Walking into the First Baptist Church in Oakland, one immediately enters an atmosphere of almost cloud-like, gray-white light filtered by thousands of sparkling stained-glass windows.
“It’s a worshipful experience, even if you walk in and there’s nobody else there,” says the Rev. Gary Denning, pastor of the North Bellefield Avenue church. “That’s the real advantage to it.”
The lofty Gothic arches, the massive stone and plaster walls and the ornate carved woodwork add to that experience. But the soaring stained-glass windows, with their depictions of the life of Christ, command attention and inspire awe.
The windows were the first major work in the city by Pittsburgh-trained stained-glass artist Charles J. Connick, whose work is the subject of a book by Albert M. Tannler, historical collections director of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.
Tannler’s book, “Charles J. Connick: His Education and His Windows in and Near Pittsburgh,” relies on scholarly research, including Connick’s own words, to depict his life and work here. Color photographs of the glass artist’s work in the Pittsburgh area accompany the text.
Tannler became interested in stained glass after a 1993 Highland Park house tour that included the home of J. Horace Rudy, a Pittsburgh stained-glass artist who hired Connick and trained him.
“It’s an extraordinary house,” Tannler says. “Everyone talks about (Louis) Tiffany, but Tiffany was primarily a businessman. He designed very few windows,” unlike Rudy and his relatives in their Pittsburgh business. “That’s what made me want to look at architectural glass as an element.”
Tannler’s research led him to discover several Pittsburgh stained-glass artists, including Connick.
“We do have something of an extraordinary indigenous operation (in glass-making), one of the most important,” Tannler says.
But Tannler considers Connick “the leading light” among many distinguished Pittsburgh-area artists in stained glass. The Boston Herald, in a memorial tribute to Connick, who worked in Boston and died there in 1945, said, “Pittsburgh and Princeton have many fine examples of his talent. It is regrettable that Boston … lacks large-scale examples of his fine studio.” After Connick’s death, The New York Times called him “the world’s greatest contemporary craftsman in stained glass.”
Tannler was moved to write the book after he gave a speech a few years ago about architectural glass at the Frick Art & Historical Center in Point Breeze and another last year about Connick’s work to members of the Philadelphia-based Decorative Arts Trust. Tannler discussed Connick’s education in Pittsburgh before a lunch for Trust members, then took them on a tour of Connick’s work at Calvary Episcopal Church on Shady Avenue.
“You imparted interesting and excellent information about stained glass to Trust members in a way that has gotten them hooked on the subject,” Penelope Hunt, executive director of the Trust, later wrote to Tannler.
“It was brilliant to take them to the church afterward. Putting your information to work for them brought it all together, and it began to be meaningful to them. They will never look at a church with stained glass in the same way again!”
Afterward, Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation executive director Louise Sturgess, who had seen Tannler’s notes, told him, “We’re going to do a book.”
The book describes how Pittsburgh helped to produce Connick, who was born in 1875 in Springboro, Crawford County. Connick moved with his family to Pittsburgh when he was 8. He was bullied by city children who made fun of his countrified attire, so he stayed indoors at recess, drawing with crayons.
Fascinated by color at an early age, Connick’s artistic talent was recognized with publication of his sketches in Pittsburgh newspapers. But Connick was forced to quit high school to support his family after his father was disabled.
He found a job as an illustrator for the Pittsburgh Press, a job that ended just as he met the art director of a stained-glass company, J. Horace Rudy. At 19, Connick became Rudy Brothers’ first apprentice.
Connick spent the years 1883 through 1899 learning to create stained glass in Pittsburgh. He left for work in Boston for two years. Returning in 1903, he worked for a number of stained-glass companies. Between 1911 and 1941, Connick “created some of his finest work for buildings in Pittsburgh,” Tannler writes.
Connick’s first major job was the First Baptist Church windows, which he created between 1911 and 1912. Having spent time traveling in Europe and observing medieval stained glass, including at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres, France, Connick examined the effect of light and optics, which had been employed in the 12th and 13th centuries but neglected from the 1400s on.
