Some Cool Windows on These Hot Days

Designed by Henry Holiday for James Powell & Sons, Rebekah at the Well with Eliezer, 1879-1880

Join me for an art-historical immersion in STAINED-GLASS WINDOWS to escape the heat: St. Stephen’s two gorgeous windows designed by Henry Holiday for fabricator James Powell & Sons, London. To their lush visual appeal we can add other important facets that emerged with a little work. For anybody interested in just the visual remarks, don’t give up—simply scroll down!

These were commissioned for the new Furness transept of 1878 (now the Furness Burial Cloister) as Magee family memorials to the patriarch James, who died during construction, and to sister Caroline (Carrie) who died at age 25 in 1861.

They are the first of several major works of art that the Magees commissioned for St. Stephen’s at the death of members of this bonded family.  We live happily with those gifts today.

Two generations of Magees were attached to the church, I recently learned, from its beginnings to well into the twentieth century. James Magee (1802-1878) was a second-generation Scots-Irish entrepreneur who prospered in the saddlery business here and in New Orleans beginning—at twenty-two—in 1824. He retired early, in 1847, to become “the father of the Pennsylvania Railroad,” a major director of the new enterprise. He and a member of a distinguished colonial Philadelphia family, Caroline Axford Kneass, married at St. Stephen’s in the first decade of its life, July 5, 1830. Their children were baptized here as adults in 1852 (why so late??). Most of their funerals were held here.

Designed by Henry Holiday for James Powell & Sons, Abraham and the Three Angels, 1879-1880

At his death James Magee had been a longtime and influential member of the vestry. He is represented in a portrait bust (artist and date unknown) given by daughter Anna in an elaborate Gothic Revival tabernacle that was first installed between the these two windows and the chancel; it’s now in the entry vestibule.  

In a tribute to family, the Magee windows celebrate the origins of the official first family of the Abrahamic religions in Abraham and Sarah through the birth of their son Isaac, stories found in Genesis (ignoring the turbulent episode of Abraham’s earlier child Ishmael with Sarah’s servant/slave Hagar).

There’s also a more subtle level. Both windows represent a pivotal moment in which the Lord fulfills his repeated promises of a fruitful and important lineage to this childless couple in their new land---in this case as specific reward for generosity to strangers, a key social value. Is this the overarching virtue for us all who regard these windows?

The bottom window, the family’s memorial to their father James, loosely represents the text on the banner in the foliage, Genesis 18:2 (King James Version). The aged Abraham falls in respectful welcome before three strange “men” with unusual red haloes (the Lord in disguise) who approach his tent. Thus begins the hospitality that Abraham lavishes upon “them.“ Sarah, with some artistic license in this window, stands outside their tent (rather than inside), observing curiously. The reward for their hospitality: a child born to this elderly couple despite Sarah’s skepticism at the prospect.

The top window provides a pivotal sequel (Genesis 24): choosing a bride for the grown Isaac from Abraham’s birth family and region, left at the Lord’s commandment. What we see is the positive response to the prayer of Abraham’s agent, Ezekiel, for a sign of divine favor: a qualified woman who responds to his request for water drawn from her newly filled pitcher. Foregrounded among other women coming to the spring for water, the beautiful and virtuous Rebekah offers the aged stranger water from her pitcher—and, in the texts, to follow, to his camels (and I hope to his companion).  According to the texts, her brother accepts Ezekiel’s offer of marriage for his sister, persuaded by Abraham’s divine mandate and material prosperity. Yes, different times; Isaac had no choice either.

Many people remark how “Pre-Raphaelite” these windows are. Absolutely. Henry Holiday was an eminent member of this group in its later phases. The lushly coiffed heads and square faces (particularly the kewpie-doll mouths), dense composition, rich detail of the fabrics and settings, and burnished palette suggest the work of Burne-Jones and Rossetti. Henry Holiday, however, had special gifts in conveying a story pictorially. Academically trained, his figures differ to suggest their individuality. They’re also beautifully articulated and move fluidly and expressively. To further render a conversation (the chosen moment of each of these windows), Holiday emphasizes expressions and gestures that “speak” in the place of open mouths. He then highlights these eloquent faces and hands in the contrast of light, delicately modeled skin against dark, strongly draped and textured clothing and setting.

Now, within the church as windows, natural light especially in the morning brings these complex stories to glowing life for us.  For anyone like me, it also helps to read the relevant passages!

—Suzanne Glover Lindsay, St. Stephen’s curator and historian