Regular Faculty

Stained Glass Windows from Thomas Merton's Abbey of Gethsemani

Exhibition Notes - "Visual Meditations from Thomas Merton's Abbey of Gethsemani"

C. J. Renz, OP                                                                                                      Exhibit Page

A brief history of the Abbey of Our Lady of Gesthemani

East Nave of Abbey of Gethsemani pre-1937Although a small group of monks had settled briefly in Kentucky between 1805-1809, it was not until 1847 that a permanent foundation was established. Under the instruction of Abbot Maxime of the Abbey of Mellerey (France), two monks arrived in Nelson County, Kentucky to locate land for a new monastery. Bishop Benedict Joseph Flaget of Louisville showed them a small group of buildings that had been owned by the Sisters of Loretto called Gethsemani.

Sailing from Mellerey on 26 Oct 1848, Fr. Eutropius Proust landed in New Orleans with forty-four monks, who then made their way upriver to arrive at Gethsemani Farm on 21 Dec 1848. In 1851, the Abbey of Our Lady of Gesthemani was officially founded and declared “the Proto-Abbey of the New World,” with Proust as its first Abbot.

In 1852, Dom Proust began construction of new buildings, engaging local architect William Keeley to model them after the Abbey of Mellerey. Progress was slow and dragged on for years due to chronic lack of funds and the Civil War. Ready at last for use in 1866, the abbey church, a Neo-Gothic structure, was consecrated on November 15 with John B. Purcell, Archbishop of Cincinnati, presiding.

Gethsemani Abbey is considered the “mother house” of the Trappist and Trappistine communities in the United States, and is the oldest extant monastery in this country. In addition to being the home of Thomas Merton, the Abbey is well-known for its Gethsemani Farms, which offers homemade Trappist cheese, fruitcake, and fudge.

The Mayer and Zettler Studios of Munich

"The Mayer Institute of Christian Art,” was founded in 1847 in Munich by Joseph Gabriel Meyer (1808-1883). Hoping to revive the medieval practice of apprentice/trade associations, Mayer developed departments for fine arts, sculpture, architecture, and painting. Heavily influenced and fascinated by the arts and crafts movement in England, Mayer quickly opened an overseas branch in London (1865), and later in New York (1888).

Photograph of Mayer-Zettler Stained Glass Studio - MunichA stained glass department was created around 1860, under the direction of Mayer's son-in-law, Franz Xavier Zettler (1841-1916). A graduate of the Munich Art Academy, Zettler had been working for Mayer as a glass painter. Unfortunately, Mayer and Zettler had a falling out and, during the period of 1870s through 1930s, their studios engaged in competition in Europe and the US. They were finally reunited in 1939. Known today as Franz Mayer of Munich, Inc., the company continues to produce stained glass and mosaic works throughout the world, and to restore many of its original windows in Germany.

Tower of Ivory - Stained Glass Window from the Abbey of GethsemaniDespite their differences, Zettler and Mayer succeeded in creating the world renowned “Munich Style” of stained glass. Because the focus of the Munich Style was on studio execution, the use of specialized artists and artisans was fundamental. “Master painters, for example, were specialists in human portraits, architecture, landscape, or ornamentation. Assistants added background figures, landscapes, and other accents. Glazier artisans specialized in groups that defined the lead-line compositions, prepared the patterns, selected the colors, or cut the glass. Originality of the artwork was secondary to the quality of its design and execution. The finished work was “by the studio” not the individual artist.

The Munich Style involved painting scenes on large plates of glass and fusing them to the glass in high heat. This approached allowed for a blending of colors and a detailing of subjects not permitted with the medieval technique in which color change required use of a new piece of colored glass. Leaded seams did not interrupt or intrude upon the scene portrayed, but were camouflaged by the design in a way that made them hardly noticeable.

The scenes depicted were heavily influenced by the emotion and sentimentality of the 19th century European Romantic style of painting, and the detail and ornateness of the German Baroque style. Whether the central scene in a window illustrated a saint or a biblical story, familial and maternal aspects were key. The interior scene is always dramatically encased in intricate architectural or lush foliage glass borders.

