Saint Jean-Baptiste Church
76th & Lexington Avenue I understand as soon as I walk through the door and see the enormous windows on either side of me: stained glass is one form of art that should never be taken out of context. In a museum, it is exquisite but empty. I can't understand it placed in front of a light box with a printed caption tacked below. In a sacred place, it takes on a new dimension; I can almost sense the thousands of faithful who have prayed here, looking beyond the glowing mosaic of color to the Truth that lies beneath. This church is one of many in the city dating to an era when a church without stained glass was almost unthinkable. Right away, the four huge windows on each side draw me in. The central arch soars into a dome at the far end, with smaller circular windows around its perimeter. It's very quiet here. (I'm trying to take off my jacket with a minimum of rust ing.) A scattered handful of worshippers sit or kneel in the vast expanse of the sanctuary. I walk to the rows of votives to light one; much to my dismay, I find that they are electric. Little lightbulbs are fastened in the top of the red plastic, and by pushing a button you can turn one on. How convenient. The windows are a curious mix of biblical and contemporary scenes: "Pius X and Frequent Communion" faces the Annunciation. The former depicts the pope administering wafers and sips of wine to nine small children. The scene is not very realistic--they look awfully well behaved for little kids. I think of the children I've seen in church, the ones who wrinkle their noses or turn their heads and purse their lips when their parents hold them up to the chalice. The faces of most of the people depicted in the windows are expressionless. It's a relief to come upon a scene charged with emotion: in "The Manna," a cloud hovers near the top of the window while Moses gestures with ferocity toward the ground, where the Israelites, grateful and fearful, gather up the bread. Perhaps he is warning them about taking more than they will use. In "The Washing of the Feet," Jesus bends low over the feet of one of his disciples. He and the disciple are intent, concentrating on each other. A rapport exists there, but nowhere else in the group. There are mosaics on the wall under the windows, including one in which Jesus is condemned to death. Pilate is stone-faced, unmoving. "What is truth?" he asks defiantly. His eyes, though, reveal a deeper understanding of what he has tried to get around. "The Wedding Feast at Cana" is next. Jesus points at the jars, and Mary looks adoringly at him: "Do whatever He tells you." Here, as in many of the designs, the people look conspicuously unreal, especially the soldiers in the foreground; their stagey poses detract from the simple power of the design. And there seem to be too many colors in each window, crowding each other, as if the artist didn't trust himself or the power of his medium. The silence is broken by a man entering the church; he makes a snippy remark to the homeless man slumped in a corner, dozing. I want to ask the scolder what he's here for. When he leaves, I take the dollar that I was going to use for a candle and leave it on the corner of the sleeping man's jacket.
Marble Collegiate Church
3 West 29th Street Entering this church is like entering a place of business; I have to go to the receptionist and ask to be shown into the sanctuary. She seems unwilling: "I'm sorry, but the man who gives the tours isn't here today." No, I explain, I don't need a tour; I just want to see the stained glass. She still doesn't trust me. Finally, after I'm reduced to begging, she calls the janitor and asks him to let me in. He doesn't speak much English, but he tries anyway to give me the formal explanation of the history of the building. We enter the worship space; immediately, I don't like the layout. The chancel is laden with gaudy gold-painted figures, fake plants, and three of something that looks like an overly decorated throne. A balcony runs round the top of the church, cutting the windows--five on each side--about two-thirds down. Only three are of any interest: two were installed in 1900 by Tiffany Studios, and one was just unveiled last year. The most recent one is very Pentecostal: hootin', hollerin' worship. There is much more emotion in this one piece than in the whole collection I just visited--but I'm not sure I like it. It's a little overdone. In the foreground, three children--one black, one white, one Asian--smile together in racial harmony. Okay, it's much too overdone. The Tiffany windows are breathtaking; they display the artistry of a master. On the left is Joshua at the battle of Gibeon, where the sun stood still for 36 hours so that the Israelites could finish winning their battle. Here are fields of massacred soldiers, the heat and sweat of battle, and Joshua leading his men to victory. The design is in the color and texture of the glass, not in the painting behind it. There are many more colors than in the previous set, but they are so subtle that the design isn't choked by them. They are alive, rippling and full. Joshua has lots of yellows, oranges, browns, with a little purple and blue; next to him, Moses' colors are much cooler. They complement one another well. The window on the right shows the burning bush: not an American bush, a fluffy ball of green, but a withered brown tree with blue flames shooting from it. Moses kneels, barefoot. Above him, the sky is a mixture of pink and royal blue, the trees as lush and verdant as the cave is dry and barren. "This is holy ground." I'm deeply absorbed in thought when the janitor suddenly claps his hands. "All right, your time has expired," he says with a cheerful smile. I look at my watch; it's been 15 minutes. "I have to go," he says, steering me to the door. I ask if I can have a few more minutes. "No, I can't leave you here alone," he says. Rules are rules, I suppose, even in God's house.
Judson Memorial Baptist Church
Washington Square South & Thompson After my last experience, I call first, but there is no answer. I decide to chance it anyway, and just as I'm about to stop ringing the bell, a man hollers at me from another door. "Miss?" I ask to see the La Farge stained glass, and he looks uneasy. As a last resort, I tell him I'm writing for a magazine. Finally, he opens the door. "You're making it tough on me, y'understand?" I thank him profusely, and he softens a bit. He even leaves me alone in the sanctuary. As I enter, I inhale sharply: here is beauty. The area is dark and empty with a piano in the corner. The caretaker has turned the lights on for me, but after he leaves, I sneak back and turn them off. In the dark, the stacks of folding chairs and recording equipment become shapeless forms, and I can enjoy the vast emptiness of this sacred space. There is something so much more churchlike about an empty floor like this one. On Sunday morning it will be littered with metal folding chairs, but for now there is wonderful solitude in the openness. I cough once, and the acoustics are so amazing that I'm tempted to throw the cover off the piano and launch into a Chopin prelude. The sun is just about to set, and the windows are on fire. The colors are bursting out of the walls. The designs are simple, elegant, and very powerful: portraits from the Old and New Testaments, with rectangle-tiled patterns covering the bottom third of the panes. The colors are carefully chosen and clear; they mean something. The figures are haloed, in prayerful gesture; there is a silence about them that speaks much louder than all the emotion of the Bible-thumping revivalists. The portrait of Samuel is especially touching. The caption reads: "Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth." I imagine a young boy saying these words in the middle of the night to One he didn't know or understand. This window was donated in memory of "a friend of children." I sit in the quiet darkness and drink in the burning colors until the light from the setting sun dwindles, and then I exit the way I came in. The man who admitted me reluctantly is friendly now and shakes my hand on the way out. "Take care."