Monday, May 2, 2011
fifty-seventh visit: May 1st 2011 Baptist
The First Baptist Church of Pittsburgh
159 N. Bellefield Ave, Pittsburgh PA 15213
This time I arrive early enough to photograph before service. Early enough to meet Margot (sp?), a greeter. She recognizes me as a visitor. Before service, she gives me a back-stage tour of the full immersion baptismal font. Empty at the moment, but easy to imagine the ritual descent into water from the stairs on either side. The font is visible from the front alter only as a marble facade. Wish I could see a baptism here, but the next is June 2nd and I’ll not be around.
I learn that Margot’s husband, DJ, is a retired Methodist minister. She had always admired the architecture of this building, so they became members two years ago. I asked her if it was OK with him to switch from Methodist ministry to Baptist membership. “Oh, they don’t hurt us any here,” she says.
The service. A line in the sermon coming straight from my storytelling and mythmaking painting class: Everyone craves fairy tales and the truths depicted in them. The question of bunnies and eggs: how did these come to be associated with Easter? Reverend Denning mentions bunny proliferation (new life) and the cracking open of eggs (birth, re-birth). Physical objects serving to render abstract beliefs visible. I’ve heard that there’s a Pagan root to these symbols, too. This notion upsets many Christians. All the time, we borrow things from other entities of thought and the meanings evolve accordingly. Why can’t this be OK? I am remembering more than one conversation with more than one college art student of mine in puzzlement over the anger that surrounds this within the Christian realm.
After the service. Reverend Gary Denning first clears a falsity: The Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, my 8am visit (#56) just before this one, was not built by the same architect as this church. This, The First Baptist, was designed and built by Bertram Goodhue, while The Redeemer by Howard Gilmann Wilbert. With all due respect: Reverend Denning is good friends with Reverend Robison. A wink and a nod, I’m certain.
I hear the church’s history, dating from 1812 (not much younger than the very oldest congregation in Pittsburgh). History includes activism in slavery emancipation and much international and minority social outreach continuing to the present.
Rev. Denning tells the story of the stained glass windows. First the backstory. People who don’t live here may not know about Pittsburgh’s strong lineage of local glass artisans. Charles Connick is one of them (1875-1945), and this church is his first major work ever. Later work includes renowned churches of NYC, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and beyond. He is known for his Gothic Revival style, influenced by Arts and Crafts, exactly the architectural mix of First Baptist. Upon his death, the New York Times described him as “the world’s greatest artisan of stained windows.” His company, based in Boston, continued to lead the field through its closing in 1986.
Connick’s windows at First Baptist: Reverend Denning describes the meaning behind certain symbols. The fact that the deliberate order in which the symbols appear results in an expressive path intended to carry the viewer, the worshiper, through the sanctuary. This path is meant to reflect the emotional and psychological nature of the arrival to worship, spiritual transformation, and exit or return to the secular world.
More info? Here you go (skipping some, a simplified explanation): Enter the back of the sanctuary directly from outdoors. Look to the upper left side windows. The first four beatitudes, those referring to the weight of the secular world, the way in which some may enter worship: those poor in spirit, mourners, the meek, and hungry. At the front alter, windows at either side refer to the crucifixion, strife, pain, conflict. Here the chronological order of symbols criss-cross wildly, jousting between opposing walls on either side of the alter. As you turn to leave the sanctuary, following the path on which you came, look up and left again—the side opposite from the first. Symbols on these windows represent the last four beatitudes, those referring to spiritual transformation, post-worship: the merciful, pure in heart, the peacemakers, the righteous braced for persecution. And finally, you exit the sanctuary passing under symbols of the resurrection.
And I’ve made Rev Denning late for his deacons' meeting.
Connick did the windows for another church I’ve been to: the ELPC, visits 13, 22, 26 and 27. And three others in the Pgh area I have not yet experienced. I think I’ll let this impetus create my path for a bit.