WORCESTER — “Radiance Rediscovered: Stained Glass by Tiffany and La Farge,” a gently glowing show at Worcester Art Museum, uses a handful of windows from one Boston church to examine how two artists responded to the overt symbolism, occasional religiosity, and heightened beauty of Gilded Age aesthetics. But like “John La Farge and the Recovery of the Sacred,” a larger exhibition in 2015 at Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art, this show chiefly underscores John La Farge’s genius.
In the 1890s, as the new Back Bay neighborhood burgeoned and wealthy donors opened their purse strings, the Mount Vernon Congregational Church moved from Beacon Hill to a prime spot at the corner of Beacon Street and Massachusetts Avenue.
The new church commissioned the Tiffany Glass and Decoration Company to design the interior in the Byzantine style — patterned, sparkling, and lush. Louis Comfort Tiffany’s competitor, the romantic polymath La Farge, was commissioned to create some of the stained glass windows. La Farge had made his reputation designing the interior of Henry Hobson Richardson’s Trinity Church in the 1870s, the gold standard of local church design.
Mount Vernon Congregational closed in 1975 and moved to worship in fellowship at Old South Church. The church donated three Tiffany windows and two by La Farge to the museum.
Before they were shipped, one of the Tiffany windows went missing. The rest were packed up and sent to Worcester, where they sat in storage for decades. Conservation work began in 2017. It took more than a year for conservators to take them apart, clean them, and restore them.
“Radiance Rediscovered,’ curated by T. Amanda Lett, a PhD candidate in History of Art & Architecture at Boston University, unveils the newly conserved windows, bright and twinkling as they were a century ago.
Tiffany and La Farge were rivals. Both relentlessly experimented with their craft. The history here is murky, but we know this: between 1879 and 1881, each artist applied for and was granted a patent for manufacturing the latest rage in stained glass window design, milky opalescent glass. That may have compelled them to seek permission from each other for using the material. La Farge considered suing Tiffany.
In this exhibition, the Tiffany Company’s “Angel of the Resurrection” windows are sweetly lambent but stiff. They are attributed to Louis Comfort Tiffany, but probably designed by Frederick Wilson, a leader in ecclesiastical window design who worked for the company. Two are here, and a sketch of the third.
Corinthian columns frame each scene. In the center window, an angel in opalescent robes shimmering like mother of pearl emerges from a field of lilies. The remaining side panel gazes out on that field, a tangle of foliage and petals beneath an iridescent blue sky.
La Farge’s two windows, “The Pool at Bethesda,” immediately engage the eye with dynamic composition and more. They illustrate a scene from the Gospel of Saint John in which an angel stoops to disturb the water in a pool, charging it with healing powers.
La Farge’s windows employ space, character, and contrasting types of glass to tell a story. In one panel, an ailing woman and a man attending her wait by the side of the pool. The artist captured their garments in irregular shards of color, gleaming like flattened gemstones.
Walls and sky situate the pair in a temple; the artist used opalescent glass to imbue the architecture with solidity. A green canopy flies above them and joins the scene to that of the second window: the angel leans toward the pool, wings arcing above him. He is almost comically awkward — more human than angelic — in his pose. La Farge made the water a perfect mirror beneath him. In nodding to yet another kind of glass, he positioned his material as a metaphor for larger notions of self and spirit.
He placed his scene at a narrative brink, the moment before the still water is roiled. Will the woman be healed? The image is pregnant with hope. Perhaps the story struck a personal chord for La Farge, who struggled with ill health for years after contracting malaria as a young man.
Lett plumps out the exhibition with sweet watercolors and a smaller window by La Farge, and offers a small trove of Tiffany’s sleek vases made to capture an iridescent sheen he had seen in archaeological Roman glass; he dubbed it favrile glass.
But if we’re being invited to compare, La Farge’s small window — a dense, jaw-dropping stained glass image of a peacock — again trumps Tiffany’s works. He began crafting it after his first trip to Japan in the mid 1880s, besotted with Asian aesthetics and inspired by a particular Chinese Ming vase. He labored over it for nearly 20 years.
It’s a technical extravaganza: La Farge used layered plates, unfired paint, colored putties, fused glass that’s organically cracked, and passages of glass mosaic. Conservator Amanda Chau had to ascertain which cracks and degradations the artist intended and which were the costs of time. She determined that shattered glass along the edge was damaged, but bits of it in the interior were purposeful, for the way they cut and reflected the light.
It’s not fair to judge Tiffany against La Farge with this small sampling, especially since Tiffany didn’t himself design “Angel of the Resurrection.” He was a magnificent stained glass artist, excelling at deep, serene, painterly landscapes, and his reputation ultimately eclipsed La Farge’s. But “Radiance Rediscovered” reminds us again what a paragon La Farge was, and how deserving of attention.
RADIANCE REDISCOVERED: Stained Glass by Tiffany and La Farge
At Worcester Art Museum, 55 Salisbury St., Worcester, through July 7. 508-799-4406, www.worcesterart.org