Tag: Stained Glass

Half-Moon Holy Night

              A half-moon-shaped window above the middle doors at the back of the church is a simple architectural detail packed with meaning.

              The round medallion in the center recreates Mary and Baby Jesus from an oil painting called “Holy Night” by Antonio da Correggio around 1530 (about 37 years before our patron St. Francis de Sales was born).

In the original painting, Mother and Child were shown in a pool of light, with St. Joseph and a group of shepherds in the shadows just beyond. Light plays an important symbolic role in many Nativity depictions: the Glencairn Museum notes that  in Byzantine artistic tradition, “the cave of the Nativity represents the darkness into which Christ, the Light of the World, was born” and “according to the well-known mystical vision of St. Bridget of Sweden (1303–1373), when the Christ Child was born, the cave where the birth took place was filled with an ineffable divine light—a light that completely outshone the earthly light of Joseph’s candle…” Artists have tried to capture the effect ever since. The original Correggio painting was considered a masterpiece of the chiaroscuro technique, which uses strong contrasts of light and dark to tell its story. We get a slightly different variation with our window: Mother and Child are best seen illuminated from behind.

We don’t know who painted our Holy Night window or what shop put together the glass around 1910. Amy Valuck, President of the American Glass Guild, suggests that the round painted medallion was likely to have been made in one place, and the surrounding half-moon glass in another, and the two then pieced together. She observes that the glass in the lunette windows is mostly rolled glasswith black ladder-like borders that were stencilled on using a vitreous paint made with powdered ground glass and metal oxides, fired in a kiln to stabilize it, with silver nitrate then applied between the lines and fired again to get the yellow coloring – still crisp after a century of wear. “The narrow circular border around the painted medallion is rolled opalescent glass.” That could be a small origin clue: milky opalescent glass, made by mixing different metal oxides into the actual glass — was a technique pioneered in the late nineteenth century by several American studios – and most of the other handwork in our church is local.

The round medallion — which may have come from a company that supplied such ready-made work to other studios — was hand-painted with vitreous paint, mixed at the glass workshop. Our expert points out that “if the proportions of ground glass, oxide, and flux were not carefully measured, paint would be more likely to fail over time” and the white lines at the edges of Mary’s clothing and some flaking paint suggest that its glass was slightly under-fired – a very human touch, adding weight to the idea that the medallion and the surrounding window were by different artists, possibly from different studios, and reminding us that our magnificent church was built with the collective efforts of many individuals.

There’s one further curious note about the Correggio painting that inspired our medallion: commissioned for a church in northern Italy, it was treasured there until 1640, when the work was “carried off by night” by the Duke Francisco d’Este, for his private gallery – a common “disruptive phenomenon” in an age when devotional artwork in churches was especially meaningful to those whose homes were bare, but rich people felt entitled to hoard pretty things. Correggio’s picture was meant to be accessible. Today, on display in a museum in Dresden, Germany, with reproductions spread around the world, its inspirational light shines again for everyone.

              Back in our church, the origin story of our own little window is still a mystery (clues welcome!), but, when daylight shines through the image as the doors swing open at the end of Mass, it offers a small reminder that faith is active, and we are called to carry the light of the Christ child with us, in our hearts, as we go back out into the world.


The Cross and the Peacock

Do you ever get the feeling that you’re being watched when you are sitting in your pew?

The colorful “eye” patterns on peacock feathers are supposed to represent the “all-seeing eyes” of the church, and there’s a pair of these peeking out — like an ever-vigilant Santa’s “elf-on-a- shelf — from a half-hidden, half-moon stained-glass window perched above the left confessional at the back of the church.

The two peacock feathers in our window actually form part of a Resurrection tableau, on either side of a cross with five “jewels” in the middle, indicating the five wounds of Christ; diamond-shaped Byzantine lozenges symbolizing the Word of God made flesh; and a calla lily border signifying rebirth.

How do the peacock feathers fit in with the Resurrection theme? That’s a complicated question. Some claim that medieval Europeans long ago believed that peacock meat would never spoil, so peacocks came to represent the “incorruptibile” and, by extension, immortal. Others maintain the fact that peacocks shed their feathers and re-grow them in the Spring, suggested a phoenix-like cycle of rebirth and renewal. According to Cirlot’s Dictionary of Symbols, the peacock is a symbol for “the blending together of all colours and for the idea of totality. This explains why, in Christian art, it appears as a symbol of immortality and of the incorruptible soul.

