What to do tonight: Sunset Through Tiffany's


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Few people appreciate sunshine as much as Pittsburghers. (We get so precious little of it.)

Perhaps that's why -- about 120 years ago --the congregation of Calvary United Methodist Church in Allegheny West on the North Side commissioned famed New York glass-maker Louis Tiffany to create some of the largest, most-ornate and intricate stained-glass windows in the country.

To this day, the two 30-foot-high triptychs on each side of the sanctuary and a third stretching above the choir loft remain the largest Tiffany windows in the tri-state area.

And if you ever wanted to see the windows in their greatest glory, today -- the day of the summer solstice -- is the day.

It's one of the few times when Christians and pagans can share a pew and say to each other, "This is really cool!"

"We don't really [celebrate] the solstice," said Yvonne Hudson, a member of the church council and a founding member of the Poets Corner Arts, which produces art events at the church. "It happens to be the first day of summer and the longest day of the year."

All of which makes this evening the perfect time to take part in Sunset Through Tiffany's, when people will gather in the church to see the magic that occurs when the light from the sun -- positioned at its northern-most point in the sky -- hits the stained glass from this once-a-year angle.

The doors open at 6 p.m. The summer solstice occurs at 7:09, and the sun sets at 8:37. Tickets are $30.

"It's really glorious. The glass is just so incredible," said the Rev. Thomas L. Funk, who served at the church at the corner of Beech and Allegheny avenues from 1999 through 2008. "It can look one color when light is on it, another when the light is through it, and another when it's reflecting the light. It's quite amazing."

The windows depict three distinct scenes from the New Testament.

"There is the Ascension Window, which shows the ascension of Christ with the disciples at his feet and angels above," said Ms. Hudson. "On the other side of the sanctuary is the Resurrection Window, depicting him rising from the tomb, and there are Roman soldiers and the women who went to the tomb.

"And then there is what is called the Apocalypse Window over the choir loft, and that depicts John and images from The Book of Revelation."

Ms. Hudson said that at the time the windows -- and other smaller windows in the church -- were ordered, they were the most expensive commission Tiffany had.

"Tiffany was an artist who had a lot of experimental techniques," she said, "and a lot of them are apparent in the windows at Calvary."

Though there is no record of it, Ms. Hudson said, it is possible that the church itself was deliberately positioned with the sun in mind.

"At the time when you're sitting for Sunday worship, light moves up through the Ascension Window," she said. "It's almost as if there are light cues at certain times. When there's an afternoon wedding, the light comes through the choir loft and illuminates the bride."

And the effects during the summer solstice are even more dramatic. Water appears to be moving and gold crowns glisten more than usual.

"Tiffany's gift was not only could he make great glass, but he knew how to position the windows to get the reflections and the light that he wanted," said the Rev. Funk, who supervised the extensive renovation of the windows in a Carnegie studio.

"It can depend where you're sitting. In the Resurrection, the light comes down through it, and the jewels -- little pebble things -- light up around the women coming to the tomb carrying baskets of spices to embalm the body. The light just pops through them. And you can't even see them hardly in the winter time."

The Rev. Funk said the restoration of the windows revealed a number of things, including bullet holes that had been patched with putty. Thirty-seven pieces of glass were replaced by a company in Connellsville, and only the sharpest of eyes can detect differences.

"Unfortunately, [Tiffany] didn't leave any recipes for the glass, and the color and the texture was specific, so it's very difficult to get a good match," he said.

Tonight's gathering is not the first time the church has opened to observe the solstice. But it's the first time that a program has been put together for it.

"We've traditionally had an event on the first day of summer to open the doors to let people see what happens with the windows," Ms. Hudson said. "This year, we're partnering with Preservation Pittsburgh, which will include a talk of the preservation, followed by a chamber music concert."

The concert features chamber musicians Gilbert and Deb Bigheno (violinist and clarinetist, respectively), and pianist Brian Burns (Calvary's organist and music director) in performances of works by Ravel, Rodolphe Kreutzer, and John Williams (Theme from "Schindler's List").

Pittsburgh vocalist Lynn Beckstrom also will perform two selections by Mr. Bigheno.

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Dan Majors: dmajors@post-gazette.com. This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To subscribe, go to http://press.post-gazette.com/


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