals were the ultimate extension of both. With few exceptions outside the clergy, congregations were wholly illiterate and a very real purpose of the windows and art of the church was to paint the word in elaborate, ecclesiastical picture books. The church hoped that the majesty of such lessons could raise their flock above a drab existence and offer the promise of something better, something eternal.
One man’s vision, more than any other, brought that tradition back to life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and you can see it here in Memphis.
It is not necessary to believe in God in order to be elevated by art, but it doesn’t hurt. It’s not necessary to worship any deity to see evidence of a divine spark, but it might just bring you around.
When Grace Church joined with St. Luke’s in 1940, they brought a glorious legacy with them – seven original windows by Louis Comfort Tiffany. The result is the one of the country’s largest collections of Tiffany windows, one of the most outstanding in a parish church anywhere.
And they almost disappeared.
The arbiter of taste in America for a half-century, muse of decorative arts for the world, glass magician and wizard of light for the ages, Louis Comfort Tiffany would end it all in bankruptcy, his spirit broken like a piece of his signature Favrile glass thrown to the floor, his popularity fading like the day’s last ray through one of his incomparable windows.
So out of favor, so yesterday, his creations at Grace-St. Luke’s were allowed to warp and waste away, some half covered by roof tar, the largest of all in a frame so neglected, the leading so weakened, that the 400 square feet of main window and surround windows could be moved by the touch of a child’s hand – a push away from crashing into Peabody below.
One of the windows graced the east wall of the church’s parish hall and part-time gym – fronted by a basketball goal – protected only by chicken wire.
So fragile had the strands of Tiffany’s legacy become, now strengthened, restored and returned to prominence.
Saturday, Nov, 17, at 3, courtesy of the Decorative Arts Trust at Brooks, Lindsy Parrot, director and curator of The Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass in New York, will give a lecture on Tiffany at Grace-St. Luke’s, Peabody at Belvedere, and the public is invited.
I’m a Memphian, and these windows are something to see.
Dan Conaway is a lifelong Memphian, longtime adman and aspiring local character in a city known for them. Reach him at email@example.com.