Peacocks have a long mystical history in art. Tracing their story, Jelena Andelkovic writes that in ancient India and Ceylon, the peacock was considered a symbol of the sun, because of it plumy tail. In the Greek and Roman worlds, the peacock was the emblem of Dionysus, god of wine; and Juno/Hera. queen of the gods. The eyes in the peacock’s tail represented stars and invoked eternity. This may have been the roots for their association with the all-seeing church, and their use as protective talismans.

Cirlot observes that symbolic peacocks often flanked a “Cosmic Tree” — an ancient association “which came to Islam from Persia and subsequently reached Spain and the West,” and “denotes the psychic duality of man…drawing its life force from the principle of unity.” When peacocks were adopted in Byzantine Christian art (a design inspiration for our church), especially in Ravenna, Italy, Jelkovic notes that they were often shown on sarcophagi with a “Tree of Life” from the Garden of Eden, which “symbolizes the connection between heaven and earth, death and resurrection, and sometimes suggests crucifixion.” Two peacock feathers flanking the wood of a cross in our church might then be intended to signify Christ’s connection with heaven and earth — both human and divine — a theme that is already highlighted in the double-cross motifs below the long, stained glass windows on the parking lot side.

Located above the confessional, our feathers could also offer a meditation on Christ’s sacrifice and an admonition to humility for those examining their conscience before entering the box, since the peacock’s showy tail can represent vanity and pride.  The peacock’s reputation for “incorruptibility” could also be a caution to the ambitious!

In the end, whatever the peacock represents, the real “eyes of the church” are not the ones in the stained-glass feathers above the confessional: they’re ours — acknowledging each other from our pews each week; watching our parish children grow, year by year; looking out for one another; and feeling that we share a bond over time as part of a faith community!

Different Perspectives

Double vision? Not quite! The work on the left, by Danish painter Carl Bloch; and the right-hand work — our Agony in the Garden window, by stained glass artisan Nicola D’Ascenzo – are strikingly similar, but their differences reveal the artists’ separate worldviews.

Artist Carl Bloch was born to a Danish merchant family, in Copenhagen, in 1834, and his father planned for his “respectable” future as an officer in the Danish Navy. In 1855, Bloch chose, instead, to enter the Royal Danish Academy of Art, for formal art training. He always traveled in good society: among his friends were playwright Henrik Ibsen and fairytale writer Hans Christian Andersen (of Little Mermaid fame), who even wrote a cringeworthy poem in his honor. Today Bloch is best remembered for the much-reproduced series of 23 religious paintings he created for the King’s Chapel at Fredriksborg Palace in Denmark between 1865 and 1879 (Now the National History Museum run by the Carlsberg brewery foundation). Wikipedia notes that “For over 40 years The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has made heavy use of Bloch’s paintings, mostly from the Frederiksborg Palace collection, in its church buildings and printed media. The Church has produced films depicting scriptural accounts of Christ’s public ministry, using Bloch’s paintings as models for the colour, light and overall set design as well as the movement of the actors in many of the films’ scenes.” 

                Our stained-glass artisan Nicola D’Ascenzo’s life followed a different path. He was born into a family of artists, metalworkers and armor makers, in Torricella Peligna, Italy, in 1871 – a region rich with romantic ancient legends, historic sites, and wild landscapes. His family emigrated to America and settled in Philadelphia in 1882. Some form of handcrafts was always in D’Ascenzo’s future: he initially apprenticed as a stonecutter and to a woodworker, studying painting in the evenings at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Arts (now part of Philadelphia’s University of the Arts) and the New York School of Design. D’Ascenzo embraced the Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century, which reacted against industrialization and mass-production — setting up a medieval-style guild to create one-of-a-kind handcrafted artworks – such as our church windows, which were one of his early commissions. Among his other well-known works are stained glass in the Washington Memorial Chapel in Valley Forge; on the Nipper Building in Camden, New Jersey; and at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

The two artists probably never crossed paths, though Carl Bloch lived in Italy from 1859 to 1866, and likely traveled back and forth afterwards. D’Ascenzo would have been nineteen when Bloch died of cancer in Denmark.

