"Through a Glass Brightly"
Courtesy of Lafayette Magazine / fall 2002
by Paul Willistein
The story of Lafayette's "Alcuin and Charlemagne" Tiffany window reads like a good mystery, replete with its alleged destruction in a fire, its discovery on campus in storage, and a restoration championed by dedicated alumni.
The window was made in 1898 by the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company. Louis Comfort Tiffany is considered the preeminent stained glass maker.
The window was restored at Willet Stained Glass Studios, Philadelphia. The Willet firm, a division of Hauser Art Glass, is the oldest stained glass company in America, having marked its 100th anniversary three years ago.
The restored Alcuin and Charlemagne Tiffany will be crated and placed in storage for installation in David Bishop Skillman Library, expected to occur in spring 2004. Placement of the window is in line with Lafayette President Arthur J. Rothkopf's goal for Skillman to become "the leading symbol on our campus of Lafayette's commitment to academic excellence."
"It's a very fine example of Tiffany at the height of his powers," says E. Crosby Willet '50, third generation owner of Willet Studio. "It's a design by Frederic Wilson, who was one of his best designers."
The window's four panels collectively measure 6-by-14 feet. Two main panels portray the Emperor Charlemagne and monk Alcuin reading an astronomy book in the Palatine Chapel. As head of the Palatine school established by Charlemagne at Aachen, Germany, Alcuin (735-804) led the revival of learning known as the Carolingian Renaissance.
Atop these panels is an arch-shaped lunette, and below them a memorial panel with the Latin inscription "To the glory of God and in honor of Ario Pardee and William Cassady Cattell; of whom one donated, the other built this structure."
Pardee had donated $20,000 to build Pardee Hall and start the Pardee Scientific Program, essentially the advent of the College's engineering department. Cattell, Lafayette president from 1863-83, had convinced Pardee to support the struggling College.
A Lafayette link to the Tiffany family is through the marriage of Louise Wakeman Knox to Louis Comfort Tiffany in 1886. She was the daughter of James Hall Mason Knox, Lafayette president from 1883-90.
The Tiffany window was placed in the auditorium in Pardee Hall, which was built in 1872 and which burned twice. The window, given by alumni and friends, was installed in 1899, following the second fire. It was removed and placed in storage during a later renovation in the mid-20th century.
Disappearance and Reappearance
Rick Prigg, general manager, Willet Studio, says "the book has a photograph of a sketch of the window and it's listed as missing. The impression that this author had was that it was lost in the fire."
The reference on page 150 states that the window was destroyed in a fire in the chapel at Lafayette College. Indeed, two Tiffanys were destroyed in the 1965 Colton Chapel fire, according to Willet, but these were two other Tiffany windows. He adds that two Willet windows were also destroyed in the fire.
The Alcuin and Charlemagne window escaped that fate. It was brought out of storage in 1990 when two alumni became interested in its renovation.
According to Willet, the impetus and the funding gift to restore the window came from William Lanigan '52, a retired Lafayette trustee and Somerville, N.J. attorney. A member of the Friends of Skillman Library council, his interest in the restoration of the window arose from his interest in the renovation and expansion of the library, which began in 2003.
Lanigan wrote to Willet, recommending the window be restored. The two of them, along with Art Feminella, a stained-glass window expert based in New Jersey, as well as Diane Windham Shaw, special collections librarian and college archivist, and Michiko Okaya, director, Williams Center art gallery and curator, college's art collection, viewed the window together.
"That was the first time I saw the window," says Shaw. "I had been told that it no longer existed. I thought, 'Thank heavens, it's still here.'"
"I've been worried about this window for about 10 years or longer," says Okaya. "One of my interests is American decorative arts and Tiffany is a key person in that area. Also, as part of my role in taking care of the college's art collection, I'm very concerned about getting it out of storage and installed some place. The window is a superb example of the artistry of Frederick Wilson and the Tiffany company and an important part of the college's history. With it in storage, scholars do not have access."
"One of my duties with the art collection is to provide access for scholars. I was concerned that if they stayed in storage much longer, the leading would deteriorate, and the windows would be seriously damaged. Putting them in the library, used by the public, broadens accessibility."
"It's a unique project for the college," says Okaya. "We've done other preservation and treatment of art work, but certainly not on this scale."
Restoration of the Alcuin and Charlemagne window was painstaking. First, everything was photographed. Next, using rag vellum and wax, rubbings were made. "This provides a map of where all the glass pieces fit together, a guide to follow when putting the window back together," says Prigg, who supervised the restoration. "The window was almost completely dismantled."
"We left intact any fine-leaded and copper foil areas that were in good condition for two reasons," says Prigg. "You want to preserve some of the original material, other than the glass, for future scholarship. Secondly, there's no real need to jettison something that's in perfect condition." The lead matrix was in bad condition, as were a number of areas of the copper foil. There was a fair amount of cracked glass. An invisible epoxy was used to repair the cracks.
Everything was cleaned. How is that accomplished? "Very carefully," Prigg says, adding that particular care was taken around painted areas. "Paint can be degraded. For this particular window, the fabulous news is that the paint-the heads, hands, and feet-were in great condition."
"I went to the Willet Studio when the work was in progress," says Shaw. "You could see the complexity from an artistic standpoint-the layers of glass and the painting. The faces, in particular, are painted. It was just wonderful to see the rich colors revealed."
"One of the special things about Tiffany windows is that they read on the surface with reflected light, and they also read with transmitted light," says Prigg. Favrille, or opalescent, was invented by Tiffany and John LaFarge.
Tiffany used many layers of glass or glass that had topography. He invented so-called drapery glass to replicate the look of drapes and clothing.
"There is quite a bit of drapery glass in the figures of both Alcuin and Charlemagne. The glass is usually one color. Tiffany used different layers of glass to affect the final transmission of the light," says Prigg, who studied to be an oil painter at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and was a painter for a number of years.
"Tiffany was considered the leading studio artist of stained glass in the 1890s," says Willet. "And that style of work, the opalescent window, was very popular. It has a lot of plating and all types of drapery glass to represent the folds of the garments, which was typical of Tiffany."
Adds Prigg, "What they wanted to do was create all these colors and tonalities without paint, but with glass. They came up with recipes to get different colors and get opacity. And by stacking a number of sheets, they could control color and tonality almost endlessly. Tiffany boasted that the only paint on his windows was in the heads and hands."
Prigg's firm will make crates for transporting the window back to Lafayette. In addition, the entire window will be wrapped in plastic and sprayed with foam that will conform to the shape of the window as it hardens, keeping the Alcuin and Charlemagne safe for its return trip to Easton.