In 1882, Mayer's company was awarded the status of “Royal Bavarian Art Establishment” by King Ludwig II. In 1892, Pope Leo XIII named the company, “The Pontifical Institute of Christian Art.” And Zettler, himself, was awarded a gold medal by Pope Pius IX.

According to one report (Gail Tierney, former GTU student), it was Archbishop Riordan of San Francisco who introduced this “Munich Style” to the Bay area when he ordered about 70 windows from Mayer Studios for the new St. Mary's Cathedral. While those windows survived the 1906 earthquake, all were lost in the cathedral fire of 1962.

St. John the Evangelist - Stained Glass Window by Zettler, Munich

It is believed that over 600 windows from the Mayer and Zettler studios were imported between 1888 and 1959 for churches throughout Northern California. Of these, only 64 were Zettler windows. The largest local selection of extant Zettler windows can be found at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, San Francisco (see image above).

St. Cecilia Window - Stained Glass Window at St. Mary Magdalen, Camarillo, CAAt the turn of the twentieth century, there was a strong desire for stained glass to emphasize maternal and familial themes in American Protestant and Catholic churches. Motifs based on family narratives endured well into the 1920s. In fact, American bishops and priests were strongly encouraged by Pope Leo XIII to devote themselves to the imitation of the Holy Family.

Familial and maternal images appear frequently in Mayer and Zettler windows in Northern California. Archbishop Riordan of San Francisco demonstrated an inclination towards designs that depicted the role of mothers with their children including those of the Virgin Mary. For his new cathedral in San Francisco, Riordan chose an enormous Assumption of Mary window set directly behind the main altar.

The Lactation Miracle of St. Bernard - Stained Glass Window from the Abbey of GethsemaniRiordan's themes (both narrative and those of saints) are repeated in those local churches that ordered Mayer or Zettler glass after 1889. Well over ninety Mayer and Zettler windows in Northern California depict aspects of familial and maternal references, even those that illustrate the Life of Christ.

The Mayer and Zettler windows of Gesthemani

For Gesthemani Abbey, Dom Edmund Obrecht (1852-1935), fourth abbot of Gethsemani, installed 23 windows from Mayer’s studio in 1909. He later added 11 windows from Zettler’s studio in 1923.

Archival records from the Abbey are incomplete when it comes to the subject matter and location of these windows. Because the windows were returned to the Abbey in disorganized fragments, it has been nearly impossible to establish an accurate composite. From the extant records and photos, it is known that the three large windows in the sanctuary were (from left to right): "The Lactation Miracle of St. Bernard"; "The Salve Window"; and "Christ in Gesthemani." The "Lactation" window is the largest one on display in Blackfriars Gallery at DSPT.

For more information about the Lactation Miracle and Madonna Lactans, read an article by Fr. Michael Morris, OP.

Other windows included:

St. Robert of Molesme - Stained Glass Window from the Abbey of GethsemaniThe "Assumption of the Virgin Mary" window was located on the back (south) wall of the Abbey chapel. After the "Lactation Miracle" window, this window has the largest intact fragments which are on display in Blackfriars Gallery.

Several fragments of the "St. Robert of Molesme" window are also on display at DSPT. Citeaux Abbey was founded in 1098 in a small village by the same name near Dijon, France by a group of Benedictine monks who desired to live more closely the Rule of St. Benedict. The best known of them were Robert of Molesme, Alberic of Citeaux, and Stephen Harding. These were the first three abbots of the new community which would come to be known as the Order of the Cistercians (from the Latin name for Citeaux). A subsequent reform movement occurred in the 17th century at the La Trappe Abbey (Normandy), which concluded with a formal split in the 19th century to create the Order of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance (OCSO), or the Trappists.

The "Litany of Loretto" window (see above black and white photo) was originally located in the west wall of the nave towards the sanctuary. Themes from this Litany, the most prominent being the "Tower of Ivory," harken back to the fact that the Abbey property originally belonged to the Sisters of Loretto before the monks settled there in 1847. Even today, the motherhouse for the Sisters of Loretto remains located close to the Abbey.