D’Ascenzo’s Agony in the Garden window is clearly inspired by Bloch’s work, but D’Ascenzo added his own layer of meaning. Bloch’s paintings are like stage sets, focused on the drama of the characters, while D’Ascenzo’s Arts-and-Crafts style designs also celebrate “our deep human need to connect with the natural world.”  The contrast in the Agony in the Garden images is especially outstanding: Bloch’s bleak landscape emphasizes Christ’s sorrow and loneliness, while D’Ascenzo changes a barren tree into a beautiful green tapestry and tucks several apostles into the lush foliage.  The tree is essential to his message – a reminder of Christ’s passion, and an emblem of our faith’s deep spiritual connection to the natural world. In the Old Testament, the olive tree was seen as a symbol of Hope: D’Ascenzo profoundly transforms Bloch’s “glass half empty;” to a “glass half full!”

Interested in other local history? Check out our new sister webpage httpps://streetofhistoryphiladelphia.wordpress.com

To Infinity and Beyond

B029 It might be hard to get away from the city this summer, so let’s check out some distant worlds inside St. Francis de Sales church at 47th and Springfield!

We think of our 1911 church as old and elegant, but it was futuristic when it was built, decorated with the state-of-the-art fireproof tilework designed to sheath modern skyscrapers, and fully-wired for newfangled electricity. A 1922 photo of the church interior shows dramatic movie theatre light bulbs around all of the arches. Look closely: those antique back-to-the-future light fixtures are still embedded in the clay tiles!

From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne

Our church bells have some curious associations. An early American translation of Jules Verne’s 1865 novel of space travel,  From the Earth to the Moon, used the name of the Meneely Bell Foundry – the same company that made our bells – for the manufacturer of the bell-shaped metal spacecraft in which astronauts were catapulted to the moon. One of our bells is named Gervase, probably after Bishop Crane’s sibling, who became Mother Mary Gervase, IHM. But there was also a medieval English monk named Gervase who was famous for describing a strange phenomenon in 1178 AD, when the horn of the moon split in two and  “from the midpoint of the division a flaming torch sprang up, spewing out, over a considerable distance, fire, hot coals and sparks…” Scientists hypothesize that Gervase-the-monk could have observed the formation of a crater on the moon, or, more likely, an exploding meteor between the earth and the moon – an event to think about when our bells toll!

gervase moon
Artistic rendering of Gervase of Canterbury’s moon observation

Detail from Saint Francisde Sales Church window

High in the tower on the East side of our church, is a window with a spectacular “outer space” theme showing stars, planets, and a big ball of light with radiant beams – or a tail. It may represent the Creation as described in the Book of Genesis. It could also have marked the arrival of Halley’s Comet, when our church was being built in 1910. Though it appeared every 75 years, the comet that year was supposed to be exceptionally bright, and the earth was scheduled to pass right through its dusty tail. No one quite knew what would happen and tabloids predicted the end of civilization. Our window-designer may have commemorated that fortunate escape.

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Bishop’s Insignia of Saint Francis de Sales

Even the Bishop’s insignia of our patron Saint Francis de Sales has an other-worldly reference in the form of twin stars Castor and Pollux. These were added to the Sales family shield around 1310, after an ancestor, Pierre de Sales, observed “two flying lights appeared above the mast” during a fierce storm at sea. Other sailors were terrified, but Pierre correctly identified “Castor and Pollux” – a name used to describe a double jet of Saint Elmo’s Fire – an eerie sea-going weather phenomenon. He advised the ships to stay their course through the Mediterranean to aid the Knights of St. John at Rhodes, and as a result, was awarded the right to embellish his family shield. Francis de Sales incorporated the stars from his family emblem in his Bishop’s insignia in 1602, perhaps also thinking about St. Paul, in the Acts of the Apostles, who sailed on an Alexandrian ship “whose sign was Castor and Pollux.”

