Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Window: Our Lady of Perpetual Help

I don't normally care much for the dalle-de-verre style of stained glass window construction that gained prominence in the 1950's, and is employed in the window shown above. Instead of being composed of pieces of fairly thin flat glass that had the details painted onto them, as was common for centuries, dalle-de-verre used blocks of glass three and four inches thick that were heavily faceted with hammer blows, and eschewed most painted details. I usually find the resulting images rather forbidding and clumsy-looking compared with the long tradition that went before. But in order to see what the style could sometimes achieve in spite of its limitations in the hands of a master, you need to go to St. Stephen's in the Sunset district of San Francisco.

St. Stephen's was the parish church of Karl Huneke, a German immigrant stained-glass artist whose Century Studios equipped more than 80 churches, large and small, throughout California. Most of his work is in the traditional style, at which he was completely adept, but he was clearly fascinated with trying to develop and improve the then-new dalle-de-verre style when he tackled the windows for his own parish. You can imagine that he put out his utmost artistic effort.

I wanted to use this window in particular because it shows how he was careful to take into account the light that would strike the windows. In this case, if you visit the church on a sunshiny morning, you'll see the most amazing effect which, I admit, you can't get with traditional flat glass. Huneke carefully faceted the glass blocks forming the infant Christ's halo in such a way that the full light of the sun is caught and refracted toward the viewer. It is literally dazzling -- you can't look at it directly for more than a few seconds.

The photo above is intentionally underexposed to reveal the faceted surfaces of the glass; the shot below conveys a bit more of the brilliant visual impression.

Though the dalle-de-verre style isn't my cup of tea, I have to admit that if the purpose of religious art is to give us a foretaste of Heaven, this blinding halo does the trick.