And Then There Was Light

Five Generations of Stained-glass Makers

The absurd is the object of faith and the only object that can be believed.
—Kierkegaard

The art of stained-glass painting has been practiced by my family for five generations. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the neogothic style introduced by the French architect Violet le Duc became the accepted one for church building and decoration. St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York is one example.

At that time, my great-grandfather, François Nicolas, was the first family member to establish a stained-glass studio in the Catholic south of Holland, and he became well known for his idealized figures of saints, in a somewhat pre-Raphaelite style. His son continued the business and briefly visited the United States, where several commissions were executed by the Nicolas firm. When my father, Joep Nicolas (1897–1972), came along, he was thoroughly bored by the static, conventional work of his predecessors and won first prize with a daringly modern window at the 1925 Art Deco exhibition in Paris. From then on he became a rather revolutionary figure in the art of stained glass. He tried some early abstraction, but found that his true vocation was storytelling: illustrating the Bible and the lives of the saints.

My father’s work was the focus of our lives, both in Holland before the Second World War and later in New York. Every afternoon he took a nap. It was his finest hour. “It’s when I have my best visions,” he explained to friends. When my sister and I were children in Holland, he had a double door made to his bedroom so that we would not wake him. But we were young and played hopscotch and skipped rope, singing local songs in the garden below his window. Then he would erupt, looking like an irate scarecrow in his undershirt, his hair standing on end.

“I told you to keep quiet. You ruined my nap. I don’t count in this house.” And he’d retreat, slamming both doors, then reemerge properly dressed in his striped turtleneck sweater and wearing a little skullcap, rather like a Jewish yarmulke, and go off to his studio across the garden. The cap was to keep him from going bald from the powdered paint he used for staining his windows. His pate eventually grew bare anyway, so that his curly black hair stood out only on the sides of his head, spreading like the rays from Moses’s forehead, as we had seen him paint them repeatedly.

Father deserved his nap. Rising before any of us, he sometimes worked until three in the morning, standing in front of his huge drawing board on a rolling ladder. His brush flew over the paper, drawing the intricate Catholic iconography with sepia ink. “Ecclesiastical funny papers,” he called it.

The studio in the garden had once been a chapel. Its large gothic windows were his light easel. The glass was cut there, heated in ovens, and leaded. It had been his father’s and grandfather’s studio. But his were not the elegant saints and angels his ancestors had painted. Father’s figures grimaced and gesticulated, like the people in the street of this town in southern Holland, this region of atavistic Burgundian humor and festivities, excessive carnivals and Catholic theocracy. Color was one of the strongest elements in his windows, dictated not so much by realism as by what he called the music, the rhythmic quality of the general effect, so that faces could be green, a profile bright red, while the lead grid provided an asymmetrical counterpoint.

Everything in our household was steeped in religious tradition: the food we ate, the legends we were told, the songs the maid sang to us. Everything seemed to have another, added meaning, an imaginary one.

On the night of the Three Kings
A ship sailed into the harbor
In which Mary Magdalen sat
They played the triangular organ
They poured Mary the wine
They pulled the nails from Christ’s hands
And sang Mary the song
Your sins shall be forgiven
No matter how much you did wrong.

The harbor is specific, Antwerp probably. I can see it. My grandmother taught me the song. That strange shipload has become part of me, but I would not claim it to be history.

We live in an increasingly mobile, restless world. Almost every one of us is an immigrant of sorts. And yet, no matter how distant the homeland has become, I still cling to a memory of origin, of a local mentality that has printed its character on me. My father’s homeland, which was also mine in my childhood, remains with me, as does the source of his creative imagination, which he realized was provincial, idiosyncratic. When courting my mother, who was already well traveled and spoke several languages, he wrote to her, “It’s up to you whether you will be satisfied with a man who lives for imaginary things.” She had complained that his paintings were all on religious subjects. He answered her, “For the moment, I am not yet detached from the symbols which fed my imagination, obsessing my whole youth.” How common this is: Marc Chagall, all his life painting pictures of a dreamlike shtetl life; André Aciman writing constantly about leaving Egypt; Igor Stravinsky weaving Russian folk songs into much of his music.

If imagination is the creative power that perceives the basic resemblances between things, then all sources, no matter how exotic, resonate in me as well. Imagination is fed by metaphor. Religion and the Scriptures, if perceived as such, are not a fundamentalist prison but an open field for visionary inspiration.

And so we return to my father’s naps. “I have always considered myself lucky to have come from a region that produced Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel, and Jan Van Eyck,” he used to say. Indeed, a more extravagant imagination than Bosch’s is hard to find. Hell and the devil, of course, are a rich source for the grotesque, whereas heaven is open to the most divine idealizations. “Life,” said Father, “is an odd house. In the basement lives the erotic. On the ground floor resides the tragic. On the second floor lives the grotesque, and in the attic the mystical.”

When he came to New York during World War II, Father became uprooted, joining an international crowd of refugee artists, many of them surrealists: Salvador Dalí, Pavel Tchelitchev, Max Ernst. That the subconscious is a fertile field for the imagination is obvious, and it served him well. The horrors of war now became an obsessive subject. He covered the walls of our apartment with grimacing soldiers in rags whose bestial feet trampled naked women. The eagle of Poland flying across the dining room croaked quid quid quid est veritas? The titles of his paintings were often suggestively literary, such as Nostalgia for Chaos, Flight, and The End of Illusions.

He did well in this country. A headline in the New York Telegram announced, “War Brings the World’s First Stained Glass Painter to America.” Father’s windows for the Presbyterian church in Fairmount, Ohio, were reproduced in color in Life magazine. He was commissioned to produce what he called square miles of stained glass by the Rambusch firm in New York: large windows in Mooseheart, Illinois, and for the Trappist monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts. But he came to regard his religious work as largely commercial, as if, severed from his roots, it no longer seemed valid. The local priest preached about football games, the hymns were sentimental. Then, in the 1950s, he returned to his homeland, where he had the most rewarding commissions of his lifetime, in both Catholic and Protestant churches. Religion was not a dull convention for him, a retelling of tales told a thousand times. For him, every time the Scripture was read it was as if for the first time. “Religion is a reality and no false nostalgia.... Fake primitivism has nothing to do with actual emotions,” he wrote.

One of the last works he undertook was a series of eight large windows on the Apocalypse. He considered this the greatest challenge of his career. Every night he went to bed with the Book of Revelation and was haunted by visions in his dreams. He was aware of other masterpieces he had to contend with: the French tapestries of Angers, Albrecht Dürer’s woodcuts. In the end, his rendition of the most far-out visionary text, traditionally thought to have been written on the island of Patmos by St. John, perhaps high on drugs or driven mad by the starkness of the desert, became my father’s greatest imaginary masterpiece.

But when faced by a young Catholic convert who pounded on the table with his fists, insisting that there must be “an absolute truth,” my father’s face twitched with discomfort. “The truth,” he said, “is like a beautiful bird with bright colored feathers that flies into one window of the room, crosses it, and by the time it reaches the opposite window, it stinks.”

When Pilate asks, “What is truth?” Jesus does not answer. Is it God making the world in six days? Why not read it as a metaphor? Have American fundamentalists lost the art of reading the Bible as poetry, insisting on some literal reality that makes no sense? It is a book rich with images that every artist interprets according to his own imagination, a faculty over which no absolutism applies.

My sister, Sylvia Nicolas, described in the November 2005 U.S. Catholic as one of the leading ecclesiastical artists in the United States, has been extremely active in our father’s field in this country. She recently executed all the windows in the Sts. Philip and James Church in St. James, New York, and for new churches at Providence College, in Rhode Island, and on the Queens campus of St. John’s University in New York. Now her son Diego has established a studio in Holland and has just completed a large window in the cathedral of Roermond, our father’s hometown. For five generations, our family has practiced the art of storytelling, of reimagining the events told in the Bible, making them once more come to life.

Published in the 2006-12-15 issue: 

Claire Nicolas White, poet, novelist, and biographer, is the editor of Oberon, a poetry magazine.

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