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Detail from the cover of Atlantis: the Andtedilivian World

Finally, back to earth, our Blessed Mother altar was donated in by Eleanor Donnelly, the “poet laureate of the American Catholic Church,” in memory of her deceased family members — including her brother, Ignatius Donnelly, who taught her to write poetry. Ignatius, who was a Minnesota senator, is celebrated today for his 1882 book  Atlantis: the Antediluvian Worlda cult classic of  undersea “Lost City of Atlantis” lore.

So, though you may have to take a “staycation” this summer due to covid; there’s plenty of room for your mind to wander, from outer space to the depths of the ocean, back at church!



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Stained glass artisan Nicola D’Ascenzo’s windows, crafted in 1910, remind us of our faith’s roots in the natural world.

The long windows on the St. Joseph side of our church show indoor formative scenes from the early life of Christ with hints of outdoors: the Annunciation, with symbolic  lilies; the Nativity in a stable; and young Jesus building a cross (wood of a tree!) in his father Joseph’s workshop. Across the aisle, episodes from the ministry of Christ show him as an adult, moving into the world outside to give his Sermon on the Mount; name Peter and establish the church; and endure his Agony in the Garden.

Have you ever noticed that all three of these scenes include olive trees in the design! Olives are ancient plants, common in the Holy Land, with deep symbolic associations, heavily referenced in both the Old and New Testament of the Bible. The dove in Genesis brought an olive branch to Noah to signal a new beginning after the flood. Bible Places notes that “The oil was used to anoint kings, prophets, priests, and Temple articles. Messiah, in fact, means ‘anointed one…’ ” Olive trees are known to have deep roots and live to a great age: the olive trees at Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed at the foot of the Mount of Olives, are said to be among the oldest on earth and D’Ascenzo’s windows remind us that trees are central to our religion.

_MG_2611 (2)The olive tree is especially prominent in D’Ascenzo’s final scene from the Life of Christ, which shows him in the Garden at Gethsemane, before he was crucified. Stained Glass Historian Jean Farnsworth observes that the window is arranged so that the “olive tree…forms a tapestry-like background that recalls the designs of William Morris…” Morris was an English artist in the late 1800s, who promoted a nostalgic, hand-crafted, close-to-nature worldview. D’Ascenzo admired his work. The world in 1910 was experiencing industrialization’s rapid change and D’Ascenzo, like Morris, worried about the dangers of becoming disconnected from the environment. Nature references in D’Ascenzo’s windows are thoughtful and deliberate: below the Agony in the Garden, is a scene showing the death of wise patron St. Francis de Sales – peacefully, in a gardener’s house, with a plant on the mantel. Below that, the original vent window (now below the middle window) showed a leafy wreath and snakes invoking the Tree of Knowledge and the lost Garden of Eden.

Today, a century-and-a-decade after our church was built, coronavirus has forced the dizzying pace of world development to slow down. Waiting in quarantine, people are noticing local wildlife and the budding trees (and their pollen). Scientists are encouraging us to be more mindful of our surroundings and a number of recent news articles have suggested that “Pandemics such as coronavirus are the result of humanity’s destruction of nature, according to leaders at the UN, WHO and WWF International.” Pope Francis this year celebrates the fifth anniversary of his Laudato Si’ Encyclical “On Care for our Common Home” and encourages the faithful to participate in The Season of Creation, an annual ecumenical celebration of prayer and action to protect our common home (September 1 to October 4). It’s time to go outside, appreciate our parish flowering trees — won in Fairmount Park contests years ago by SFDS School children and planted along 47th Street — and plant more enduring good works in the neighborhood!

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Madonna of the Harpies

Madonna of the Harpiesharpies

D’Ascenzo Studios crafted four large round “rose” windows for our church between 1909 and 1910. Their archives confirm that the one behind the altar depicts the Trinity, and the window in the choir loft shows St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, but the other two are unrecorded.

The window on the Mary side of our church is a “sacra conversazione,” or “sacred conversation,” showing Mary standing on a pedestal, holding Baby Jesus, with a saint on either side.  It is based on an Andrea del Sarto painting known as the Madonna of the Harpies  because of the birdlike human monsters,  resembling characters from Greek mythology, on the original column base (changed to a cross on a shield in our window).

