Mary Poppins and Bert used magic to create sidewalk art that opened a whole new world to the children and them. Courtesy of the artist they discovered wondrous new places and people that charmed, amazed and inspired.
Church of St. Vincent Ferrer toward Great East Window
At absolutely no risk of overstatement I can say to all of us dwellers in our urban village who stroll the enclave of the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer (SVF), from 66th to Lexington and then east on 65th can enter a magical world of museum-quality sidewalk art every day of the week.
In the simple act of looking up at this National Historic Landmark Church, they will see a lavish gallery of Charles Jay Connick stained glass art created over more than three decades, beginning from around 1916 when the cornerstone of the Bertram Goodhue structure was laid. The architect imagined fine stained glass windows of the delicacy and refinement of those gracing classic Gothic churches like the iconic Cathedral at Chartres, as the perfect complement to his work in our urban village.
The Organ Loft and Great West Window
When Connick was given the commission by the Dominican Prior he was, relatively speaking a “beginner: as his Boston studio was founded in 1913. But his style was no doubt most attractive to both the Dominican Friars and their architect who would have found the delicacy of his work the perfect counterpoint to the massive Gothic Revival stone walls and tracery. That delicacy was one of Connick’s artistic signatures as was his use of blues that define so many of the windows of SVF. The lofty clerestory windows were placed to create what Connick calls “rivers of light and of color” that illuminate the interior from above. He revisits that theme in his notes and journals as well as his 1937 book Adventures in Light and Color.
The center of the top of the Reredos
By juxtaposing blue-dominant and red/gold-dominant windows he hoped to balance the effects of direct and indirect sunlight that occurred at different times of the day. What he learned at Chartres and elsewhere was the technique of painting on clear glass to achieve the subtle effects often lost in windows that are more opaque.
The decades-long collaboration of the Priors of SVF, the architect, and Connick is a story of respectful cooperation. Some of the correspondence found in the Charles J. Connick Stained Glass Foundation Collection at MIT Libraries preserve exchanges like the one in which Connick comments on books about the Dominican Saint Albert the Great that the Prior had sent him and which fueled the creative vision embodied in the window that portrays that saint.
St. Albert the Great Window
A majority of the Clerestory windows feature saints set in the context of their contemporaries, their mentors and historic figures that influenced their lives and ministries. They summarize the Order’s 800-year history and its relationship with New York. One of the surprises from history is a portrayal of Napoleon Bonaparte linked to the negative impact of the Napoleonic Wars that blocked the access of Bishop Luke Concannon who had been consecrated Bishop of New York, but who died before he could reach his see due to the blockade of the Port of Naples dictated by Napoleon. There is also the presence of the philosopher Aristotle (he’s the one with a green halo, versus the gold adorning angels and saints) as a figure in a window honoring the St. Albert the Great, teacher of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose philosophy and theology were strongly influenced by Aristotelian thought.
Aristotle from St. Albert the Great Window (detail)
The Catherine of Siena window honors the 14th Century Saint, who was a lay member of the Third Order of the Dominicans. She was philosopher, theologian, mystic, Saint, minister to the sick and skilled diplomat who succeeded in healing the breach in the Papacy that ended when she persuaded Gregory XI to return from Avignon to Rome. She did not hesitate to serve plague victims which made her a saintly icon of healers. Long after her death at age 33, the strong, compassionate woman was declared a Doctor of the Church, Patroness of Italy and Europe. She is surrounded in the Connick window at CSVF with Saints like Agnes of Montepulciano, Catherine of Siena’s early 14th Century inspiration, and to her right, the 16th Century Catherine de Ricci, showing three centuries of visionary women, from mystical to diplomatic.
St. Catherine of Siena Window
St. Agnes of Montepulciano from St. Catherine of Siena Window (detail)
Subjects of other of the major stained glass Clerestory windows range from patron of lawyers, St. Raymond of Pennafort; missionary to South America, St. Louis Bertrand; Saint Antoninus, symbolizing the Order’s relationship to art and architecture and champion of social justice issues such as the need for a living wage.
