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From Boise

Boise's stained glass secrets

Published 8 months ago • 8 min read

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Hi friends! Today's story is super interesting – I think you're going to love it. It was written by Amanda Patchin and all photos were taken by Ted Harmon. Enjoy! -Marissa

The term “public art” tends to conjure images of huge abstract sculptures sitting in the courtyards of public buildings or university campuses. For us Boiseans, it will likely call to mind the colorful murals of Freak Alley Gallery, the incredibly various works wrapping traffic signal boxes around the city, or the neon wings on the airport parking garage.

But before these public art pieces came to be, churches provided Boise with its first “public” art. These buildings are obviously religious in nature, but still publicly viewable and expensively and beautifully done.

A building alone can function as a public expression of the artistic impulse. Perhaps the most human of arts, architecture houses people but it also pleases us with beautiful shapes, comforting regularity, and welcoming design. The most ornate buildings constructed in young Boise were her churches. With the vast majority of settlers regularly attending church services, building these spaces was obviously a priority.

Christian temples are historically built to house worshippers and visitors in large groups. Greek temples and many others, were built for small groups of priests, individual worshippers, and the gods themselves and so they are almost more lovely from the outside than from the inside. But churches reveal their decoration most fully to the person sitting in a central seat on a sunny day. From the outside, you can hardly tell a church’s windows are stained glass. They look dark, dim, and gray-brown. Yet inside, there is a wonderful variety of color and stories revealed.

And so is true for these three Boise churches.

St. Michael's

St Michael’s Episcopal Cathedral is located at 518 N 8th Street, on the corner of 8th and State Streets near downtown Boise. A timber frame building with a sandstone exterior, St. Michael’s is a lovely little microcosm of native materials and European traditions.

Gothic arches dominate, and the relatively small space of the cathedral evokes the beauty and splendor of much larger churches across Europe. Like them, St. Michael’s walls are pierced with stained glass windows, the altar is under a dome that is spangled with gold stars, and the woodwork is richly polished and elaborately carved.

St. Michael’s is classically shaped in the elongated western cross which dominated church construction from the very early middle ages up to the 20th century. Usually a small entryway, called a narthex, is entered from the Western end of the church, an elongated nave forms the “upright” of the cross which is then bisected by the transept. The “top” of the cross is the apse which ordinarily houses the altar and is almost always at the Eastern end. Unusually, St. Michael's points North instead of East.

St. Michaels also houses a secret treasure, one that ties it to New York, Hollywood, the United States seal, glass lamps, and little turquoise boxes.

Tiffany & Co. was founded by Charles Lewis Tiffany as a jewelry shop in New York in the first half of the nineteenth century. He made his fortune and his reputation by buying up ancestral jewels from impoverished European aristocrats and then selling them to America’s wealthy elite. He famously introduced the six-prong setting for round diamonds that we now associate almost exclusively with engagement rings. His jewelry store is a tourist destination as well as an actual jewelry shop thanks to the delightful Audrey Hepburn film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and to its permanent displays of famous jewels and striking turquoise packaging for its wares.

Charles Lewis Tiffany did enough to ensure the success and fame of his name, however, one of his sons struck out in a new direction after a European tour that inspired him to develop American stained glass making. Seeing the rich colors and ornate designs in European cathedrals, Louis Comfort Tiffany was motivated to cultivate older glass making techniques that rejected paint and relied on metals and other impurities in the glass making process to create rich, opalescent, colorations.

Louis Comfort Tiffany is probably most famous for the lamps that his workshop produced and the possible appearance of Tiffany glass in an antique store, or at an estate sale, keeps treasure hunters eagerly looking. But Tiffany and his artisans also produced many stained glass windows for churches across America and in Canada, France, and England.

On Easter Sunday 1919, a lovely Tiffany triptych was dedicated in the eastern arm of St. Michael’s transept. It is signed “Louis C. Tiffany” and is a beautiful example of the Tiffany style.

Traditional stained glass is usually dominated by rich dark blues and reds: the drama of figures picked out in that primary contrast with the dark lines of lead between and splashy details in small bits of yellow or green. Cobalt and copper compounds make the rich blues and gold while chloride and selenium oxide as well as other copper compounds make the reds. St. Michael’s has plenty of the more traditional style of stained glass. In fact, it’s variety of glasses make it a bit of an artistic hodge-podge.

