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.

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...

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About the Author

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