A century-old stained glass depiction of Moses has found a new home in a synagogue in Hamilton, Ont., after surviving a devastating fire and decades in the barns and back rooms of antique dealers.
Retired teacher David Katz and his wife recently rescued the art piece from the Stonehouse of Campbellville – an antique shop north of Burlington, Ont., that specializes in windows – and have donated it to Hamilton’s Temple Anshe Sholom. It will be dedicated in the spring, as a tribute to Rabbi Bernard Baskin, the temple’s 98-year-old rabbi emeritus.
“I’ve always liked stained glass for one reason or another,” Katz said of the piece. “We saw it in the barn of a dealer we know and then, about six weeks later, he called and said if we wanted it, he’d sell it to us.”
Standing nearly six-feet tall, the piece is made in a style called opalescent stained glass, a technique pioneered in the 1870s by American artists Louis Tiffany (whose father founded the famous jewelry store) and John La Farge. It is a style that employs multiple layers of painted glass containing heat-reactive elements, such as bone ash, that reflects and scatters light, to give a sort of three-dimensional effect to the images.
“You get a real sense of depth from this glass,” said Rabbi Jordan Cohen of Anshe Sholom. “I like this piece; it’s a great gift to the congregation. It has been sitting in my office for the last six months, leaning up against the bookcases, while we’ve tried to figure out what to do with it.”
The figure depicted in the panel is a very clear Christian representation of Moses, he said, complete with a halo and horns. (The horns are the result of a Christian mistranslation of the Torah’s description of rays of light emanating from the prophet’s face after he received the Ten Commandments from the hand of God.)
“It’s very clearly a standard depiction of Moses, a very Charlton Heston-esque depiction,” he said.
Those features, Cohen added, could be the basis for some teaching moments about differing Jewish and Christian views of Moses.
The Stonehouse of Campbellville owner Paul Singleton said he acquired the piece from a church in Buffalo, N.Y.
The piece has suffered some fire damage, but no one seems to know where, or when, it was marred. There’s also some disagreement about its age – some who have seen it date it no earlier than 1940, while others say it could have been made as far back as 1900.
“My own personal opinion leans towards the older age,” said Singleton via email.
Singleton said that the window is plated, which means that in several key areas, two layers of glass were put together to provide a unique effect of shadow and depth. This technique was not attempted by most stained glass studios, but was routinely used by Tiffany, La Farge and their pupils. The hand-painted parts (face, hands, feet) of this window are quite different from most other windows, as the quality of the painting is portrait-like in its detail.
Singleton said that he originally intended to keep the piece for himself, but changed his mind when Katz told him of his plans for it.
“The artists who work in my studio have commented that they ‘miss Moses,’ because the window was so special,” he said. “The window was never given a price, because I had intended to keep it, but, when David Katz told me of his plan, I felt it was appropriate that the window go to a new home where it could be loved and appreciated by so many others.”
While it is made in the style pioneered by Tiffany and La Farge, there is little agreement on whether it was created by either of them.
“Assuming the window was from Buffalo, that would reduce the possibility of it being a Tiffany product,” Singleton said. “La Farge windows often ended up in Buffalo. However, both Tiffany and La Farge had several key pupils in their studios and it is probable that the window was a product of one of these pupils.”
Craftsman Roger Chapman, of Sunrise Stained Glass in London, Ont., built the lightbox in which the piece will be displayed. He says the window is “definitely” from the period of La Farge and Tiffany and was likely produced somewhere between 1890 and 1920.
“This is an exciting piece of work,” Chapman said. “The quality of the painting on the hands and feet is just superb.”
Chapman thinks the window might be the work of J&R Lamb Studios, a workshop that pre-dates both Tiffany and La Farge.
Chapman said that he thinks the piece was likely part of a larger display and that’s why there’s no signature or any other indication of the artist or studio where it was made.
Today, he said, manufacturing such a piece would cost up to $20,000, “but if it was a Tiffany or a La Farge, it would be worth a lot more.”
Now encased in its new lightbox, the piece will be displayed in the temple’s upper foyer. It will be dedicated in a ceremony planned for May, to mark the last session of Rabbi Baskin’s popular Books and Ideas program. He is retiring the effort after more than 40 years.
Katz would not discuss what he paid for the artwork, but the synagogue has insured it for $25,000.