The Grail Code 
Tiffany & Co.

A few days ago I went to the big Tiffany show at the Carnegie Museum of Art, and my head is still full of dragonflies and wisteria.

Louis Comfort Tiffany was an artist to whom no medium was foreign. If you were rich, and a lot of people were in those days, you could have your whole life designed by Tiffany: Tiffany interiors to live in, Tiffany furniture to sit on, Tiffany lamps to read Tiffany books by, Tiffany jewels to wear while you read, and of course Tiffany windows with ideal landscapes in glass to compensate for the aesthetic deficiencies of the real world outside.

Like William Morris, whose name comes up in The Grail Code, Tiffany aimed at nothing less than recreating the whole world on aesthetically sound principles. Tiffany’s studios made everything from fireplace screens to wallpaper. (When I saw Tiffany’s wallpaper designs, I imagined Tiffany receiving a visit from William Morris’ thugs, who would tell him that Mr. Morris was working this side of the street and he should lay off the wallpaper if he knew what was good for him.)

But in spite of the superficial similarities, there are deep differences between Morris and Tiffany. We can see those differences right away in the way they approached the art of stained glass.

William Morris aimed at reviving the lost craftsmanship of the Middle Ages. He developed his own distinctive style, but always based on the best medieval models.

Tiffany, on the other hand, was proud of making a deliberate break with the past. He declared that he had invented something new. Where the old craftsmen had practiced “painting on glass,” Tiffany was “painting with glass.” He developed an amazing array of glassmaking tricks to give him different visual effects, and he layered different textures to create mesmerizing effects of movement that hardly seem possible in a stationary work of art.

Where Morris studied the great art of the past, Tiffany devoted himself to nature. He was an expert photographer (at a time when handling a camera at all was a considerable accomplishment), and he used his skills to make detailed studies of insects, leaves, flowers, and other natural objects that could be turned into ornaments.

The Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s entomology department has provided a case with dozens of dragonfly specimens, and by comparing them to Tiffany’s famous lamps we can see that he observed the tiniest details. Every segment of the tail, every vein in the wings is accurately translated into glass.

It seems that Tiffany had little interest in allegory, which makes him an odd character to be popping up in a site dedicated to the Holy Grail.

Of course, Tiffany was no stranger to religious art. His church windows are some of his most famous works, certainly some of the greatest works of art in glass ever executed. When you’re in Pittsburgh, you must pay a visit to Calvary Methodist Church in Allegheny West, where some of the best windows ever to come out of Tiffany Studios have been lovingly cleaned and restored over the past few years. These spectacular windows certainly show real religious feeling, and it would not be too much to call them some of the most inspiring art glass in the world.

But they’re representational rather than allegorical. As in everything Tiffany & Co. made, nature was the tutor. These religious scenes capture us so completely because they look so real. With the light pouring through them, they look almost more real than the world we live in.

Creation is good: that’s the message that comes through in every one of Tiffany’s works. It’s certainly a message we need to hear today. Neo-Gnosticism is the dominant wackiness of the moment, and one of the characteristics of Gnosticism is that it rejects creation. In most forms of Gnostic doctrine, creation is the work of an inferior “demiurge” who was either actively evil or a hopeless bungler. Jesus Christ was sent into the world to show us how to escape from the prison of creation.

It’s hard to express how pernicious this Gnostic idea is. Taken to its logical extreme, it deprives us of all joy in this life. Death is the only good thing about life.

Gnosticism was one of the heresies that resurfaced during the high Middle Ages, the time of the Arthurian romances, and there are people who find Gnostic doctrines in those romances, as we explained in The Grail Code.

In fact, most of the Arthurian romances are not only orthodox, but carefully and deliberately orthodox. The best of them seem to be well-worked-out orthodox responses to heresy.

Every ordinary medieval romance begins in the spring, when the sun is shining and the flowers are blooming and the birds are singing and all’s right with the world.

But some of the Arthurian romances deliberately turn that cliché on its head. They begin in a bleak wasteland: the land is blasted, barren, and cold. Sin has brought a curse on the whole country.

This is orthodox Christian theology. The blooming flowers and twittering birds are God’s blessings. Creation was made to be good; our sin is what makes creation go wrong.

Which brings us back to Louis Comfort Tiffany and his delight in the natural world. By showing us the beauty in things we don’t normally class as beautiful—dragonflies, for instance, or spiders in their webs—he brings us the good and very necessary Christian message that the earth is the Lord’s.

Tiffany is in the front lines in the fight against Gnosticism.

The best arguments for orthodox Christianity don’t come from theologians. The best arguments are the dragonflies. Creation is beautiful because it is the work of the God of all goodness.

Louis Comfort Tiffany: Artist for the Ages continues through January 15 in the Heinz Galleries of the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. There’s also a smaller exhibit of Tiffany’s desk sets in the Treasure Room.

14 Responses to “Tiffany & Co.”

  1. Sophia Sadek Says:

    Thanks for the posting.

    I couldn’t help but be amused by your remark, “It’s hard to express how pernicious this Gnostic idea is. Taken to its logical extreme, it deprives us of all joy in this life. Death is the only good thing about life.”

    There is far more joy in gnostic practice than there is in orthodoxy. But then, gnostics don’t take things to their logical extreme. In the gnostic paradigm, the Earth is a celestial sphere. Beatitude is a part of human nature. It’s the hellishness of orthodoxy that drains the joy out of existence. It is an orthodox philosophy that says we must suffer during life so that we are worthy of heaven only after death.

  2. AJM Says:

    Are you talking about the same gnostics I read in the ancient texts? They’re pretty clear on the necessity of escaping the earth and its oppressive archons. And they certainly do NOT believe that “beatitude is part of human nature.” Some humans have it, maybe, but they’re a minority, an elite; human nature in general is treated pretty bleakly in the gnostic texts. I’ve read the Nag Hammadi library cover to cover at least three times, and I have to agree with the original blog posting. There’s no joy in that Mudville.

    Orthodox Christianity, on the other hand, agrees with you, Sophia, that human nature is fitted for beatitude, and that heaven has come to earth because of the incarnation. You’re invoking nonexistent gnostics to reach a real orthodox conclusion.

  3. Sophia Sadek Says:

    The majority of human beings are oppressed under a despotic regime that prevents them from realizing their full humanity. The “material” or hylic mind is one that is cultivated to be such. It is not fully human. It is a manifestation of deliberately stunted development.

    It takes much more than the Nag Hammadi Library to understand the gnostic tradition. You could read those books until the cows come home without understanding the depth of meaning that they contain.

    The orthodox deny that the Earth is a celestial sphere. Under orthodoxy, the Earth is not in Heaven, but below it. It is a mere footstool for the material Creator. Until relatively recently, the orthodox Earth was flat and immobile. Orthodox doctrine still reflects that paradigm.

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