Stained-glass church windows are Idaho treasures

IDAHO HISTORY

SPECIAL TO THE STATESMANAugust 18, 2013 

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This stained glass window was inspired by Heinrich Hofmann’s 1890 oil painting, “Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane.”

PROVIDED BY ARTHUR HART

Stained-glass windows in churches across Idaho, installed in the late 19th or early 20th centuries, are remarkable for their glowing beauty and are an indicator of the devout, but somewhat sentimental, taste of those who chose their subjects. To my generation, our conception of what Jesus might have looked like came from the images in windows like these.

Often donated by church members as memorials to loved ones, the windows bear dedicatory inscriptions in panels across the bottom, and occasionally, to the stained-glass historian’s delight, the name of the glass studio that produced them. At least a dozen American and European companies made their own versions of popular biblical subjects, painted by a small group of 19th century artists, notably two Germans — Heinrich Hofmann and Gerhard Plockhorst — and William Holman Hunt, an Englishman. Five paintings by these men became favorite subjects for church windows and examples can be found across Idaho in churches of different denominations, and beyond that, in several hundred churches across America.

“Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane” is perhaps the best-known subject in the church art of its time. It is based on an 1890 oil painting by Hofmann (1824-1911). I have found versions of it in the stained-glass windows of 11 Idaho churches. In Boise, you will find it in Whitney Methodist, Sacred Heart Catholic, and St. Michael’s Episcopal, in Methodist churches in Burley and New Meadows, and in the former Methodist Church in Payette, now the county museum. Lewiston’s First Christian Church has a fine example, as does the First Christian Church in Payette. The tiny community church in Placerville has one and the Episcopal Church in Salmon has a grand one. There is a modern version in a Catholic church in Moscow.

The original oil painting upon which these Gethsemane windows are based is in New York City’s Riverside Church. It is one of three paintings by Hofmann donated to that church by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Hofmann’s “The Boy Christ in the Temple,” painted in 1871, shows Jesus surrounded by elderly scholars. It is the best known image of Jesus as a young man, and a detail of the head alone is found in some churches. The Jason Lee Memorial Methodist Church in Blackfoot has a fine window based on this Hofmann painting.

“Christ and the Rich Young Ruler” is the third work by Hofmann at Riverside Church, and although I know of no window with this subject in Idaho, I have seen reproductions of the painting in homes and in Sunday school rooms.

Nine Idaho churches have windows that depict “Christ the Good Shepherd,” from an oil painting by Plockhorst (1825-1907). Immanuel Lutheran and St. Michael’s Episcopal Cathedral in Boise have versions of the subject, and the Lutheran Church in Ashton has an exceptionally fine one. Appropriately enough, the small Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation has one, and two churches in Lewiston have examples: the First Christian and St. Stanislaus Catholic. The Payette County Museum and Weiser Methodist Church have nearly identical examples, probably from the same studio.

One of the most popular religious paintings of the 19th century is “The Light of the World” by Hunt, a founder of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. It shows a sad-eyed Christ standing in an overgrown garden, outside a locked door that symbolizes a human heart shut against him. The glowing lantern in his hand sheds a warm light on the twilight scene.

Stained-glass windows based on Hunt’s painting can be seen in Methodist churches in Blackfoot and Rupert, and in the First Christian Church in Lewiston. There are, of course, hundreds of fine stained-glass windows in Idaho churches that are not based on the familiar subjects painted by these three 19th century artists. They were famous in their day, and now are all but forgotten. You may well prefer the work of the many later artists with which we are blessed. Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@mindspring.com.

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