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A Repost: The Windows Of St. Thomas The Apostle

August 13th, 2014, Promulgated by Bernie

With Saint Thomas the Apostle Church in the news again, I thought maybe a repeat of a post I did in July 2011 might be appreciated. The old comments (57 of them) have been moved here.

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The building itself –the church- is beautiful. Built in a modified Eastern or Byzantine style it has a centralized design or cruciform design with the altar in the crossing. This is a deviation from the Eastern plan which always places the altar in the Eastern arm, in front of an apse. But in St. Thomas, the Eastern arm (‘liturgical East’ in this case) houses the Blessed Sacrament Chapel.

(Click on pictures for larger images)

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Also in contrast to Byzantine tradition, which prefers mosaic and painting, St. Thomas deploys stunning stain glass windows. But the glass technique used looks somewhat like mosaic.

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All of the windows at the church were a commission of design and fabrication awarded to Philadelphia based Willet Studios of Stained Glass (now Willet Hauser Architectural Glass, Inc.). They were designed by then staff designer Benoit Gilsoul who was born in Belgium in 1914. In 1960, he was commissioned to execute the murals in the Salle de Réception of the Belgian Line in Antwerp. Also in 1960, the Belgian government sent him to the United States on a grant to study the artists’ situation here. He became an American citizen in 1967. He joined the Philadelphia based Willet Studios of Stained Glass in 1963 as a staff designer and glass painter. This lasted until 1968 when he opened his own studio in New York City.1

The glass technique utilized in the windows is 1 inch thick dalles, cut and faceted by hand and then set into epoxy.

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Faceted glass, Slab glass or Dalle de verre is a type of art glass which mixes glass work and sculpture in a vibrant and alluring way. This technique is relatively recent and has found its way into many churches since the 1960’s. It is a beautiful alternative to traditional leaded glass and can form large curtain walls of dramatic effect.2

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After all pieces are cut to the artisan’s satisfaction, selected pieces are “faceted” or chipped along their edges to give a sparkling effect. The cut glass is laid out on a pattern and 1/2″ of sand is sifted onto the framed panel to fill the spaces between the glass. An epoxy slab glass compound is then poured around the pieces. Just before the epoxy sets, an aggregate of sand or other crushed stone, roofing graduals, marble chips or similar material can be sprinkled onto the tacky surface to give the panel texture. The panel is then allowed to cure for at least 24 hours. The panel is then flipped and the pouring process is repeated. This double pour method produces a panel from 7/8″ to 1″ thick. The epoxy is actually an amalgam of resin binder with silica filler and when set gets a glass like finish.

Faceted glass panels can be combined to form large and elaborate curtain walls by stacking panels on top of each other. Its appearance is often reminiscent of mosaic, but unlike mosaic, the glass jewels glow with light-filled color. This more impressionistic type of window recalls the early glass fabrication of the Persians and Saracens, in which thick, crude glass was set into wood, stucco or stone. French artists in the 1930s revitalized the ancient techniques as they sought a style of stained glass that would complement the architecture of the mid-twentieth century.3

Faceted glass was very popular in the US in the 1970s and 80s. Since that time, faceted glass has fallen out of fashion and slab jobs are now few and far between.

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These are truly Catholic windows. They are unambiguously orthodox and naturalistic and they are suggestive of a transfigured state of existence. Their placement –high in the walls and surrounding the entire congregation- make these events and personages present in the liturgy.

9 Traditional stained glass at St. Thomas

10 Traditional stained glass

Faceted glass is not to everyone’s taste. It usually appears heavy and dark and that does not appeal to some people. Others like the work for those reasons. A work of liturgical art, however, must “only” be beautiful, not necessarily liked. To be beautiful the work must be objectively true. These windows are beautiful –truly Catholic.

August 12, 2014 addendum: Saint Thomas the Apostle Church is a very fine example of the approach to Catholic church architecture of its time in the United States. It shows a respect for tradition and yet explores modern materials and expression. Not too long after this Catholic church architecture went off the rails, tossing off tradition entirely. Saint Thomas the Apostle displays a respect for organic growth rather than radical departure.

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Notes:

1 Information on Benoit Gilsoul provided by Jim Hauser of Willet Hauser Architectural Glass, Inc.

2 Information of the faceted glass technique gleaned from: http://www.bottistudio.com/Default.aspx?tabid=691

3 The comparison to mosaic work and reference to Persian and Saracen fabrication is an observation from : http://www.conradschmitt.com/services/details.cfm/category/stained-glass/sub/new-faceted

Picture Sources:

Pictures 3, 4, 5, 6, 8 by Willet Hauser Faceted Stained Glass Windows: http://www.willethauser.com/aboutwh/ &

http://www.flickr.com/photos/36950174@N02/sets/72157622367001422/

Pictures 1, 2, 7, 9, 10 by Mike, CF staff writer and photographer

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One Response to “A Repost: The Windows Of St. Thomas The Apostle”

  1. avatar raymondfrice says:

    The bottom line on all of this????

    St Thomas is a beautiful church!!

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