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Connections: Glass Illuminated

Today’s post comes from Taylor Shoolery, Vassar College class of 2012 and Art Center student docent.

Chemistry professor Chris Smart stands with his favorite Tiffany stained glass window. It is hidden in a stairway in the Vassar College Chapel.

“How does a chemist get interested in glass?” On Tuesday, this question launched the first of five weekly talks, Insights on Site. This series, open to the community, is focused on illuminating some of the hidden gems in architecture, design, and art scattered around the campus. Christopher Smart, Associate Professor of Chemistry and Vassar College class of 1983, degrees may be in chemistry but he undoubtedly has a passion for glass, a passion that has roots both in his field of study and his personal life. Smart explained that his interest in medium was picqued at first by repairing the glassware from his lab.  Wherever he was he quickly acquainted himself with local glass blowers and asked for a lesson or two here and there.  Soon Smart took an interest in other kinds of glasswork, including stained glass.  “Making the colored glass we see in these widows really is chemistry,” Smart said, motioning to a John LaFarge window on the west side of the chapel.  While the wide variety of color in traditional European stained glass is achieved by tinting the cooled glass with enamel or paint, in the American tradition, spear-headed by John LaFarge and Lewis Comfort Tiffany, the color is chemically bonded to the glass itself by adding metal oxides to molten sand.  This new technique allowed for more texture and color variety in each glass panel, creating an opalescent quality in many of the windows.

But the technical side is not Smart’s sole interest.  His father, a historian by vocation, wrote a book about a local chapel in Smart’s hometown, highlighting the history behind the stained glass.  One of the windows in that chapel was crafted by none other than Lewis Comfort Tiffany, the son of the famous jeweler.  So when Smart discovered that three Tiffany windows resided in the Vassar Chapel he had quite a good resource to learn more.  Tiffany used recycled bottles in much of his work and eventually he opened his own large glass house in New York State.  If you make your way to the chapel you will see why Smart said that Tiffany’s real strength lay in landscapes.  The intricacy of the trees and streams is truly astounding.  However, it was LaFarge who is credited for developing the new method of bonding color and LaFarge who was the true master of imbuing his work with phenomenal texture, as can be seen particularly well in the clothing on the figures.  Unlike Tiffany, LaFarge made all of his glass panels himself, which is probably why there are only 300 of his windows documented in the world, three of which are in the Vassar Chapel.

Smart’s affinity for the glasswork in this chapel are synergistic and contagious.  They are without a doubt, as he put it, “one of the undervalued treasures on this campus.”  So if you get a chance, stop in and visit these unique works.  Notice the richness of the multi-colored panes, the layered glass in the LaFrarge windows on the west side, and the vividness of Tiffany’s Rose Window in the balcony.

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