Modest chapel in Vallejo features Tiffany stained glass

12/02/2012 12:00 AM

12/03/2012 12:07 AM

An impressive array of Tiffany stained glass and other religious art elements is showing at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York. To see it, you need to fly to the Big Apple before Jan. 20.

Or make it a lot easier on yourself and stay in Northern California, instead driving a short distance to enjoy the astonishing collection of 25 Louis Comfort Tiffany stained- glass windows that illuminate Saint Peter's Chapel on Mare Island.

It's one of Vallejo's best secrets, and it hides in plain sight.

"People always get excited when they find out about the stained glass out here," said Joyce Giles, a volunteer who manages the Mare Island Historic Park Foundation museum. "It's the biggest collection of Tiffany art under one roof west of the Mississippi."

At first glance, Saint Peter's, an unpretentious chapel on a quiet, leafy street, seems an unlikely place to stash such an impressive display of art glass. But the brown-shingled structure is itself a prime example of Craftsman architecture, and its simple lines, wood tones and rustic charm set off the gemlike brilliance of the windows perfectly.

Enter, and the saints and angels who glow upon these walls encourage your rapt attention and quiet contemplation. There are four Christs, two Saint Peters, a Madonna, all the evangelists and a few special Tiffany theme pieces, including an Angel of Hope and the figure of Truth.

Since this is the oldest surviving Navy chapel in the United States, there are also five warrior angels, poised and ready to vigorously defend the nation and its virtues, including Saints George, Uriel and Gabriel and Sir Galahad.

Most of these 29 windows were designed and built by Tiffany Studios in New York. The four exceptions are the Madonna panel on a side wall and the huge triple panel covering the east wall that depicts the Bible tale of the miraculous harvest of the fishes. That large triptych was built by San Francisco's Ingerson and Glaser studio, and when the 1906 earthquake destroyed the first set of windows before it could be delivered to the chapel, that local studio doggedly turned out another.

In the late 19th century, Louis Tiffany, the talented son of famed jeweler Charles Tiffany, launched himself into a headlong pursuit of pure color and the fabrication of luminous art. Trained as a landscape painter, he used his family's abundant resources to travel in Europe and the Far East.

Fascinated by cathedral windows, by the intricate mosaics in Byzantine basilicas, and even older examples of Roman vases made of opalescent glass, he set himself to discovering the secrets of the ancient glassmakers while also inventing new techniques that could make use of modern chemistry and machinery.

The net results of Tiffany's quest – more than 5,000 windows over the course of 50 years – were distributed throughout the country as part of an American Renaissance that blew away the fussy ornamentations of Victorian design with gusts of fresh air from the Art Nouveau movement. Simultaneously, Tiffany brought the essence of traditional religious imagery forward. Hallowed icons were forged anew, simplified and brightened by his bold advances in stained-glass technology.

In this way, Tiffany's art was able to mitigate some of the materialistic excess of the Gilded Age. He also offered a modicum of cultural reassurance amid the tumult of a progressive era in domestic politics.

The timing was perfect for Navy chaplain Adam McAllister, who had chafed at having to hold ad hoc religious services first in the beached hulks of the USS Warren and the USS Independence, and then in Mare Island's courtroom. McAllister's solution was to beseech Congress for the funds to build a chapel, which was duly awarded. The structure was raised in 1901. Next, he prevailed upon Tiffany Studios to build the windows that rendered his little church extraordinary. These epic panels were installed over the next three decades.

A visitor can walk the aisles, sit in the chapel pews, bask in the rich colors and iconic magnificence that showers down in tinted beams from all the walls. Or go ahead and approach the windows and study them in detail.

The Angel of Hope on the south wall shows "streaked glass" made by mixing two or more colors as the sheets are formed, and the "opalescent glass" that was a Tiffany specialty. Nearby, a panel of Jesus walking on the water – and hauling a desperate Saint Peter up out of the mere – uses "drapery glass" made by manipulating the cooling glass with hooks and paddles to create the striations that mimic the lines and folds of clothing.

On the west wall, "hammered glass," which used a stamped roller to create a pattern of small circles, was deployed to reproduce an appearance of a scale-mail hauberk worn by the armored angel Gabriel, and Tiffany's "layered" technique built the cloudy vapors that drift by the archangel's knees.

On the north wall, the head and face of Saint George clearly reveal the use of vitreous paint and colored enamels that Tiffany otherwise largely disdained. The New York MOBIA show catalog says that he preferred "to paint with glass, rather than on it." He did find some use of paint essential for delineating facial expressions, as well as fingers and toes.

However, the bulk of the glass Tiffany used was first created by the various mechanical techniques the studio artisans devised, then appropriate pieces of each slab were selected. A Tiffany Studios technician, quoted in the catalog, recounts going through 30 or 40 tons of tinted glass to find the right portion, "twice the size of one's hand," to denote a patch of sky.

The process was artistic and industrial, individualistic and collaborative. Although Tiffany – dubbed "the quintessential American artist/businessman" – provided strong leadership as well as the basic vision, he relied on gifted assistants who've grown justly celebrated in their own right, like his ecclesiastical art designer, Frederic Wilson, and Agnes Northrop, whose skill at using confetti or "fract" glass to create images of foliage was supreme.

Preserving Saint Peter's windows and providing public access also is accomplished through collaboration. Joyce Giles said the Mare Island foundation is composed of about 70 volunteers, people who "love all the stories on this island."

"Some are pure history buffs, and some worked out here when it was a Navy base. Many were longtime machinists, and they've got a ton of skills. They enjoyed an excellent career, and now they're giving back."


SAINT PETER'S CHAPEL AND MARE ISLAND HISTORIC FOUNDATION MUSEUM

Where: 1181 Walnut Ave., Vallejo

Tours: First and third weekends of each month, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; weekdays 10 a.m.-2 p.m. It is necessary to call ahead to reserve a tour and arrange access; (707) 644-4746 or (707) 280-5742.

Cost: $4 suggested donation for chapel only; $14, complete tour; $27-$29, deluxe tour with lunch (minimum group size, 16). Christmas concert and singalong at the chapel, 2 p.m. Dec. 16, $15.

Information: www.mareislandhpf.org

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