That painting has its own odd history. Hanging in the Uffizi today, it was created in 1517 for the Poor Clares  Convent of  San Francesco dei Macci in Florence, which also sheltered “unhappily married women.” (aka women separated from their husbands, and victims of domestic violence). The original commission specified that St. Bonaventure — a Franciscan who valued study, as well as simplicity, poverty, and work —  should be painted on the left, but their patron Saint Francis of Assisi was ultimately placed there instead. Saint John the Evangelist was always on the right. No one knows why the “harpies” were included.  Some interpret the painting as depicting Mary’s Assumption or Coronation; others, as “the Virgin triumphant over evil.”

The mystery continues in our church. We don’t know why the painting was chosen for our stained glass window.

One curiosity comes to light: the contract for Andrea de Sarto’s original painting was signed on May 14, 1515. Our parish was founded on May 14, 1890. Is the similarity in dates significant? It’s possible. Imagery in the opposite window could be consistent with Our Lady of the Rosary, on whose feast day (October 6, 1907) our cornerstone was laid.

We’re still working on this one. Perhaps the biggest mystery is why we know so little about such an important decorative element in our church!

The Passing of Saint Francis de Sales

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The long stained-glass window on the 47th Street side of our church, showing the final moments of our patron St. Francis de Sales (by Nicola D’Ascenzo in 1911), features a detail of a small green plant on the mantel as a reminder of his connection to God through the natural world.

An 1871 biography notes that after years of defending the Faith, Francis, Bishop of Geneva, “began to feel worn and weary” at age 55 (old in the 1600s), and dreamed of retiring “to a quiet spot on the Lake of Annecy,”  (Duchy of Savoy; part of France today) to spend his final years writing books, close to nature. Francis was in poor health: “his legs swelled painfully, so that he could scarcely walk, and they were also covered with sores;” and his chest pains were “distressing.

In May 1622, Pope Gregory XV, nonetheless, ordered him to travel to Turin (Savoy then; Italy today) to settle a religious dispute. There, after Francis fainted in the church, he stayed on to recover, returning to Annecy in August, after he heard that crops at home had failed, and people were suffering. Francis decided “I will sell my mitre and crosier (hat and staff), and my garments themselves, to relieve my poor people.” He got rid of everything he could – including a valuable diamond ring he had just received from the princess in Turin. Upon hearing this, some of his flock bought it back for him, then he sold it again: “This happened several times, till it became a popular saying that it was the beggars’ ring rather than the Bishop’s.”

Francis made one final journey that November. The Duke of Savoy planned to meet French King Louis XIII at Avignon and accompany him on a royal tour. The Duke’s daughter-in-law, the Princess of Piedmont, wanted to bring the Bishop, who was her Grand Almoner (the most important member of the Church in the royal court), as part of her entourage. Unable to refuse, Bishop Francis wearily acknowledged “we must go where God calls us, as long as we can move at all…” Hoping to petition the King for aid for his diocese, he prepared to travel, knowing he probably would not return.

The plant shown in our window signals the humble surroundings at his final stop in Lyon, where “the Bishop avoided all Court entertainments and gatherings, save such as were a part of his duty…and refused all invitations…preferring to occupy a little apartment in the gardener’s house belonging to the Visitation Convent…The Sisters were distressed at their Founder being so unsuitably lodged,” but Francis insisted that he preferred the simple, natural setting.

Though frail, he was still busy: “Madame de Chantal (with whom he had co-founded the Visitation Order in 1601), who had not seen him for more than three years…came to Lyons to see her beloved Spiritual Father again…Persons of every class and age poured in upon him to gather up precious words of instruction and guidance, and the gardener’s little cottage was besieged with visitors from the town and from the members of both Courts…”

A few days after Francis celebrated Christmas Midnight Mass for the Visitation Sisters in Lyon, and the Superior remarked that the sermon was so inspired that “I could have fancied that I saw the Angel Gabriel standing beside you....,” Francis had a seizure and was carried to his bed in the gardener’s house. He received medical treatments of the day: “blisters applied to the head, hot irons, and even cauterizations to the spine...” but nothing helped, and the priests administered Last Rites.

