Opulent Oculi: Tiffany's Vibrant Contribution to a Philadelphia Church

To be offered by Freeman's on May 18

Rescued from imminent demolition, two rose windows from St. Paul’s Presbyterian mark a rare market appearance for such large, complex, and unusual windows by America’s skillful and most famous art glass designer.

04/05/2023     News and Film, 20th Century and Contemporary Design


Sited on a prominent parkside corner in the leafy streetcar suburbs of West Philadelphia, St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church bears similarities to other elaborate churches constructed during the heyday of American ecclesiastical architecture. Designed by the noted Philadelphia ecclesiastical architect Isaac Pursell in 1900, dedicated in 1901, and enlarged in 1905, St. Paul’s rusticated stone exterior was complemented by a program of leaded glass windows. Tiffany produced a variety of windows for St. Paul’s (the church is referenced in the firm’s list of window patrons published in 1910), including two stunning rose windows.



St. Paul's Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, Circa 1909. Image Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia.


The church’s Gothic Revival architecture was ennobled by the selection of these two ornamental roses. Originating with Roman oculi and Early Christian circular windows, the rose window reached its stylistic height in the 12th and 13th century cathedrals of Northern France—at Reims, Chartres, and Notre Dame de Paris. A mainstay of grand church architecture, the rose was a popular (though less frequently commissioned) window configuration offered by the Tiffany firm.



North Rose Window, Notre Dame de Paris, Paris, France, c. 1250  //  South Transept Rose Window, Chartes Cathedral, Chartres, France, c. 1225


The twin roses of St. Paul’s were likely commissioned around 1904 for the planned expansion and creation of an auxiliary chapel to accommodate the affluent growing congregation and its Sunday School. The two roses were each originally set above arched tracery windows, and were located along the west and east elevations of the structure. One of the roses is inscribed “Presented by the Pansy Bible Class,” a likely reference to the church’s Sunday School, whose parents would have helped organize the associated funds for the expansion. Other prominent local Presbyterians (such as John Wanamaker, who spoke at the Church’s dedication) were also likely involved in the commission.


tiffany studios rose windows

Tiffany Studios Rose Windows for St. Paul's Presbyterian, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, circa 1904


New sources of wealth in America following the Civil War coupled with socio-religious factors saw the creation of new or refurbished religious edifices in the modern taste. Set high in the chapel of St. Paul’s Presbyterian, these brightly colored roses are illustrative of the aesthetic and spiritual impact Tiffany’s art in glass had on their commissioning congregations. The windows feature leaded mottled, streaky, acid-etched, and ripple glass in vibrant hues, with each type of glass employed to magnify the effect of the whole. The symbolic imagery present is minimal yet powerful: one rose is centered by a crown (representing Christ), and the other a dove (representing the Holy Spirit). When hit by the light, the layered glass reveals a cross at the center of the dove—an example of Tiffany’s ability to employ his distinct processes to heighten the emotional sensation and deepen the meaning of his designs.





To be offered in our May 18 Design auction 



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