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Jewels in the Crown: The Opalescent Windows of St. Columba’s Chapel

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When I first discovered St. Columba’s Episcopal Church about twenty-five years ago, an English rector had just arrived from across the pond. He and his wonderfully talented wife (who initiated our first “English Garden Party”) were truly a heaven-made pairing with this charming, very English small stone chapel. Seating only 100 in rush-seated prie dieus that are inspired by those to be found at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, St. Columba’s truly gives one a sense of a Masterpiece Theater production (long before Downton Abbey made an appearance).

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Steeped in history, as are so many things in the Newport community, it is the exquisite, pastel-colored stained glass windows within the chapel that are the true “jewels in the crown.” Residing understatedly in this pastoral setting up-island, one would not imagine that St. Columba’s windows are considered a rare treasure of American stained glass art, shimmering in their iridescence when the sun shines in.

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Perfectly scaled to the intimate space, they are unlike any I have ever seen in my travels. Completed, installed and dedicated at the same time as the chapel in 1887, two distinctions set them apart — firstly, the designer, David Maitland Armstrong, had early on embraced the development of a new glass  technique whereby pigment is actually melted and blended with the glass (rather than being “stained” on) whose white opacity provided a far greater brilliancy and richness. He well appreciated the evocative way in which this opalescent glass could refract light, creating a dazzling and luxurious look well-suited to the emerging Gilded Age.

As a stunning example, the three alter windows are centered by the figure of St. Michael (the only religious figure depicted in the Armstrong windows).

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Secondly, the opening of the Tiffany Studios (1885) the same year that the windows were commissioned; the now-famous glass makers patented the process of plating together as many as six layers of glass. This selection of unique and unusual glasses, vibrant designs and glorious colors insured a rare brilliancy and elegance in their creation of the St. Columba’s windows, which show the Studios at their best.

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But there is one other asset that distinguishes these exquisite, captivating windows –the decision made at the time of their commission in 1885 to use a single designer and enforce a unified style and iconography; this at a time when most memorial windows were subject to donor preferences. Additionally, their subject matter is not of conventional religious imagery but an allusive collection of symbols that perhaps can be traced to the Freemasons, a faction allied with the Episcopal Church.

During the creation of the Mary Devlin Booth Memorial window, Armstrong actually used a portrait of Mrs. Booth to create the visage of the otherwise idealized subject (this window, at the back of the chapel, is the only one not produced in the Tiffany Studios).

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In the south wall of the sanctuary, the three Gothic arched windows are finely leaded opalescent glass with doves of peace amid flowers and scrolls. Doves were another favored theme as seen also in the window below.

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The eight aisle windows (56″high x 27″wide) have verses included in them that are not Biblical in origin, with at least some taken from popular hymns of the day. A quirky list, but one that only seems to add its own kind of charm to the overall spring-like freshness of the romanticized designs. Briefly…

A cross enveloped in Greek acanthus leaves.

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A traditional urn filled with flowers that are repeated in the other panels.

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A “Jewel”-studded window, typical of Tiffany glass artwork with which the revered Studio was identified.

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An Arabian magic lantern in a sunburst.

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The Stuyvesant family were the leaders in founding St. Columba’s.

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A ship with a red cross on its billowing sail.

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Donated by the family of Edward King, a major figure in Newport’s China Trade who died in 1875, this is one of the few windows that features a cross.

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A lighthouse beaming out over a turbulent sea.

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Cast and hand-faceted glass “jewels” add an element of detail rarely seen in stained glass windows.

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The setting for this gorgeous collection, while picture-perfect and so aligned with the history of artistic gestures and endeavors of Newport, presents a challenge for the lifespan of such works of art. The moisture and salt from an oceanside environment as well as summer heat and winter cold wreak havoc on lead and layered glass. After decades of patching and quasi-restoring, all windows were removed and completely restored, in 1996, to their original jeweled glory…safe for another century and prompting more compliments; one magazine referred to St. Columba’s windows as “one of the greatest wonderments” in New England.

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With appreciation to Professor James Yarnall for his historic notes.

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