Surprising Tiffany Decorations at St. Ignatius Loyola
St. Ignatius Loyola in New York City, one might notice an element of decoration that diverges from the interior’s Baroque Revival style. Amidst a symphony of swirling Pavonazzo marble, glittering gold tesserae, and ornate ironwork glows an opalescent glass semi-dome of pastel blues and yellows arranged in a fish scale design. Three cartouches with Christian symbolism beneath a soaring dove complete this leaded creation, made by the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company in 1897.Upon entering the Baptistery Chapel at
An educated observer might point to this Tiffany treasure as the most surprising element among the chapel’s clearly articulated Baroque Revival interior. Tiffany’s milky, multihued opalescent glass surely stands out against the decidedly dense, bold colors of the Venetian glass mosaics adorning the chapel’s walls.1 However, the real surprise comes from the seemingly innocuous altar and tabernacle that harmonize effortlessly with the chapel’s classical design scheme, for these too were made by Tiffany.
Made of white marble, the altar is composed of a mensa, or altar table, supported by two Doric columns decorated with river reeds, deftly rendered in mosaic using slivers of gold glass. Raised off the floor, the columns sit atop a heavy plinth. Glass mosaic banding of gold tesserae, inscribed with biblical verses in Latin, embellish the perimeter of the mensa and plinth. The front of the altar is inlaid with three glass mosaic panels whose designs are based on fifteenth-century Renaissance paintings. The center panel, after Bernadino di Betto (called Pinturicchio, Italian, 1454–1513), depicts Christ and John the Baptist as children; the adjacent mosaic panels, after Francesco Botticini (Italian, 1446–1497), depict the archangels Gabriel and Michael. The tabernacle, which houses the consecrated Eucharist, rests atop the altar and is sealed with a glass mosaic door illustrating the Lamb of God. Flanking the tabernacle are two side panels, also of glass mosaic, depicting winged wreaths – one encircling an oil lamp and the other a sword.
These mosaics are composed of the same milky, multihued opalescent glass Tiffany used to create the baptistery’s semi-dome skylight. Tiffany’s glass, renowned for its variations of color within a single sheet, endows these mosaics with an altogether different character when compared to the traditional Venetian glass mosaics above, in which each tessera is individuated by a single color. A period brochure produced by St. Ignatius Loyola explicitly notes this difference:
“The ancients and the early Byzantine workers invariably had separate tesserae for each color and each shade of color. The tesserae employed in the mosaics of the altar go much farther and contain within themselves subtle variations on one and the same theme.”2
It was up to Tiffany’s glass selectors to choose which passage of a flat sheet of glass best translated their desired effect. These selectors were often women, praised for their superior color sensibility.
Perhaps the most remarkable part of this commission is not how faithfully these mosaics portray their Renaissance counterparts, but rather how they interpret these fifteenth-century paintings through glass. Under the direction of Caryl Coleman (American, about 1846–1930), Tiffany’s glass selectors and cutters developed new and innovative techniques to revolutionize this centuries-old art form. For example, the halos of Christ, John the Baptist, the archangels Gabriel and Michael, and even the lamb on the tabernacle door, were all executed in cut cameo glass.3 This technique gives a much lighter and more ethereal effect to the halos, which would otherwise be obscured by overly-articulated grout lines.
Although the three chapel elements designed by Tiffany’s firm may seem incongruous upon an initial examination – that is, a skylight rendered in opalescent glass sheets and mosaics based on Renaissance paintings – this eclecticism was a hallmark of Tiffany’s style throughout his career.
For more on Tiffany’s mosaics, see Kelly A. Conway and Lindsy R. Parrott, eds. Tiffany’s Glass Mosaics, Corning, New York: The Corning Museum of Glass, 2017.
1 These three mosaic panels were designed by Heaton, Butler and Bayne of London, fabricated by Salviati & Company of Venice, and installed by the Ecclesiastical Department of the Gorham Manufacturing Company of New York. For more information, see John Prendergast, Notes on the Baptistery Chapel of St. John the Baptist, Church of St Ignatius Loyola New York (New York: The Meany Printing Company, 1897).
2 Ibid, 36-37.
3Cameo glass is produced by etching, cutting, caving, or engraving multi-layered colored glass to reveal designs.
Citation: Albahary, Morgan. "Surprising Tiffany Decorations at St. Ignatius Loyola." In Tiffany Tidbits. New York: The Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass.