In a Bolton Hill church, a Tiffany treasure trove

Joan Sharp Feldman

August 25, 1993|By Joan Sharp Feldman

IN THE heart of Bolton Hill, Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church is a virtual treasure trove of stained glass create by the master of that art, Louis Comfort Tiffany.

This eclectic, Gothic-style church is only one of a number of Baltimore congregations to boast prestigious stained glass created in the Tiffany Studios.

Yet no other church in the city can match the 11 documented Tiffany windows which illuminate the vast interior of Brown Memorial. Both the quantity and quality of the windows provide a unique opportunity for those seeking the ultimate Tiffany experience in Baltimore.

Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church, designed by the local firm of Hutton and Murdoch, was dedicated in 1870 as a memorial to George Brown, a prominent member of First Presbyterian Church and of the firm, Alex. Brown & Sons.

Mrs. Isabella Brown, George Brown's widow, contributed the money for building and furnishing the elegant new church. In 1905, when the church was enlarged, the memorial windows were commissioned from the prestigious Tiffany Studios in New York City.

Of the 11 Tiffany windows in Brown Memorial, the two monumental transept windows, measuring approximately 16 feet wide and 40 feet high, dominate the interior space, filling it with transcendent light.

The window in the south transept, entitled "Annunciation to the Shepherds," presents the heavenly host of angels heralding the birth of Christ. Seven angels, entwined within a large upper circle of luminescent glass, are borne aloft on shimmering white wings.

Their bodies dematerialize in a blaze of light which radiates to shepherds tending their sheep below. In the distance Bethlehem nestles beneath the flow of the brightly shining star. In the central panel, three additional angels hover above the shepherds.

Adding a human touch to the sacred theme, the face of the middle angel resembles the daughter of Benjamin Franklin Smith for whom the window was commissioned.

"Holy City," the north transept window, echoes its companion window in size, shape, color harmonies and composition. The New Jerusalem, occupying the upper portion of the window, is the source of the River of Life which flows from the celestial spheres to the earthly realm where St. John records his revelations.

Both windows are enlivened by luminous colors -- muted mauves, greens and pearly opalescent whites and blues -- which cast a visionary glow throughout the interior of the church. Among the largest windows ever created in the Tiffany Studios, these windows alone justify a visit to the church.

A series of smaller, more intimate Tiffany windows complement the monumental transept windows. "Christ in Gethsemane," at the west end of the south transept, presents an evocative image of Christ's agony in the garden.

Dappled sunlight, signifying eternal light, streams into the garden where Christ, garbed in iridescent robes, sits beneath the shady boughs of a tree.

Tiffany's depiction of the garden in "Christ in Gethsemane" NTC highlights the artist's love of nature and is evident in his attention to details such as the irises in the "Baptism," on the north side of the church. Each petal is perfectly created from small pieces of opalescent glass.

The radiant landscape in "Praise," the great east window above the balcony, echoes the wonder of creation as a host of angels praise the Lord.

In these windows, Tiffany, through the manipulation of glass, harnessed and enhanced natural light sources creating scenes of visionary power.

This ability to transform light is strikingly realized in "Lead Kindly Light," in which a female figure stretches her arms toward a cross surrounded by an aureole of light. The incandescent, supranatural glow radiates throughout the church.

Unique in quantity and quality, the Tiffany windows in Brown Memorial transform light from the natural world into a source of transcendent power.

These windows provide a rare aesthetic experience and are a source of pride to Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church and to the city of Baltimore.

Joan Sharp Feldman is an art historian who lives in Baltimore.

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