The last of the Washington National Cathedral’s majestic stained-glass nave windows is being installed this month, ending an almost 60-year saga for their 75-year-old creator, Rowan LeCompte.
Mr. LeCompte calls the cathedral “the love of my life,” a place he fell in love with at the age of 14.
When he dropped by to see it July 1, 1939, his life changed.
“What grabbed me that day at the cathedral was its mystery, its beauty and its awesomeness,” he says. “It was profoundly impressive. It had great height and dimness.”
In 1941, he produced the first of what would be 45 windows for the Gothic edifice atop Mount St. Alban. Years later, he would receive two commissions almost unheard of for one 20th-century artist: creating the cathedral’s gigantic west rose window and then 18 windows for the cathedral’s clerestory level.
The 30-foot-high clerestory windows, which line the cathedral’s nave, are 70 feet above the marble floor. They breathe light into the cathedral’s upper reaches, illuminating the 104-foot-high nave ceiling.
The last clerestory window, which still lacks a lancet and four panels, is being hammered into place by artisan Dieter Goldkuhle, 62, of Reston, who perches atop a 70-foot-high scaffold wearing no safety belt. Occasionally he has to perch on an outside wall to caulk each panel into the stonework. He draws the line, he says, if the winds are more than 20 mph.
This last window, which is on the north side of the nave, is designed in turquoise hues, with a theme based on Psalm 137 describing the sufferings of the Jews during their Babylonian captivity.
The work on the clerestory and rose window in the national cathedral in the capital of the world’s most powerful country is one of the major stained-glass commissions of the century. It’s comparable to Henri Matisse’s chapel in Vence, France, and Marc Chagall’s windows at the Hadassah-Hebrew Medical Center chapel in Jerusalem.
“Rowan has created a magical place here, especially this time of year when there’s so much horizontal light,” says Don Myer, cathedral clerk of the works. “It will be thrilling to have the last major nave window in place and see what the nave looks like with this complete ensemble in place.”
As for the artist, “he’s a cultural institution.”
Richard Feller, former cathedral clerk of the works, has compared Mr. LeCompte’s work to the windows at Chartres Cathedral in France — regarded as some of the world’s finest stained glass. When the art came into its own in the Middle Ages, stained glass was the most expensive decoration available. All the materials — glass, lead and iron — were high priced.
As a teen-ager, Mr. LeCompte did not consider stained glass for his life’s work until the fateful day he saw the cathedral. Thus inspired, the young Rowan began to read books about the art and study church windows. He knew almost every church window in Baltimore, where he lived, and studied the European ones through books found at the Enoch Pratt Library. Two years later, the cathedral architect, Philip Frohman, gave him a commission: two small windows in St. Dunstan’s Chapel, a tiny space beneath the south transcept stairs. He was 16.
“If the windows were found to be unsatisfactory, it was agreed I’d remove them at no cost to the cathedral,” he says. When Rowan brought in his designs, Mr. Frohman asked him how old he was. The boy told him.
“Good God,” the architect replied. “I thought you were older.”
By the age of 18, he had made several more windows for churches in Hartford, Conn., and Baltimore. He then was sent off to fight World War II in Normandy and helped liberate Paris in late August 1944. After the war, he studied art in New York and Washington, married architect Irene Matz in 1950 and worked with her at restoring and designing stained-glass windows.
But the cathedral did not award him another commission until 1952.
“They suspected I had been infected with a love of modern art and they wanted nothing to do with that,” he says. Eventually, more commissions followed, including the six large mosaics in Resurrection Chapel, until he was offered the rose window in December 1972.
“I had a lot of confidence in him,” says the Very Rev. Francis B. Sayre Jr., who was dean of the cathedral during the early 1970s. “I went to Europe to interview all the people who might be considered for the job, but I came back to LeCompte. His designs, his technique were so good.”
The 26-foot-wide rose window was considered a masterpiece by many when it was dedicated Easter Day 1976.
“I had very much wanted to do it for many years,” Mr. LeCompte says, “but many people believed the cathedral would never open at the west end. But dean Sayre borrowed the necessary money and got it done.”
The first thing worshippers saw that day was an explosion of orange, red, gold and blue nuggets of chipped glass. With the Creation of the world as its theme, the 10-petal abstract window had a single piece of brilliant white glass at its core. It was inspired by the verse from Genesis 1: “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep … And God said, ‘Let there be light; and there was light.’”
Jim Whitney, president of the Stained Glass Association of America, calls Mr. LeCompte “definitely one of the great masters.”
“There is no other art like it,” Mr. Whitney says of stained glass. “It transmutes light, creating an effect on interior space like no other art can. Stained glass works directly with transmitted light, light that passes through the glass. All other art works with reflected light, light that bounces off a surface.”
The best artists make this light glow and sparkle with color. Traditionally, neo-Gothic glass is covered with a wash of black paint, muting the color. Mr. LeCompte disregarded that custom.
The idea behind his clerestory windows, which took 14 more years to complete, was a progression of light away from the west rose window. Windows deepened in color as they approached the crossing, which symbolized the gap between Old and New Testaments.
The story line traces God’s covenant with the Jews. On the south side, the windows include a range of Old Testament figures: Ruth, Isaiah, Boaz, Job, Jeremiah, Naomi, Sarah and Abraham the patriarch holding a knife with which he was to kill his son, Isaac. The seventh window from the west front speaks out against the commercialization of religion and includes tiny intercontinental ballistic missiles etched in the glass. These are Mr. LeCompte’s protest against world’s devotion to military power.
“We like social commentary, and we do it whenever we can,” he says drily.
The north windows include the patriarch Noah, the Israelite warrior-king Joshua and female Jewish leaders Judith, Esther, Miriam and Deborah. Solomon, Ezra and the pillar of fire that led the Israelites out of Egypt also appear.
Despite having completed such a large body of work, Mr. LeCompte, who now lives in Wilmington, N.C., plans to continue working. He is designing a rose window for a boys and girls home in Lake Waccamaw, N.C.
“He’s been a major force in the adaptation of modern modes of expression in traditional stained glass,” says Virginia Raguin, a historian of stained glass teaching at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. “He treads a line between abstract formal qualities dominant in modernist art and traditional figurative imagery.”
His windows are known for their clear, bright, jewel-toned colors, she says, because he uses larger expanses of glass than do some artists and he does not allow the lead lacing between the glass to overwhelm the main picture.
As for Mr. Goldkuhle, who does the cutting, firing and leading for each window, this last creation will be his last stand at the cathedral as well.
“For me,” he says, “this was a dream come true.”