This is the fifth in a series of posts on largely unknown spaces in Boston that are open to the public.
I was returning to my car one day after giving a Back Bay tour for Boston By Foot when I saw a sign on the Newbury Street sidewalk. It said, “Come in and see our Tiffany sanctuary.” Well, that was too good an offer to ignore so I walked into the Church of the Covenant and discovered a spectacular interior that had been completely redecorated by Tiffany Glass & Decorating Company from 1894-1896.
In all the many, many times I have walked past this church, I never imagined that its sanctuary was bejeweled by the colored light falling through enormous Tiffany glass windows.
The Church of the Covenant
To step back in time, the Church of the Covenant is a National Historic Landmark that was designed by New York architect Richard M. Upjohn. It was built from 1865 to 1867 by the Central Congregational Church using funds donated by Benjamin E. Bates, the industrialist who also founded Bates College in Maine. It’s built of Roxbury Conglomerate, or puddingstone, a type of rock that was used in multiple Back Bay structures, particularly churches. Designed in the Gothic Revival style, the church displays pointed arches, flying buttresses, a three-part door at the main entrance and a tall spire rising from a bell tower.
As with all nineteenth-century Back Bay buildings it rests on wooden pilings—1,100 of them—all between 30 and 40 feet long. Its 236-foot spire rises higher than the Bunker Hill Monument and it made the Church of the Covenant the tallest structure in Boston for 48 years until the Custom House raised its clock tower in 1915.
The Tiffany Interior
Few of the original decorative elements from Mr. Upjohn’s design remain in the sanctuary now. In 1884 Edward Lord Clark, a Mayflower descendant, persuaded the membership to redecorate completely using the Tiffany Company for their dedication to a total visual effect. The result is an amazing display of Tiffany’s artistic vision and skills. The colors red, green, and blue tie together the color scheme, which incorporates Islamic motifs with light and images of nature.
The Tiffany design includes:
- Complex paint schemes on the walls and ceiling
- 42 large stained-glass windows
- A huge art-glass lantern
- Glass mosaics
- A bronze chancel rail
- A pulpit and an eagle lectern
- A baptismal font
- A choir stall
- Organ screens
- Decorative wainscoting
Self-Guided Tour of the Tiffany Sanctuary
The Church of the Covenant provides a self-guided tour pamphlet of the Tiffany sanctuary for visitors so we can note and appreciate all the many elements of the redecoration. We start half way down the center aisle with the electric-light chandelier, which was displayed in the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building at 1893’s Chicago Columbian Exposition and is unmatched in any American church.
This spectacular lantern was designed by Jacob A. Holtzer and is made of art glass with bronze filigree and dangling glass balls. The lantern measure six feet by 12 feet and incorporates seven sculpted female angels that represent the Seven Angels of the Seven Churches in John’s Revelation. They hold lights in both hands.
You move on to 22 ornamental windows in the clerestory above eye level and the 20 complex figure windows throughout the sanctuary that tell stories of Christian faith. These windows “represent the full scope of Tiffany’s glass art as an integral part of a complete Tiffany church interior.”
They were designed by three of Tiffany’s top designers and include at least nine types of specialty glass set in up to five layers. All contain opalescent glass to allow for a “painterly” effect. along with other Tiffany signature devices such as the drapery glass, which is rippled and layered, rich in both texture and color.
The “Break” In
One of these artistic marvels, the window of the Disciple Dorcas, was shattered on its bottom third in 2012 when a burglar broke into the church to steal computers from the office. The breakage of this particular window was ironic because the Church of the Covenant, aligned with the Presbyterian Church and the United Church of Christ, is dedicated to social justice.
The Disciple Dorcas, who was devoted to poor women and sewed garments for them, is rarely represented in church art. The $65,000 price tag for fixing the window was a blow to the congregation. Publicity about the literal break-in had the result of generating more than half a million dollars in contributions, however, making it possible to restore the window along with other things that needed work.
The restoration work was not easy, however, because the drapery glass was no longer available and could not be matched from the New York archive that has preserved unused sheets of Tiffany Glass. The story of how Roberto Rosa and his Serpentino Stained and Leaded Glass studio went the extra distance to ensure as perfect a result as possible was detailed by Erik Moskowitz in his Boston Globe article: Church Restores Tiffany Window Damaged in Break-In.
Truly a Hidden Gem
Museums count themselves fortunate to have one or two Tiffany windows in their collections and visitors stop to marvel at their gorgeous colors and marvelous artistry. The Church of the Covenant has 42 of them, making it truly one of Boston’s hidden gems.
The next time you’re in the city, make a point of stopping by the church and taking your personal tour. Say hello to Dorcas. Don’t forget to leave a contribution in the box for their multi-year master plan to preserve and restore the stained glass, masonry, sanctuary flooring and lighting. We want this string of jewels to remain for future generations to enjoy.
More Information About the Church of the Covenant
Admission to the Church of the Covenant is free but keep in mind that weddings, funerals and Sunday services may be going on so it’s wise to call ahead and make sure it’s a good time to visit..
67 Newbury Street at
Boston, MA 02116
Web site: www.churchofthecovenant.org