When my wife and I travel to visit family, I always like to look into local museums if time allows. Recently we spent the whole month of February in the San Francisco bay area primarily to help our youngest daughter who was expecting her first child. Although she was two weeks late in delivering, mother and baby boy Jacob are doing well. We were doubly fortunate since our home state of Connecticut experienced the worst February weather in years.
We did not get to visit any of San Francisco’s noted museums but we did attend Mass regularly at St. Joseph’s Basilica on the island of Alameda across the bay from the city. The large colorful stained glass windows of the Church are interesting examples of Christian iconography, as well as a kind of window into the art history of the early twentieth century in America. The original Gothic church in Alameda, that dated back to the latter half of the nineteenth century burned to the ground in 1919. Back then the church primarily served Alameda’s Irish community and it would appear that they lost little time in rebuilding. The new church was built in California Mission style and the new windows reflected a mixture of traditional Catholic themes as well as a hint of the liturgical reform movement that had been launched by Pope Pius X a decade earlier.
|St. Joseph's Basilica, Alameda*|
All the windows depict events from the life of Christ. This may seem obvious but it was not always the case back in an age dominated by glass artisans like Tiffany. It was common then to see church windows devoted to the lives of saints or even secular subjects like prominent men and women or pretty landscapes. The spiritual revival that followed the end of the First World War led many architects and designers to reject nineteenth century models and reach back to the era of the early Middle Ages for inspiration.
So on one side of St. Joseph’s Basilica the windows depict scenes from the infancy of Christ. The first is a depiction of the betrothal of Mary and Joseph, a scene made famous by Raphael in his Sposalizio. Next is an Annunciation, followed by the Visitation. In the latter scene the pregnant Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth who is also with child. In a departure from tradition Elizabeth kneels before Mary and her Child. I had never seen a kneeling Elizabeth before.
|Visitation, St. Joseph's Basilica, Alameda|
The actual Nativity is saved for another place and the next window depicts the Presentation of the baby Jesus to the aged Simeon in the Temple. Then, the fifth window depicts the Flight into Egypt where Joseph leads Mother and Child astride the familiar ass to safety. Joseph, the patron saint of the Basilica, is in all of these windows.
On the other side of the church five windows depict an unusual selection of scenes from the life of Christ. In the first he presents the keys to St. Peter while the second is the healing of the blind man. Then we see Christ with Martha and Mary followed by another miracle, the raising from the dead of the son of the widow. Finally, Christ meets Mary Magdalen in the garden after the Resurrection.
|The Risen Christ with Mary Magdalen|
St. Joseph's Basilica, Alameda
This last image deserves comment since it contains some unique features. It could easily be mistaken for a meeting between Christ and his Mother. Their attitudes are calm and both are dressed sedately. However, Christ holds a staff that could represent a gardening implement. Mary Magdalen initially mistook him for a gardener. Also, the Magdalen looks up into his eyes in a way never associated with his Mother. Although there is no trace of the nudity or flamboyance that can be seen in Titian’s “Noli me Tangere”, the depiction is full of emotion.
With his right hand Christ firmly grasps the Magdalen’s wrist to prevent her touching him, but the fingers of his left hand can be seen behind her head in a very tender gesture. I have never seen this before and it seems to me to be more moving than anything done by even the greatest Renaissance masters.
The Basilica of St. Joseph was built in cruciform style and there are three windows that can be seen in the transept. As one faces the altar the right transept contains a Nativity, the beginning of Christ’s stay on earth, and on the left there is an Ascension, the end of his earthly sojourn. Right above the altar is a Crucifixion with Madonna, St. John, and Mary Magdalen at the foot of the Cross. We can imagine the pastor, architect, and window artisan agreeing back in 1919 that the image above the altar should coincide with the sacrifice on the altar at every Mass.
There are five other windows that deserve mention. In the transept two windows can only be seen from the Altar. One depicts the Good Shepherd, and the other depicts “Christ Knocking at the Door”, a popular nineteenth century subject. In the original baptistry at the back of the church there are two windows, one a traditional Baptism of Christ, and the other a depiction of Mary as the Immaculate Conception. Finally, in the choir loft there is a window that depicts Christ pointing to his Sacred Heart and appearing to St. Margaret Mary, a French nun.
The windows of St. Joseph’s not only depict traditional scenes from the life of Christ but they also provide insights into the spirituality of the people who rebuilt the church in Alameda after the fire of 1919. As I said above, the church was primarily made up of descendants of Irish immigrants who had come to California in the previous century. The choice of windows was probably a joint decision between the pastor, architect, and window studio. The laity were rarely involved but all the windows do represent contemporary devotional subjects.
Today, the Irish priests are gone and the new pastor is a dynamic young priest from India. The associate priest is from Vietnam, and a young Deacon is of Mexican ancestry. They reflect an extremely diverse and enthusiastic community that has arisen from many traditions. Still, the beautiful windows link them all together to a history that goes back to the early days of the Church.
* Please excuse the poor quality of my photos.