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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in
The Lotus Magazine
Vol. 2 No. 7 (July 1911), pp199‑209

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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 p199  The Willet Chancel Window
in the West Point Chapel​a

By Gustav Kobbé​b

The fact that R. A. Cram has been appointed supervising architect of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City and that he is the leading American authority on ecclesiastical architecture and ecclesiastical art in general, gives additional weight to an opinion from him on these subjects. Two years ago Mr. Cram was called in by the Vestry of Calvary Church, Pittsburg, to examine and critically pass upon the stained glass windows in the new building of the church.

For two windows designed and executed by William Willet and Annie Lee Willet (the Willet Stained Glass and Decorating Company, of Pittsburg, Pa.) he had the highest praise. Speaking of the chancel window he characterized it as "unquestionably one of the most notable examples of the revival of the fundamental principles of the art of stained glass, as  p200 they were understood in France at the highest point in the development of medieval art" and as "a conspicuous example of an extremely high type of art."

Since then Mr. and Mrs. Willet have designed, executed and put in place the large chancel window in the new chapel on the grounds of the United States Military Academy, at West Point. Of this window it may be said that it has created a sensation among all who appreciate the true qualities of work in stained glass; — not because it is "sensational" in the popular meaning of that term, but because it is so noble and impressive. Any one, who like myself has made the trip to West Point for the especial purpose of seeing this window and who like myself has been profoundly moved by it, will endorse the opinion pronounced upon it by the architect of the chapel, Bertram Goodhue, who was entirely free to criticize it because he was in no way concerned with its selection.

On seeing the design, Mr. Goodhue wrote as follows to Col. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Charles W. Larned, one of the committee in charge of the window: — "I think that there is no doubt but that you will have, if the actual work is carried out as well  p201 as the design has been made, the most wonderful window of modern times and one of finest in the world."

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The window is a gift to the chapel from the Association of Graduates of West Point, a memorial from the "living graduates to their honored predecessors." The committee in charge consisted of Col. Charles W. Larned, Col. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.William B. Gordon and Col. J. M. Carson, Jr., and every thing in connection with the selection of the successful design was done with a military thoroughness and fairness which barred all suggestion of favoritism. Eight of the leading American workers in stained glass were asked to submit competitive designs and these were submitted to an advisory committee consisting of C. Howard Walker, Boston; Charles C. Haight, New York; Frank Miles Day and Milton B. Medary, Philadelphia. Two designs, that of the Willet Stained Glass and Decorating Company and that of the Tiffany Studios, were selected for further study; and these were again put into a second competition in which nine other firms, including this time several prominent  p202 foreign workers in stained glass, took part. This second competition resulted in the final selection of the design submitted by the Willet Stained Glass and Decorating Company.

So strictly, in this instance, were the ethics that always should govern art competitions adhered to, and of such high standing were the competing firms, that the competition was regarded as the most notable of its kind ever held in this country. In fact, it excited so much interest in the art world that the Boston Museum of Fine Arts applied for permission to exhibit the designs and these were sent to Boston and placed on exhibition there for about a fortnight.

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In designing a memorial window for a military chapel and especially one for West Point, which has given so many heroes to the nation, the natural, one might say the "stock," impulse would be to choose a large heroic subject and express it in stained glass; and such a window might easily have been made to create a "sensation." Among the finest attributes of the window now in place are its avoidance of the obvious; its nobility of theme and purpose; and its  p203 dignity and beauty of execution. As I have already indicated, it has created a sensation but in the best meaning of that much abused term. In a profoundly religious manner it interprets the genius of West Point, the scriptural authority for the soldier, the Biblical justification for the profession of arms. It symbolizes the soldier's devotion to "Duty," "Honor," and "Country;" the part he played in sacred history; and that victory over self which is a prerequisite of the obedience exacted of him and which he must exact of others.​c

Duty, Honor, and Country are symbolized by certain of the heroic figures of Bible history — "Honor" by Moses, his hands upheld by Aaron and Hur, during the great victory of the Israelites over the Amelekites; "Duty" by Eleazer, Shemmah and Abishai, David's three mighty men who contributed to the world one of the greatest examples of duty in all history; "Country" by that high type of patriotism, Jephthah. The militant saints typify the Christian soldier. But the central feature of the entire composition, the Crucifixion, at the moment Christ calls out triumphantly, "Consummatum Est," symbolizes the victory over sin and  p204 self. Thus while the window as a whole may be said to represent the Church Militant, this being further emphasized by the picture of the risen and triumphant Lord surrounded by the jubilating angelic host, above the Crucifixion, it is the Crucifixion itself that remains the central point of interest and the one to which the eye always returns.

One of the finest features of the window is evolution of this central point of interest from a design that contains no less than 125 figures, each carried out with the greatest care and finish. Every one of these numerous details is interesting in itself, yet because the many figures are parts of a thoroughly thought out composition, they are not in the least confusing, and the eye, readily grasping the significance of the design as a whole, travels from lancet to lancet, always, however, finding its way back to that on which the symbolism of the window as a whole pivots. The fact is that while most stained glass windows are braced by lead and iron, the supports of the chancel window in the West Point chapel, are religious conviction and artistic feeling. With their design Mr. and Mrs. Willet filed an analysis of their  p205 theme of which Col. Larned wrote that it was "as fine as an ethical thesis as the design is as an inspiration." This design was carried out as accepted, the Willets declining to receive suggestions for possible modifications from any one; and in this their success has justified them.