Two of the masterpieces of SVF’s world of stained glass art create the east and west boundaries of the nave’s pantheon of Dominican Saints. The Great West Window facing Lexington Avenue is a classic Rose Window whose theme is “the whole company of Heaven and all the powers therein.” It depicts the nine choirs of angels and illustrates the relationship of great Dominican saints to the distinctive spiritual powers symbolized by each of the Angelic choirs.
Center Aisle toward Great West Window
The recently restored Great East Window is centered on the Return of Christ to Earth as a symbol of birth into new life. The major window of Saint Dominic stands at the head of the Friar’s Chapel, a replica of the Medieval choir, and setting for the daily communal prayer of the resident Friars. It is one of the most recently completed portions of the Church. Each smaller lancet, each smaller window punctuating the walls in a series of side chapels honoring patrons including St. Patrick, and others and portraying such Scriptural events as the Visitation of her older cousin Elizabeth by her young relative, the Virgin Mary. Each one of every size honors a Mystery of faith or saintly inspiration.
Great West Window detail
Medieval Cathedral exteriors, and especially their stained glass windows, functioned as “sermons in stone and glass,” especially for the many faithful who were illiterate. The striking number of Connick windows in St. Vincent Ferrer’s French Gothic Revival structure make it a preeminent example Connick’s creativity, and one the three principal examples of his artistry in New York City. It is unusual to have such an abundance of the work of the master and his studio in a single location.
The large East Rose Window of St. Patrick’s Cathedral is one of the 14 of that Cathedral’s 94 windows designed and executed by Connick and his studio. Arthur Femenella, Sr. notes that that work was completed by Connick’s studio after his death in 1945. The third of New York City’s major examples of Connick’s artistry are to be seen at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Both its Greater and Lesser Rose Windows, Clerestory Level Windows, windows in the Arts Bay, and the Saint Martin Chapel are of Connick Design. SVF and Saint Catherine of Siena Music Director James Wetzel reports that the Connick stained glass dates from around the first half of the 20th Century.
Five Lancets from the Great West Window
The glory of Connick’s artistry is unquestionable. It is easy to understand why Connick ranks in a trio of masters along with Louis Comfort Tiffany and John La Farge. His human and humane qualities are equally noteworthy. These include the fact that upon his death in 1945 he directed that his studios pass to the craftsmen who worked there with him in what he described as “only incidentally a business.” They continued creating in his style and spirit as Charles J. Connick Associates, until 1986. A charming video documentary chronicling the Last Window shows an elderly craftsman narrating to a young woman, the steps involved in the restoration of a Connick window. The nearly two-year work of restoration of SVF’s Great East window with its central figure of Christ’s return in glory, demonstrated that the same painstaking skills of the 13th and 14th Centuries are being kept alive today.
Great East Window, the “Window of the Last Judgement”
Before the closing of the Connick Studio in Boston, the craftsmen agreed to donate most of the studio records, working drawings and related materials to the Fine Arts Department of the Boston Public Library. The Connick Foundation works with Boston Public Library and Rotch Library at MIT to “conserve, maintain and enhance” the art form Connick and his colleagues developed.
For residents and visitors to the extensive Connick creations in our urban village surrounding SVF the voyage of discovery begins simply by looking up.
We would like to offer special thanks to the generous spirits who lent glorious images and insight into Connick’s masterpieces. Photographer Brian M. Kuttner is a retired general dentist from Millville, NJ, whose hobby is shooting famous architectural and historic sites, on the National Register of Historic Places. He has created a portfolio of images documenting Connick’s works at the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer used in this story. On Facebook, readers can find his chronicles of its exterior, its side and auxiliary chapels, facades, and many other works of sacred and decorative art. The pastor of Saint Vincent Ferrer, Very Rev. Walter Wagner, OP was most generous with his kind assistance and unparalleled knowledge, interpreting the scores of Connick’s works at CSVF; thank you to Arthur Femenella, Sr. President of Femenella Associates for his insight into Connick’s works at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and to James Wetzel for similar insight into the Connick works at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine.