A new book, to be published in early December, reveals the fascinating stories behind an extraordinary set of stained-glass windows. A Slant of Light: The Stained-Glass Windows of Grace Church, by Ken Samonds, is the result of years of digging in the archives of the Episcopal church on the Amherst Town Common. Samonds, a retired professor from the University of Massachusetts and self-appointed church historian, became curious about several payments listed in the account book of the then-new church’s Building Committee, made to William Gibson for “glass.” He learned that Gibson, a native of Edinburgh, Scotland, immigrated to the U.S. in 1833 and was the first to bring the technology of making stained glass to this country, opening a workshop in New York City that year. The firm created windows for numerous churches in the ensuing decades, and also for theaters, hotels, shops, and mansions in New York City and elsewhere. Grace Church installed more than 20 Gibson windows in 1865, most of which remain in place today.
Fashions change, however, and the stained-glass world is no exception. When Louis Comfort Tiffany and John La Farge introduced layered iridescent stained-glass windows in the 1880s, many churches “updated” their windows to this new style; the fate of their earlier Gibson windows is in most cases unknown. Today, there appear to be only three other surviving Gibson windows in the U.S. Grace Church is, therefore, the best place to see the work of this pioneer of the American stained-glass tradition.
Samonds’s book explains the chemistry and technology behind these windows, the European traditions on which they rely, and the special techniques that are hallmarks of Gibson’s work. He also unpacks the theological ideas Grace’s windows embody. He delves into the lives of the local residents commemorated in six of the windows—an older theologian, a young man lost in his prime, a woman surviving serious illness, a friend of Emily Dickinson, a mother of three with roots in Springfield, two very young children—and the messages and symbols carefully chosen to accompany their memorials.
Grace Church also has an important circular window in its west façade, facing the Common. Made by the leading London firm Clayton and Bell, it depicts the Archangel Michael spearing a dragon. An additional memorial window was created in the 1920s in an entirely different style, more akin to those in European cathedrals like Chartres and Canterbury. Samonds leads readers through the contrasting techniques and materials it employs.
The book, published by Combray House, will be available at Amherst Books and Broadside Books (Northampton) in December. It contains 75 illustrations, mostly in color, including close-up details taken by photographers Nancy Lowry, Doug Moore, and Samonds himself.