The Stained Glass Windows at St. Mark’s Church

By Claire Webb

St. Mark’s Church In-the-Bowery, long a historical treasure in the East Village, typifies a Georgian style church in many ways: the two-storied building, punctuated by a double row of arched windows, and a balcony that runs the full width are features found in many English country churches.  But, St. Mark’s holds unique surprises on its upper level: twelve gorgeous, modern stained glass windows designed by Harold Edelman. The following history of how these windows were conceived and created illustrates an architect’s commitment to a project that extends beyond the traditional role.

The Call for New Windows

When a fire engulfed the building in 1978, fire fighters chose to blow out the upper windows to both preserve the more figurative windows on the ground level and ameliorate the billowing clouds of smoke. The Church’s replacement windows needed to harmonize with the traditional stained glass windows on the first floor, but also freshly represent the Church.

The Edelman Partnership, founded by Harold and Judy, had worked with St. Mark’s to renovate the East and West Yards of the Church before the fire. The Church was especially impressed by Harold’s extensive redesign of the West Yard; the series of curvilinear hills and a meandering walkway created nested areas for reflection but also triggered community gathering.

According to Judy Edelman, St. Mark’s initially approached several artists in the East Village to design the windows, but each declined the offer. As a result, St. Mark’s asked Harold Edelman to make drawings for the replacement windows in addition to the new roof he had already agreed to draw. Initially Harold declined as well, protesting that as an architect, not an artist, he wasn’t qualified. It was this unassuming attitude and architectural training that made the new windows sensitive and successful.

Harold was an interesting choice to design the windows. “Not only was he Jewish, he was a committed atheist,” explained Judy. To better understand his task, Harold took liturgy lessons from David Garcia, St. Mark’s Reverend at the time. “Harold holed up for about a month in Sag Harbor and just drew. He went into kind of a trance,” remembers Judy.

Although he was not trained as a glass maker or artist, Harold aptly imagined the new windows to reflect the Church’s evolving image. In the 1970’s, St. Mark’s had become the East Village’s cultural epicenter for art and performance. Harold’s designs depicted classic liturgical symbols in a fresh, abstract way that was sensitive to the new culture of the Church and the ethos of this office. The twelve windows include the Rose Window with the Griffin Window below on the South face of the Church and five pairs of facing windows.

Making the Windows at Rohlf Studios

Mr. Peter Rohlf, owner of Rohlf Studios in Mount Vernon, New York, worked with Harold from 1982 to 1986 to fabricate the windows. The master craftsman explained the technical, precise method of making stained glass – a process that has essentially remained the same since its heyday in the Middle Ages.

First, Edelman drew sketches in 1”=1’-0” scale which Rohlf used to make full-size drawings called cartoons. Rohlf gave input to of where properly install a steel-reinforcement system that wouldn’t impinge on the design. They decided on a vertical three-panel framing system; the heavier horizontal mullions are horizontal to support the 4’-0” x 8’-10” window. The 3/4” wide lead cames, the softer metal that holds the individual pieces of stained glass, branch from each horizontal mullion.

After the design system was resolved, Rohlf made the cutline drawings which outlines for shapes for each piece of glass. For simplicity, the drawing is leeched of color, rendering the lead cames as black and the glass as white. Rohlf then used the pattern drawings, carbon copies of the cutline drawings, as guides for the lead caming. By cutting the drawings along the black lines with double-edged knife, essentially the width of the lead, he ensured adequate spacing for the caming. The cames are then made in this shape, but take on three-dimensional grooves that resemble the letter “H.”

Rohlf and glass selector Bill Roemer chose each piece of glass. Unlike commercial or cathedral glasses that are machine-made, the St. Mark’s glasses were mouth-blown in Germany. To achieve a wide selection of colors, ranging from vivid blood red to subtle robin’s egg blue, the glass maker plays alchemist, mixing chemical compounds in certain amounts and at certain temperatures into the molten-liquid glass. Copper oxide alone, depending on conditions, will yield ruby red or blue-green. The brilliant blue you see in the St. Mark’s windows is derived from cobalt. Uranium, cadmium sulfide, or titanium produce yellow and gold colored glass. Once the desired color is achieved, the glassblower catches the lava-like glass in a blow pipe. The glass is then blown into a cylinder, cut, flattened, and finally allowed to cool. In the case of St. Mark’s windows, sheets of glass in different colors were then shipped from Germany to Rohlf’s Studio in upstate New York.

The glass maker places the cutline patterns and uses a diamond wheel to cut the individual pieces. “This task is made difficult by the glass’s inherent fragility,” explained Mr. Rohlf. The glass tolerates cutting only at certain angles, and so Rohlf had to take into account where to locate the caming for Edelman’s intricate, flowing shapes.

The glazier then refers back to the cutline drawing as a guide to fit each piece into the grooved lead caming. The lead and millions are then soldered at the joints. Finally, the glazier cements the window on both sides, rendering it stable and watertight.