Madame de Chantal was at the convent in Grenoble, saying her prayers, “when she distinctly heard a voice say He is no more.’” She did not understand until later what this meant: it was at that moment, back in Lyon, at about eight in the evening on the Feast of the Holy Innocents (Dec. 28), that Saint Francis de Sales died. He was buried, as was his desire, at the Church of the Visitation in Annecy on January 24.


Saint Francis de Sales

The Feast Day of Our Patron SAINT FRANCIS DE SALES is January 24.

Born in 1567, Francis de Sales grew up to become an inspirational preacher; a powerful writer; a friend of the poor; and a saint who, like his model, Saint Francis of Assisi, promoted a simple and devout life. Some of his story was told by stained glass artist Nicola D’Ascenzo in the lower half of our long windows. On the St. Joseph side of the church, starting at the left, young Francis learns the catechism from his mother in Savoy (part of France today). He receives his First Holy Communion in the middle window, then his father agrees to let him take Holy Orders in 1593. Across the aisle, on the Saint Mary side of the church, Saint Francis de Sales is a priest, preaching a mission at Annemasse in 1597. In the middle window he has become a bishop, co-founding the order of the Visitation, an order of nuns, with St. Jane Chantal in 1610. The right-hand window depicts his deathbed in 1622. What happened in the spaces between the windows?  Francis was appointed Bishop of Geneva in 1602, but resided in nearby Annecy, Savoy, because Geneva was under Protestant control. There, he worked with gentle firmness to keep the Catholic faith alive in his diocese. He is known for sliding written sermons under the doors of the faithful who could not, by law, attend mass — which is how he became The Patron Saint of Journalists. He is also patron saint of the deaf, based on a miracle he performed.

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Halley’s Comet 1910


High in the tower on the East side of St. Francis de Sales church, is a hidden window with a spectacular “outer space” theme showing stars, planets, and a big ball of light. Why is it there and what does it mean?

One possibility is that it celebrates the Creation as described in the Book of Genesis:  “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth — and the earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters—Then God said: Let there be light, and there was light…”

Alternatively, though not quite star-shaped, it could be intended to represent the Star in the East that heralded Christ’s birth.

Another thought is more topical. The appearance of Halley’s Comet, when our church was being built in 1910, was much like Y2K in the year 2000. Though it came into view every 75 years, the comet that year was supposed to be exceptionally bright, and the earth was scheduled to pass right through its dusty tail. No one quite knew what would happen.

The tabloids were inspired to predict all sorts of catastrophes: a belt of poison gas, disruption in electrical systems, and the end of civilization. The mainstream press consulted scientists, who suggested that there might be a beautiful light show – like the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights – either during the day, or around the moon at night. Pope Pius X, who had recently updated the scientific instruments in the Vatican Observatory, believed it would be neither spectacular nor dangerous, and scolded Italians for hoarding emergency oxygen cylinders “just in case.”

Our parish records are skimpy for that period, since our church was under construction (the cornerstone was laid on the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary in 1907 and the building would not be officially completed until 1911). We do know that our three round and six long signed D’Ascenzo stained glass windows were crafted in 1910. We are not entirely certain who designed the others, but they were probably made that same year.

IMG_2477 (2)Halley’s Comet was supposed to be “at its closest, therefore its brightest, between May 14 and 22” 1910. Our parish celebrated its twentieth anniversary that year on May 14, 1910, so it’s possible that the ball of light shown in our eastern tower window celebrates the “sunrise” of the world, while at the same time offering a nod to the comet as an auspicious omen for our parish anniversary. The window exactly opposite appears to be a “burning bush” – another heavenly sign


D’Ascenzo Stained Glass

d'ascenzo adA long-ago Pennsylvania guidebook highlighted the locally-crafted windows in our 1911 church, where “the leaded glass is particularly beautiful; windows are of the antique school and extremely rich in color. Have you ever wondered how they were made?

Nicola D’Acenzo, whose firm crafted the four round windows and six long windows, believed that “the architect is the maker of opportunities.”  Architect, Henry Dagit, would have planned the size, shape, and locations; and, after consulting with the Pastor, the general subjects for his windows. D’Ascenzo’s role was to assist the architect “in giving final expression to his buildings.”