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It would be an ungrateful task to write a detailed description of a work of art in which there is so much detail as this window. It would be confusing, which the window is not. I have already sought to summarize briefly the Christian philosophy which forms the basis of this remarkable composition in stained glass. And now it seems as if some idea should be given of how the result was secured.

Horizontally the window is divided into three tiers, each having nine lancets or panels; so that there were twenty-seven principal lancets to be filled. Above these, however, are smaller lancets, openings and quaterfoils, bringing the number of spaces up to over forty. Vertically the division is into a central section of three tiers of five lancets each, and two lateral sections of three tiers of two lancets each.  p206 This gives, as we have already noted, a row of nine lancets to each tier — five in the central section, with two in each of the lateral sections.

Speaking now, in general terms, the lateral sections of the window are devoted to the militant saints and martyrs of the church. One of the panels, for example, shows St. Peter baptizing Cornelius, the Centurion. The appropriateness of this in a West Point window hardly need be commented on, as the event marked this centurion as the beginning of the Gentile church. In the predella, or lower section, to one of the lateral lancets is given one of the most effective details of the design. It is entitled, "The Son of God Goes Forth to War," and is a symbolic medallion of Christ on a white horse, his weapon the Word of God, "giving us that strength necessary to win the daily battles over spiritual and moral enemies." These narrow lateral sections devoted to saints and martyrs may be said to form side borders to the weightier matter of the great middle section.

In this the lowest tier of five lancets, with their predellas, is devoted to "Duty," "Honor" and "Country;" and the highest tier to the Savior, risen in glory and surrounded by the  p207 angelic host. In the five predellas of this highest tier are the martyrs of Sebaste. These were soldiers of the twelfth legion of the Roman army who in the fourth century because of their profession of Christianity, became victims to the wrath of the Emperor Licinius. Forty in number, they were put to the torture. One of them recanted, but forty crowns were awaiting the martyrs, and one of the soldiers of the guard moved by the spirit of Christian heroism displayed by his thirty-nine comrades, tore off his armor, took the place of the soldier who had recanted, joined the band of martyrs and thus secured the remaining crown. Valuable as a decorative asset, the subject is most appropriate to the theme of the window and may be said to symbolize those brave sons of America whose bodies lie in unknown and unmarked graves, but who, through duty nobly done, have secured "a crown of life."

And yet, as I have indicated, it is toward the section between these two tiers and to the central panel of that section, the Crucifixion, which is, at the same time the central feature in the design of the window, that the eye always travels and there rests. This result has  p208 been achieved by a device as simple as it is effective. In the lowest tier the predellas are of equal height. The same practically is the case with the predellas of the main section in the highest tier. But in the central tier the lancets on either side of the Crucifixion are each divided into panels of equal height; whereas the lancet of the Crucifixion has a low predella, so that, above it, the figure of Christ rises high and sheer, striking the eye and readily dominating the entire design, which in fact, appears to radiate from it.

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To this effect the color scheme of the window lends itself admirably. There are details where for the purpose of securing subtle results, only a portion of a piece of glass will have been used in its original color, the coating of the rest having been eaten out with acid and this portion then stained to harmonize with the effect desired — a laborious, expensive but strikingly potential process. Chartres blues, so‑called from the blue in the Chartres cathedral where there still are windows preserved from 1240, when the main portion of the structure  p209 was finished, are employed with splendid results, just where the eye needs to be arrested and tranquilly guided along a pathway of deep and beautiful color to the central feature of the window.

In the official correspondence, part of which has been shown me, the makers of this window write: —

"We have thought out and elaborated the design with no thought of anything or anybody but God Almighty, the Country and what we think this particular window ought to be, and we shall complete the work in the same spirit."

Brave words these; but justified by the result.

Thayer's Notes:

a In 1953 the Cadet Chapel Board published an official booklet, The Cadet Chapel, in which pp48‑52 of the chapter titled "The Stained Glass Windows" provide somewhat more detailed treatment of the chancel window contemporaneously reviewed here.

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b Gustav Kobbé (1857‑1919) was a well-known critic not of art or architecture, but of music. This piece may be explained in part by his military connection: his brother William August Kobbé was an equally well-known general who had come under the public eye for his high profile in the Philippine campaign a few years before the publication of this article (Ganoe, The History of the United States Army, p406 f.).

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c "For how can men who stand upon the verge of battle banish all the crowding fears of hardship, pain and death from their minds, unless those fears be replaced by the sense of the duty that they owe their country, by courage and the lively image of a soldier's honour? And assuredly the man who will best inspire such feelings in others is he who has first inspired them in himself."

Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, XII.I.28

(A suggestion for Bugle Notes: the quote isn't in there, but should be.)

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Page updated: 17 Mar 16