Tannler notes in his book that the windows of the First Baptist Church are “grisaille,” which means “grayish” in French. The windows achieve a grayish effect through the repeated geometry of figures that Denning says resemble beehives, but which the pastor believes represent gates into heaven.
Denning has studied the figures in the Connick windows and uses them as teaching tools. The eight Beatitudes, or teachings of Christ, are on the windows on either side of the church.
Approaching the front of the church, one sees Connick’s windows depicting the birth of Christ on the right and his ministry on the left. Scenes of Christ’s crucifixion and death are on either side of the baptismal font at the front of the church. Leaving, one sees on the back windows scenes of the Resurrection of Christ and its promise of everlasting life.
“I call it Christian aerobics,” Denning says with a smile, as he demonstrates how he has children in Sunday or Bible school repeat the theme of Christ’s birth, ministry, teachings, death and new life while pointing to each set of Connick windows.
Connick went on to design religious windows for many churches in the area, including Heinz Memorial Chapel on the Pitt campus, a short walk from First Baptist. Tannler calls the Heinz Chapel windows, designed and made between 1936 and 1938, “a spectacular accomplishment.”
Tannler quotes Joan Gaul’s guidebook: “Paint, bars and leading are used to control color’s movement. What may look like black lines when seen up close disappear when the figure is high up in the window far from the viewer’s eye.”
In addition to religious figures in Heinz Chapel, Connick rendered historical and literary figures in glass, such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, William Shakespeare and poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Connick used a technique of “staggered” solder-joints in his leading and bars, which English stained-glass historian Peter Cormack says gives the windows their “syncopated or ‘swinging’ character.”
“The result is like a great coherent symphony in light in color, with windows caroling together in contrasts and harmonies in all kinds of lights and weathers,” Tannler quotes Connick from his papers found at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.
Other Pitt venues with Connick treasures are the Stephen C. Foster Memorial, which has 12 medallions in its museum windows depicting lyrics from Foster songs. In a Foster Memorial corridor, more windows represent songs such as “Old Dog Tray” and Foster himself, playing a flute.
Connick designed the colonial-style windows in the Early American Room in the Cathedral of Learning in 1938. By 1937, Connick had designed the fanciful fairytale windows in the German classroom in the Cathedral of Learning’s Nationality Rooms section. However, they were not completed until 1953 by Connick protege Frances Van Arsdale Skinner.
The last of Connick’s work in Pittsburgh was the Class of 1941 window in the Cathedral of Learning showing a musician and singer in a medallion of brilliant red-orange glass. The artist died four years later.
Tannler writes that one of Connick’s “most valuable insights as a hands-on artist was his understanding that older forms, procedures and priorities are not intrinsically obsolete.”
As a result, Pittsburgh is the richer for his artistry, and Tannler’s book is an insightful accompaniment to any local Connick glass tour.
Title: ‘Charles J. Connick: His Education and His Windows in and Near Pittsburgh’
Author: Albert M. Tannler
Publisher: Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, $16.95, 164 pages
These locations have stained-glass windows by Charles J. Connick, as described in Albert M. Tannler’s book on Connick:
â¢ First Baptist Church, 159 N. Bellefield Ave., Oakland
â¢ First Presbyterian Church, 120 E. Swissvale Ave., Edgewood
â¢ Gordon Chapel, Church of the Ascension, 4729 Ellsworth Ave., Shadyside
â¢ First Presbyterian Church, 300 S. Main St., Greensburg
â¢ St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, 218 E. Jefferson St., Butler
â¢ Calvary Episcopal Church, 315 Shady Ave., East Liberty
â¢ East Liberty Presbyterian Church, 116 S. Highland Ave., East Liberty
â¢ University of Pittsburgh campus between Fifth and Forbes avenues, Oakland: Cathedral of Learning, Heinz Memorial Chapel and Stephen C. Foster Memorial