Being in the Company of Angels

In Company of Angels at the Taft Museum of Art provides a wonderful opportunity to revisit the relatively recent history of Cincinnati’s liturgical arts. The 7 stained glass windows on display were originally commissioned for the Swedenborgian Church of the New Jerusalem on the corner of Oak Street and Winslow Avenue in Cincinnati and installed in 1903 by Louis Comfort Tiffany. The church was demolished to make room for Interstate 71, but members of the parish collected and stored the windows and many of the carved furnishings and other liturgical pieces (many of which are on display at the Taft with the 7 windows).

The windows represent Cincinnati’s history of spirituality with Tiffany’s own revival of medieval glass painting combined with new methods he invented. This combination of old and new mirrors the Swedenborgian own spiritual revival of enlightenment ideals associated with the vibrancy of light, color, and symbolism seen in medieval and Renaissance churches.

As a presentation of the history of art, In Company of Angels also offers a reminder of how the familiarity with art’s history wonderfully enhances an appreciation of the present.

As a grad student at the University of Chicago, I was granted quite a bit of freedom to explore problems in art history and theory and find answers to my questions by enrolling in classes in various disciplines outside of art history. While I enjoyed the freedom of taking classes through the English Department, Film Studies, and Romance Languages, as a Modernist I was required by the department to take at least one class in Medieval Art (God help the Medievalists who had to return the favor).

Michael Camille’s Medieval Art in Literature at the University of Chicago was easily one of my favorite art history courses. Of course Professor Camille was one of the most promising scholars (he died in 2002 when he was only 44), and with him I found Medieval Art scholarship incredibly enhanced my own understanding and appreciation for Modern and Contemporary Art and Theory.

With this, my favorite art history classes to teach include introducing the brilliance of Medieval Art to my students who enrolled in my class expecting to hear about “The Dark Ages.” I always think of Professor Camille’s ability to impress upon me the brilliance of the period. My class spends days looking at mosaics and stain glass proving this period in history in fact shimmered with color and light that infused the church-goer with a sense of awe and a heightened spirituality. That a Cincinnati Church would commission stained glass windows from Louis Comfort Tiffany is a testament to knowledge of medieval art.

The name Louis Comfort Tiffany is synonymous with color and light. With the continued popularity of Tiffany-style lamps, the contemporary museum visitor may not be too surprised by the beauty of these windows. I do hope visitors recognize our chance to see these windows decades after the church was demolished rests in a belief in a revival and preservation of historical works of art as an inherent good.

Like Professor Camille’s art history courses, this exhibition can present the beauty of both medieval and modern life.

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