The Tiffany triptych consists of three tall and narrow gothic arches. The central arch is taller than its flanking windows and contains the main subject of the painting: Mary holding the infant Jesus. The flanking windows depict shepherds adoring the newborn Christ.

Blue predominates this window as well but it is a series of subtle, soft, and graduated blues rather than a simple, dark cobalt. Soft greens make the landscape, while gentle browns give skin tones and detail. In the lower right of the center window an orange and yellow lamp seems to give light to the entire scene. Astonishingly, the windows rely only indirect sunlight for their illumination and yet the coloration of the glass that forms the lamp, gives the illusion of a spotlight shining up on Mary’s face.


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St. John's Cathedral

St. Michael’s is not alone in offering beautiful artwork to view. The stained glass windows of St. John’s Cathedral, a Romanesque rather than Gothic structure, are also incredibly striking and they, likewise, reveal something of the history of Boise.

The cathedral was built slowly over the course of several decades, and, like St. Michael’s, it is mostly constructed of local sandstone. It also features a great deal of stained glass that, from the outside looks dull and colorless, but from the inside on a sunny day, is incredibly bright and colorful.

St. John’s Cathedral has many, many windows featuring scenes and characters from the Bible and from Catholic history. Most of the windows were completed by 1920, and are in a consistent and traditional style. Reds and blues predominate in the familiar rich and dark tones. However, the central window in the apse is different in color and style from the others.

A bright yellow, the “Holy Spirit” window, is in a lovely and unusual Art Deco style. When the center window needed to be replaced, the diocese decided that it was no use to try and match the style of the original windows and instead chose a different stained glass firm, a different artist, and a distinct artistic style. The choice to emphasize rather than elide the change allows the cathedral to reveal its place in a young community.

Built in an architectural style that traces more than two thousand years of building design, the 1979, Art Deco glass stamps the 20th century onto the history of the church.

Cathedral of the Rockies

Boise has at least one more stained glass story. It’s located in the “Cathedral of the Rockies” at 717 N 11th Street in Boise. The church was completed in 1960 and named in defiance of ordinary nomenclature for Christian church buildings.

Traditionally, a “cathedral” is the home church of the bishop. A bishop, in liturgical tradition, has ecclesiastical authority over all other churches and ministers or priests in his diocese (the geographical region over which he presides). The cathedral is so-called, because it contains the chair (cathedra in Latin) that symbolizes this authority. The Cathedral of the Rockies does not contain such a chair, because Methodists do not have a hierarchical authority structure granting ecclesiastical power to a bishop. Methodist Bishops have a prominent role within the church, however their power is generally more administrative.

Despite not being a “cathedral” in quite the same sense as St. John’s, or St. Michael’s, Cathedral of the Rockies is an ornate and beautiful structure. A Gothic Revival building, it features Arizona Flagstone on the exterior as well as an elaborate set of stained Glass windows depicting not only the usual Biblical stories and figures from Church history, but also notable characters and events from history.

As the first church in Idaho to broadcast church services on television, Cathedral of the Rockies included a window depicting a small television camera on the south arm of the transept: a strange, if innocuous object in such a traditional and old-fashioned art form.

The church also included a number of portraits of individuals from America’s more notable historical moments. Clara Barton, the founder of the Red Cross, is in one pane. Luther, the renowned reformer from 16th century Germany is in one. And there was an image of Robert E. Lee standing behind George Washington and, strangely, Abraham Lincoln.

In 2020, the church voted to remove the Lee window. After much discussion the Lee window was donated to the Idaho Black History Museum and replaced with a window depicting Leontine T.C. Kelly, the first African American woman to be elected to the church’s episcopacy, and only the second woman so elected. As she was consecrated in Boise, the church thought her an appropriate inclusion in their contemporary themes.

If you want to view any of these windows, it is relatively easy to do so. Though not quite as “public” as the airport wings or Freak Alley Gallery, all three buildings are accessible for tours and Sunday services.

St. John’s offers docent-led tours on Sundays from 3-4:30pm. St. Michaels offers tours by appointment. Cathedral of the Rockies will do tours by appointment and hosts public concerts and performances.

Thanks for reading!

With love from Boise,

Marissa

This story was written by Amanda Patchin. You can see more of her work at amandapatchin.com. All of these gorgeous photos were taken by Ted Harmon. You can see more of his photos on Instagram at @ted_the_capitalist.

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From Boise

by Marissa Lovell

A weekly newsletter & podcast about what's going on in Boise, Idaho. Every week we share stories about people, places, history, and happenings in Boise.

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