The stained-glass workers brought their own expertise. A reporter visiting the D’Ascenzo studios downtown wrote: “Chat with a D’Ascenzo artist…and he will dwell on the importance of the window’s ultimate location.” Figures had to be scaled so that they would look good to the viewer, seeing them from below. “The supreme problem is color. The artist must know light. Glass made for the gray skies of France or England is apt to be an unintelligible blaze of color under the brilliant American sun.”

Walking through the workshop, the reporter described the process as he saw it: first, a small water-color sketch was painted. When that was “finished and approved, the cartoon must be made…That is simply a full-size, charcoal drawing of the window design. The place for each piece of glass is numbered, then the entire cartoon is cut up, jig-saw fashion, and affixed to a sheet of plain glass. The work-man, one eye on the little water-color sketch, selects the right-tinted glass, cuts it, then attaches it with beeswax to the plain glass in the spot vacated by his paper pattern. Soon the whole window is laid out on the glass easel. Decorative details and flesh tones are painted on with mineral pigments, which, when heated to a cherry-red – 1,1250 to 1,250 degrees Fahrenheit – fuse with the glass. Hydrofluoric acid is used to etch the surface for special effects. The bits of colored glass are now ready to be stuck together with the soldered lead strips. ‘Muck,” a waterproof cement, is ‘scrubbed’ into the crevices, and iron rods are worked into the decorative pattern to reinforce the whole.”

An earlier writer had noted that in reading a description  “one misses, of course, the cordial welcome of Mr. D’Ascenzo, the making of the full-size cartoons by his assistant designers, the snip of the scissors in the pattern room, the screech of the wheel as the glass is cut, the painting of the glass on the easels, the burning of the glass in the kilns and the hiss of the soldering iron.

What makes our church special?  Shut your eyes and imagine the distant echoes of earnest voices and clanging tools, carefully hand working each decorative detail.

The Lenten Dome

There’s a carefully arranged catechism with an interesting Lenten theme included in the twenty-four stained-glass windows of the Guastavino Dome at St. Francis de Sales Church, but since the windows are so high above the nave, few people are aware of it!

Imagine a cross made by connecting four compass points through the middle of the dome. The dome window to the North, showing three nails and the crown of thorns, would be at the “head” of the cross, its symbols representing the physical “sufferings of Christ.” At its “foot,” to the South, is a window showing the “hammer and tongs” that inflicted the wounds.

Now find the imaginary “crossbar.” To the West, is a window showing the “Scourges,” or whips, used in Christ’s humiliation. Exactly opposite, the Eastern window shows a “Lantern.” This was described in the 1911 and 1940 lists of dome window symbolism, as “the Light of Christian Doctrine which illuminates our pilgrim journey on earth.” An alternate reading, is as an emblem of Christ’s lonely nighttime agony and prayer vigil while his followers slept. Biblical symbolism sources note that “A lantern calls to mind nighttime activity, and it is used particularly as a symbol of Christ’s Passion, which began in the evening at the Garden of Gethsemane and continued under the cover of night” and “Lanterns were carried by the mob which arrested Jesus in Gethsemane.” The lantern completes the story of Christ’s suffering.

A previous column described another invisible cross in the dome – its axis running from the altar towards the back of the church, connecting the ascending and descending dove windows; and its crossbar stretching side-to-side linking the Papal Tiara window to St. Peter’s Keys.

The two groups of symbols encapsulate religious teaching: one set, defined by the building’s interior architecture, describes the structure of the Catholic church, showing the relationship between priest and pews; St. Peter and the Pope. The second cross, aligned to the strange forces represented by the compass and the sunrise, is about the central mystery of faith: Christ’s death and resurrection. Why is the lantern placed in the Eastern window? Think of the “Star of the East,” the beacon star, guiding wise travelers to Bethlehem. Also consider the direction of sunrise, when Jesus rose from the dead. Which leads us back to the original description of that holy lantern “which illuminates our pilgrim journey on earth.”

Our church decorations are quietly filled with layers of symbolism, which even its original parishioners likely did not fully appreciate (And we are still trying to find out more about the mysterious designer!).