The face of Jesus Christ at the Last Supper is filled with melancholy expression. Soft, brown curls line his face, his hands outstretched, just as they were in the original Leonardo da Vinci painting hanging in Italy still today.
The halos surrounding the heads of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus shine brightly in another pane at First United Methodist Church, St. Petersburg, the colors of their clothing and surroundings nearly as brightly colored as they were in 1926, when 10 of the fabulous windows were installed in the new church.
“You never get tired of looking at them,” said Kay Norton, who helped establish a docent program at the church. Each Wednesday, volunteers stroll with visitors through the gothic revival-style church that stands at Second Avenue and Third Street North in the heart of downtown St. Petersburg.
The church and its magnificent windows, each designed by a different artist, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990 because it offers an exquisite look at a piece of St. Pete history and the glorious work of American glass artistry, according to a brochure about the artwork.
“We spent over a year on training,” Norton said. “I praised the Lord for giving us such a good team. Ginny Sexton trains the docents because Norton says she knows, “If I trained them, I would have them preaching the sermon on every window. We tell the story, each person, a little different than the next.”
The largest of the windows is the Last Supper, across the back of the church.
The original painting is on the north wall of the Dominican Convent, the Santa Maria delle Grazie, in Milan, Italy. Even with the change of medium from painting to glass, the integrity of the original is maintained, Norton said.
“In the 13 years of tours, we are still learning,” she said. “We started with just the Last Supper. We didn’t tell the stories of all 10 windows. But the tourists wanted to know. We have five windows on the west wall starting with the Nativity, The Last Supper across the back and on the east. It ends with the Ascension. The story is beautifully told in the windows of important times in Jesus’ ministry on earth.”
The Tiffany-style windows, interpretations of well-known religious paintings, were created by various artists from the George Hardy Payne Studios in Paterson, New Jersey.
The docents explain the processes used to make the stained glass. “All them are known for their brilliant color, dimension and opalescence, achieved by the generous use of several layers of glass, drapery and frit,” one brochure explains.
Frit is crushed colored glass mixed with olive oil, which dissipates during firing. It is used in details like hair and beards.
Drapery glass results from a process used to create ripples and folds which give the depictions both depth and dimension.
“They look 3D,” Norton said. “The stained glass is just marvelous, and they are so rich in colors. And they do tell the story of Jesus.” The artists, she said, did a great job of depicting the characters as da Vinci had wanted, as regular people.
Because the glass artists captured that feeling, it allows those viewing the windows to feel part of the experience. There is also special interior lighting that “affords a remarkable view of those who pass by the window at night,” the church’s literature states.
It was author Dan Brown who first brought curious visitors to the church, Norton recalled. They came looking for Mary Magdalene in the Last Supper.
Hollywood Director Ron Howard had featured the Last Supper window in a wedding scene in his movie, Cocoon.
“We decided to tell the real story,” Norton said. “I called my friends, different ones at church, and we now have seven docents.”
One of the blessings of the window tours, she said, is that students from nearby St. Petersburg College studying world religion and the humanities come by the church once a quarter for the tour.
Recently, a group of 42 came from Anona United Methodist Church in northern Pinellas County.
Each year, about 500 people stop by the church for the free tour. Donations are accepted. The Wednesday tours take place at 11 a.m. Special group tours can be scheduled by calling 727-894-4661.
--Yvette C. Hammett is a freelance writer based in Valrico.
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