Lower Subject: Nativity
Dedication: In memory of Sue Young Lallande and John James Lallande, Louise Lallande Hoyt and Lindley Murray Ferris
Maker/Date: Wilbur Herbert Burnham, Boston, Massachusetts, 1943
Background – This was the last window added to St. George’s a quarter of a century after the last window, a Tiffany, in 1917. Its was a donation from outside the Parish though the family had a direct descendant at St. George’s, John J. Young (1814-1901). Stained glass styles had changed significantly since the last window.
This window would have been typically found in a neo-gothic church, not in a church like St. George’s with Romanesque architecture.
Gothic Revival first appeared in the mid-19th century with architects such as Richard Upjohn, responsible for Trinity Church, Wall Street, NY of 1846. In Europe and the United States, this style of architecture was seen as a return to stability after a period of dishevel in the Revolutions of 1848 and earlier. The architecture featured pointed arches, a definite vertical emphasis with thinner lines.
In the 20th century, influenced by architects such as Ralph Adams Cram, the United States experienced a second Gothic Revival. Cram was the architect of Princeton University and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York.
Cram emphasized the “purity of materials” and a return to basic principles of constructing churches. This was in keeping with the proponents of the original Arts and Crafts movement, but Cram narrowed it down to the 13th-century French Gothic window as the primary source of inspiration.
What was the Arts and Crafts Movement ? Arts and Crafts designers sought to improve standards of decorative design. It stood for traditional craftsmanship using simple forms, going back to original methods and often used medieval, romantic, or folk styles of decoration. It was a reaction against a perceived decline in standards that the reformers associated with machinery and factory production.
The movement began in England and particularly William Morris (1834-1896). The ideas of its proponents were disseminated in America through journal and newspaper writing, as well as through societies that sponsored lectures and programs. Boston, historically linked to English culture, was the first city to feature a Society of Arts and Crafts, founded in June 1897. This is important to note since the designer of the Nativity window was a major craftsman in Boston and was influenced by the movement. The movement had its heyday between 1890 and 1920.
Paralleling the Gothic revival in architecture was a revival in the stained glass industry of the use of designs and technology used by medieval window-makers. This medieval revival in stained glass, like the 19th century Gothic revival in architecture, stressed the use of high quality materials and careful work. Many of the glass makers of the time went to Europe to study, learn from, and, eventually, in part imitate medieval glass making techniques. There were a number of published books by restorers with lavish reproductions and tracings or other detailed restoration drawings. N. J. H. Westlake’s History of Design in Stained Glass, 1891–1894 was one example.
They imitated the forms, medallion windows for the aisles and large figures for the clerestories. Many of the windows themselves are long, narrow, and terminate at the top in a pointed Gothic arch, a shape known as a lancet.
Makers imitated the color palette of Chartres, principally red and blue, with touches of secondary colors. All the color was in the glass and moved away from Tiffany’s use of painting. Colored glass, known as “metal” was made by adding various metallic oxides to the crucibles in which the glass was melted. Cobalt gave blue, copper green, iron red, gold cranberry, silver yellows and gold, copper makes greens and brick red. Since the ideal in the church was a “dim religious light” they imitated the patina of the ages with thin washes of glass paint and picked out highlights.
Wilbur H. Burnham, Sr., the creator of the Nativity window, was born in 1887, and founded his studio in Boston at 1922 toward the end of the Arts and Crafts Movement. He secured his first commission from Ralph Adams Cram. He began his work in Stained Glass while still a student at the Massachusetts School of Art. He advanced to the very front rank of his profession, and was elected president of the Stained Glass Association of America for 1939, 1940, and 1941. Burnham died in 1974. His son carried on his work until he had to sell the studio in 1982. The records were given to the Smithsonian Institution.
Burnham was commissioned to design windows for churches and cathedrals in the United States and in Europe. Among his most notable works are windows in the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul, Washington DC, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and Riverside Church in New York City, Princeton University Chapel, and the American Church in Paris. When the Nativity window was approved in 1939 and installed in 1943, Burnham was among foremost neo-gothic stained glass craftman and at the height of productive years.
The style of the window is very different than Tiffany – no opalescent glass and less enamel painting. Cram said Tiffany’s style was inappropriate for churches and not very religious.
The most prominent spokesman for the Gothic Revival in windows was Charles Connick. He lectured widely and wrote , the most respected and eloquent publication on the art form in the twentieth century. Connick expressed the opinion that stained glass’s first job was to serve the architectural effect; this opinion was in sharp contrast to the painterly effect that had dominated during the Tiffany era.