Mr. Rohlf remembered that Harold and he “had a wonderful working relationship because [Harold] wouldn’t take offense to any technical corrections” the glass maker would suggest. Mr. Rohlf suggested this attitude was a byproduct of Harold’s architectural training, where aesthetic sacrifices are sometimes made on behalf of functionality.

The result was beautiful windows that depicted traditional Christian symbols in a refreshing, sometimes whimsical, way that jived with the community. The symbolism embedded in the windows is just as complex as the fabrication process.

Rich Symbolism in the Windows

One color – red, black, white, green, or violet – dominates each pair of windows. These liturgical colors typically decorate a church to call out holy days, the season, a festival, and feast days. Each pair’s semi-circle and border also pick out that particular color. Highlights of blue in each window – derived from symbolic elements from the ancient Book of Kells and Mary’s traditional color – unite the pairs.  Rohlf and Edelman chose translucent blue, white, pink, and clear glass to accessorize the main figure. These subtler, translucent colors dapple the church with soft yet complex patterns and transmit exterior light.

Each pair of windows incorporates traditional Christian forms and symbolism but also uses contemporary and secular imagery. This mixing jives well with the more figurative, traditional windows on the first level and reflects the artistic character of the neighborhood.

The rose window on the steeple on the south face of the Church is comprised of two mirror-image spirals. The intersecting spirals form two logarithmic curves, symbolizing growth and evolution.

A griffin, a mythical beast with the head of an eagle and the body of a lion, rears in the window below. Wings unfurled and claws at the ready, the griffin is the symbol of St. Mark’s and fittingly heads the procession of windows.

The pair of the rose and griffin windows bathes the sanctuary of the Church in a soft warm glow, buoying the visitor in a space of meditation.

 

In the first pair of windows, the liturgical color red is expressed through fire, a reoccurring symbol in Christian texts. The windows illustrate the fire of purification and the burning bush that God used to appear to Moses. The licking flames traverse the three-panel framing system seamlessly, attesting to Rohlf’s expert technique in executing the relationship of the glass, lead cames, and mullions.

 

Two large hands are depicted in the second set of windows. Originating at the base of the east window, the hand of humanity, representing prayer and fidelity, yearns towards heaven.  On the opposite west window, the hand of God tenderly reaches down towards Earth. Although black is the dominant color, fragments of teal, forest green, and periwinkle intertwine throughout both hands.

 

White doves, symbols of peace that hearken back to God’s promise to humanity after the Great Flood, populate the third pair of windows.  In the west window, “Pace” – Latin for peace – is spelled out, tying in to the dove’s message as well as the mission of St. Mark’s. Ellipses and rounded squares in the east window catch the rhythm of the “Eye of God” shape above, making the window both modern and playful.

 

The doves that fly above earth are followed by God’s creatures beneath the sea. Green dominates the next set, depicting fish as symbols of fertility, birth, and resurrection. The west windows spell out the Greek word for fish, “Ichthys,” or “ΙΧΘΥΣ” in Cyrillic. The acronym translates into the English phrase that means, “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.” The reference also touches on Jesus’s role as the “fisher of men’s souls.”

 

Pentagonal stars decorate the fifth set of windows. Abstract shapes in violet – the final liturgical color – decorate the upper part of the windows and make jewel-like shapes in the borders. The Star of Bethlehem and the Star of David are harbingers of great things, apposite signs to end the series.  The violet crosses signify the New Covenant but represent salvation in other ancient cultures.

 

Peter Rohlf and Harold Edelman signed the two Peace windows, the first to be installed, in 1982. Harold’s signature also decorates the Hand windows, the last to be completed in 1986. Each window was funded by subscription, and is decorated with has a plaque honoring the donor. The Griffin Window was dedicated to Reinaldo Aguila, a member of the Preservation Youth Project – the community group that rebuilt the church after the fire – who passed away during the reconstruction of the Church. A full list of donors can be found here.

Architecture and Art

An element of all Architecture is Art, and in the case of the stained glass windows at St. Mark’s, the architect became the artist. Harold Edelman took on the additional role to help create a space that many groups can enjoy today. In addition to holding regular Episcopal services, the Church is home to Danspace, The Poetry Project, and the Incubator Art Theatre program; the nearby Rectory houses the Neighborhood Preservation Center as well as St. Mark’s Historic Landmark Fund.

ESKW/A is proud of our part in adding to the rich history of St. Mark’s Church In-the-Bowery, and we are pleased to share it with you. We invite you to visit this remarkable Church, attend any number of the events that St. Mark’s has to offer, and experience the beauty of the stained glass windows firsthand.

Steven Facey, Felicia Mayro, Alexis Stephens, and Julianne Wiesner-Chianese of the St. Mark’s Historic Landmark Fund assisted in researching of the windows and providing historical documents. Peter Rohlf of Rohlf Studios in Mount Vernon, New York, patiently explained the meticulous process of stained glass making. Judy Edelman helped provide the history of the windows and The Edelman Partnership’s role in creating them. Andrew Knox also assisted in researching how stained glass is made and explaining the religious symbolism. Michael Walch helped create the lead caming diagram.

 

 

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