The Museum of Biblical Art in NYC creates an environment that encourages interfaith dialog on the history, meaning, and functions of biblical art. Founding Director Dr. Ena Heller saw its purpose as putting "scripture back into culture" since "so much of our culture is informed, nurtured, and shaped by the books of the Bible in both Christian and Jewish traditions."
The current exhibit is "Louis C. Tiffany and the Art of Devotion." This is the same Tiffany lineage that inspired "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and presents viewers with romance of a different kind, one more in the tradition of "Song of Songs." Multiple colored glass scenes display visual interpretation of the revelation of the Creator to women and men of open hearts and minds. Barry Laurence Scherer in the Wall Street Journal notes:
The name Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) is most often identified with lamps, scenic stained-glass windows, metalwork and art glass designed for wealthy households in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Produced commercially by Tiffany Studios (the corporate name of the former Tiffany Glass & Decorating Co. after 1902), much of this output revolved around his experiments with colored and textured glass as one of the greatest innovators in that field. But in addition to his home decorations, Tiffany produced similarly opulent works for use in churches and synagogues. As early as 1889 the proliferation of new religious congregations throughout America spurred him to establish an ecclesiastical division of his business. In fact, the great demand for this line soon made it his bread and butter.
"Louis C. Tiffany and the Art of Devotion," at the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA), is the first exhibition consecrated to Tiffany's ecclesiastical work. The loan exhibition includes 83 objects, many of which have not been exhibited in decades, some never before on public display. The beautifully illustrated exhibition catalog includes contributions by the show's co-curators—Patricia C. Pongracz, acting director, Mobia; Lindsy Parrott, director/curator, the Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass; and independent scholars Elizabeth De Rosa and Diane Wright—as well as other leading scholars in the field.
Art like this can inspire our contemplation. Ignatius encourages this throughout the Spiritual Exercises, first outlining his method in "Contemplation of the Nativity" (110-112, SE). In general he views contemplation as viewing or gazing, which can stimulate reflections and feelings, which in turn lead to further images, emotions and mental prayer. (Previously I have suggested how Vatican coins and medals can inspire a similar process.) Perhaps there can be a 21st Century meld of Tiffany and St. Ignatius. What is occurring in the scenes depicted in the windows? What are the characters saying to one another? What are the sights and sounds and smells? How does these bring us closer to the Lord?
There are three thematic sections to the exhibit. The first examines Tiffany's innovative use of colored glass and includes seminal creations by Frederick Wilson and Agnes Northrup. Other themes include landscape designs and symbolic windows—there are 2 watercolor sketches of windows never before displayed, on loan from the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum.
One biblical scene on a stained glass window might even break new ground. "Lydia Entertaining Christ and the Apostles" encourages re-discovery of feminine leadership in the New Testament. Going in a different theological direction a visage of The Church Militant shows a heavily armed "Soldier of the Lord." There is even an evocative head portrait, "Head of St. Andrew" from the Last Supper. All of these can stimulate new insights into traditional pieties.
The mosaic "Fathers of the Church" might also inspire such Ignatian contemplation. This Tiffany showpiece premiered at the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, with the embedded glass suggesting the texture of the robes and cloth of these early saints. Pope Benedict's book on the Fathers could offer more background for contemplation.
If you are in NYC this exhibit is just a small trek from Midtown, making it an excellent lunch hour or after-work diversion. Others can order a catalog from the MOBIA bookstore featuring preliminary designs, cartoons, watercolor sketches and archival photographs of the windows themselves.
William Van Ornum