Burnham in the Church Monthly talking about the on his clerestory apse windows in Riverside Church, said “first purpose was to give glory to God through a material which is the crowning accent to architecture.” He went on to say that “stained glass appeals directly to the emotions. Being more closely allied to music than to painting, it thrills and overpowers and leaves us with a sense of richness and beauty simulating the orchestration of a great symphony.”
In a 1935 article in the journal Stained Glass, Burnham expressed his views about the importance of the medieval tradition in the harmony of the primary colors, red, blue, and yellow, with the complementary orange, green, and violet typical of his windows. His studies of medieval windows demonstrated that reds and blues should predominate and be in good balance – he believed “blues” had been over stressed.
Burnham also noted that windows should maintain high luminosity under all light conditions with depth of color and amount of pigment useful in controlling glare in variably intense light. Burnham agreed with the concept of unity in multiple windows, which are most easily created when there has been an early, consistent policy by church leaders in collaboration with the designer.
Burnham’s windows are divided into different iconographical “fields.” The window works from top to bottom with the standing characters to the top and those sitting around Jesus to the bottom .
The center of the window contains the main story and is the largest and most visible part of the window which is the baby Jesus. Along with Jesus the star divides the scene with a touch of the rose for new life just above Jesus. Mary Joseph and King’s heads bend toward Jesus creating another emphasis for the child. The yellow color extends from the star downward to the hay surrounding Jesus, which illuminates him.
Mary and Joseph on the right are clearly separated from the visitors on the left. The former have halos. All the figures turn inward toward the main story line, the birth of Christ.
Mary’s head is not centered within the window, but bends to one side, thus making the three figures stand out from the otherwise symmetrical composition.
The figures are European and could have been taken from Renaissance or earlier European painting. It is very iconoic , inclusive and balanced – the two shepherds, one King and the angel strumming a lute on the left against the other characters. The colors are both vivid and varied.
Two lambs in the foreground, with their wool depicted in a stylized pattern, add to the richness of the overall design. Placing the lambs close to the Infant Jesus symbolizes Christ as the Lamb of God.
The brilliant reds, yellows, greens, and blues of this window (as with all of Burnham’s windows) stand out with tremendous clarity and brightness, with the primary colors dominent and with the secondary colors used sparingly. The blue sky provides a backup against the red wings of the angel, the cow, and the different color of the halos.
Burnham often used color opposites to add brilliance to the scene and to pull the viewer’s eyes toward the image of Mary. The intense yellow/gold halo surrounded by the light blue head covering is also very eyecatching. Burnham often uses complementary colors (opposites on the color wheel) often red vs. green, or blue and orange.
The clothes are multi-colored – red, blues and different shades of green. They are symbolic. Red, the color of divine love and devotion from, the angel, is balanced by a deep blue (color of Mary symbolizing spiritual truth and divine wisdom). The design is completed by sparkling accents of white for faith and purity, gold for spiritual victory, and green for youth and immortality.
This is a bright window, especially in the full sunlight that reinforces the event. The use of small pieces of multicolored glass creates the effect. This contrasts with the Church’s Tiffany window where the figures could be undistinguished from a painting. The characters are definitely those of windows without the preciseness of the Tiffany approach with the use of staining different pieces of glass.
Burnham’s must have thought of the interplay of the sun coming through the window. The morning sun shining through the window comes right through the star projecting star rays on the upper gallery.
The medieval details at the top and bottom surround the nativity and create the appearance of a medieval city. The sides are curved creating a stage for the presentation of the Nativity window itself. The borders on the left and right side provide a feeling of lightness. This effect is in part created by the borders having a predominance of white glass and architectural figures pointed up.
The details in the bottom portion are very medieval. On the left and right side are the two St. George Crosses. It is a red cross on a white background The cross has its origins in the 12th century. It was used by a variety of Italian city states – Bologna, Padua and Genoa. The flag became associated with crusaders.
The red cross was introduced to England by the late 13th century, but not as a flag, and not at the time associated with Saint George. It was worn by English soldiers as an identification from the early years of the reign of Edward I (1270’s). After the reformation it came associated with England as a whole.
The window decorations on the top and bottom appear to be associated with a cathedral and lead to a pointed Gothic arch with a lancet. The top section above the star may be a triforium, a gallery or arcade above the arches of the nave, choir, and transepts of a church. Inside are more lancets. There are pinnacles on either side of the star, a sharply point ornament capping the piers or flying butresses. There is also a tympanum, a semi-circular or triangular decorative wall surface over an entrance, door or window, which is bounded by a lintel and arch. It often contains sculpture or other imagery or ornaments.