By John P. Walsh
St. Michael Church in Old Town on Chicago’s north side is one of the oldest parishes and church buildings in the city. Founded in 1852, its brick walls from 1869 withstood the flames of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, yet those flames left it a charred, empty shell. Feeding on clapboard houses that surrounded the historically-German parish, the bell tower collapsed in intense flame as the Fire continued its northward march until petering out for good about one mile away (the Great Fire had started about three miles to the south on the other side of the Chicago River).
In 1869 the church building had cost over $130,000 to build (approximately $2.25 million in today’s dollars) and in 1872 after the fire its repairs cost $40,000, not including unknown insurance money amounts, or about $700,000 today. Reconstruction did not include these beautiful stained glass windows photographed by the author in 2015 – and that are gloriously preserved for the visitor to see in the sanctuary today – because they were not created and installed until thirty years later.
In preparation for St. Michael’s Golden Jubilee in 1902 these tall and thin Bavarian-made stained glass windows -the fourth set of windows to be installed into architect August Walbaum’s original design for the building (the others, merely frosted or tinted, in 1866, 1873 and 1878) – drew on centuries of craft and technique in stained glass-making. For the Golden Jubilee in 1902 Franz Mayer & Company of Munich produced some of the finest stained glass of the early twentieth century to depict colorful New Testament scenes for the east and west walls of the sanctuary. Along with five new altars crafted and installed by Hackner & Sons of LaCrosse, Wisconsin, for the same Golden Jubilee, the realism and expressiveness of Mayer’s windows – recently experiencing a complete cleaning in 2013 – gave to the prospering parish a new sense of wonder and great joy in their sacramental worship and lives that can still be seen and experienced in its intact form today.
Mayer’s west windows depict the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary: the (non-biblical) Presentation of Mary and (biblical) Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity and Epiphany, and Assumption. The east windows depict events in the life of Jesus: Finding Jesus in the Temple, Jesus Blesses the Children, Jesus’s feet washed by Mary Magdalene, Ascension and (non-biblical) Sacred Heart. All of these faith events are accompanied by Mayer’s fine depictions of a cacophony of angels manifesting the heavenly host (the special subject of this blog entry’s 11 photographs). The windows’ rich color tones are rendered by using precious metals: gold dust for red; cobalt for blue; uranium for green. The story scenes are given a Renaissance Europe setting. Mayer & Company, founded in 1847 as “The Institute for Christian Art,” established a stained glass department in 1860. In 1882 it was awarded by “mad” King Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845-1886) the designation as a Royal Bavarian Establishment for Ecclesiastical Art. The Pope later pronounced the foundry a Pontifical Institute for Christian Art. Instead of thinking of St. Michael commissioning a venerable Old European arts company that is Mayer’s status today, in 1902 Franz Mayer was a German company that mirrored the Chicago parish in its contemporaneity.
The founder’s son Franz Borgias Mayer (1848 – 1926) continued to grow the royal manufacturing company for Christian Art so that ten years after St. Michael’s stained glass windows, Pope Pius X (1835-1914) commissioned the German company to make stained glass for St. Peter’s Basilica as well as for several windows in important chapels in Vatican City. Throughout the United States, Mayer grew in clients and prestige serving an increasingly prosperous Catholic immigrant community. This involved significant ecclesiastical work in Chicago, Illinois, and also New York, Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, Washington State and California. In 2016 Franz Mayer continues as family-owned and operated business (see http://www.mayer-of-munich.com/werkstaette/).
valuation comparables – http://www.in2013dollars.com/1870-dollars-in-2015?amount=40000
stained glass department in 1860- Franz Mayer of Munich, edited by Gabriel Mayer, University of Chicago Press, 2013.
Pope Pius X commission – Nola Huse Tutag with Lucy Hamilton, Discovering Stained Glass in Detroit, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1987. p. 152.
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