Our Rich History: Historic stained-glass windows in Cathedral Basilica draw new generation of admirers

By Stephen Enzweiler
Special to NKyTribune

Anyone who has ever made a visit to Covington’s Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption can attest to the feeling of being transported to another place and time. As one enters its stone edifice, the rush of the city quickly fades, and in its place, one is surrounded by a cocoon of stillness and drawn into the other-worldly realm of the Gothic. Eyes involuntarily drift upward, following the tall vertical lines that seem to pull the visitor upward into the spacious vault. There, high above, where one would expect to find darkness, instead one finds streams of light and color almost everywhere.

Interior of Cathedral Basilica (Photo by Stephen Enzweiller)

The usual response visitors are heard to say is, “Wow.” But this experience was perhaps best articulated by Michael Sean Winters, a writer for the National Catholic Reporter. In 2013, after visiting all the cathedrals in America, he ranked Covington’s Cathedral Basilica as one of the most beautiful in the United States. Where most cathedrals tend to be dark inside, he wrote, when one enters the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption, “it is like waking up inside a diamond.” His mention of this interior quality is actually due to the greater part of the building’s outer wall space and physical structure made up of large window spaces filled with stained glass.

The unusually large amount of open space really serves two main purposes: it maximizes the amount of light that can be let into the Cathedral’s interior, and it provides the opportunity for artists to present greater spiritual inspiration and beauty of light and color through the medium of stained glass. And it is the stained glass in particular that visitors find the most impressive in this play of light and color.

The Cathedral Basilica’s 82 stained-glass windows are the creative masterpieces of Mayer and Company of Munich, Germany. Still in business today as “Franz Mayer & Co.,” it was founded in 1847 by Joseph Gabriel Mayer as the “Mayer Art Institute for Ecclesiastical Works.” In 1862, a stained-glass department was created, and the company soon became a leader in the manufacture of a style of windows known as Munich Pictorial Style. Munich Pictorial Style developed in 1827 out of the Royal Bavarian Stained-Glass movement under Ludwig I of Bavaria, and it is recognizable for its elaborate, finely executed detail of painting on glass. The language of Mayer’s Munich glass owed much to the religious art revival movement of the 19th Century, where religious painting was being reintroduced in the tradition of the Italian Renaissance masters like Raphael and Michelangelo.

Most Rev. Camillus P. Maes, D.D., the man who conceived each window’s design and presided over the installation of the majority of the Cathedral Basilica’s stained-glass windows. Courtesy of the Archives of the Diocese of Covington.

In 1905, when Covington’s third Bishop of Covington, the Most Rev. Camillus P. Maes, was looking for a firm to make windows for Covington’s new St. Mary’s Cathedral, Mayer and Company was the natural choice. By then, the company was already world famous, its success due largely to the diligent and energetic management of its creative and gentlemanly leader, Franz Mayer. From the outset, Mayer and Bishop Maes liked each other immensely, and the two became close friends.

Work on the widows began in 1906. The scope and scale of the endeavor was daunting to both men, who knew it would take many years to complete. For his part, Bishop Maes always felt God had entrusted him with the task of building the new Cathedral, and he sought to finish the windows in his lifetime. There were 82 of them to create, 36 of which would be large pictorial windows that told stories. The creative process began with large sketches drawn up by Franz Mayer and sent to Maes, who made suggestions and changes. Once a design was approved, full-sized drawings were made called “cartoons,” which were laid out to allow artists to compose the elements of each window in every detail. Typically, there were three to six artists employed on any given pictorial window, depending on the complexity of the design. The great north transept window – which measured 24-feet wide by 67-feet high – likely employed more than a dozen.

To make the glass, Mayer employed a process known as “pot-metal” glass-making, a technique dating back to the 13th century. Pot-metal glass was regarded as the finest glass ever produced for fabrication of stained glass windows and had the advantage of producing colors with the greatest intensity and brilliance. Molten glass was made by combining sand, soda, lime and potash into a clay pot (called a “crucible”) and heating it in a furnace until the contents melted into clear liquid glass. The color was then created by adding metallic oxides according to a formula that could obtain the color of glass desired. Copper oxide produced blue-green; gold produced a deep red, etc. Once the mixture fused together, the glass maker removed the molten glob and hand rolled it into a ball, then flattened it to varying thicknesses, which were cut apart according to the pattern in the cartoon called a “cutline.”

The glass manufacturing studio of Mayer and Company in Munich, circa 1910. The Cathedral’s windows were made here. The building was bombed during WWII, but the firm is still in business. Courtesy of Franz Mayer & Company.

Once cooled, the colored glass served as a kind of canvas onto which the fine details of the face, hair, clothing and architectural columns and framing would be created. The artist added such details by painting a black enamel pigment made of copper or iron oxide onto the glass surface. After this dried, very fine sandpapers and assorted wire tools and brushes were used to gently fine tune the shading, textures and edges of images. Then, the final details of eye lashes, hair, clothing patterns and eyes were applied using tracing black, tracing brown, or bistre brown before being heated again in the furnace. Franz Mayer himself was said to have hand-painted most of the exquisitely detailed heads and faces of Jesus in the Cathedral Basilica’s windows.

It took three years before the first windows began to arrive from Germany. By June of 1908, 18 windows were delivered and installed in the apse (the main sanctuary) and north chapels. In May 1910, more windows arrived, and in November 1911, the great north transept window came, taking most of the month to be installed. July 1912 saw four more windows installed in the nave: The Good Shepherd, Resurrection, Doubting Thomas, and Sermon on the Mount windows. In each case, windows had to be shipped from Munich in sections, layered in large wooden crates and padded by straw and sawdust, then shipped by ocean steamer across the Atlantic to New York by way of Southampton, England.

But a world war came in 1914, and within two years, a European moratorium on German exports brought shipping the remaining windows from Mayer and Company to a halt. Even more frustrating was the case of several of the clerestory windows being made in Austria by the Tyrolian Art Glass Company. In 1917, as the United States entered the war, the moratorium was expanded to include Austria, which effectively warehoused a number of the Cathedral’s finished windows for the duration of the war. Finally, in 1919, the remaining windows arrived and were installed. But by this time, Bishop Maes, who had hoped to live to see the completion of the Cathedral he was responsible for building, had died on May 11, 1915. The last windows to be placed in St. Mary’s Cathedral were under the supervision of Maes’ successor, the Most Rev. Ferdinand Brossart.

Detail of the intricate clothing pattern on Christ’s tunic from the “Wedding at Cana” window. (Photo by Nicolaus Enzweiler.)

But the Munich Pictorial Style of art glass window-making was not long lived. Soon after the last window was installed, the pictorial style of glass-making began to fade in popularity alongside the rapid decline of the religious art revival movement. For more than 80 years since, the Cathedral Basilica’s windows have remained a source of wonder and public fascination. But it has only been in the last 16 years that the exquisite beauty and significance of these Mayer windows could be fully seen and appreciated.

For much of the twentieth century, the Cathedral’s windows had been dulled by years of surface build-up of candle and incense residue. Then, during the 2001 renovation, the windows were completely cleaned and restored to their original condition and appearance. When the building reopened on December 8, parishioners and the public were stunned by the brightness of the colors and stunning clarity of the windows. Sunlight streamed through effortlessly; fine brush strokes and intricate details of the clothing, faces and hair were revealed as never before. According to Berry Mang, Facilities Manager at the Cathedral Basilica, “few in living memory could remember ever having seen the windows with such bright colors!” Bishop Robert Muench described the beauty of the building as being “as close to heaven on earth as you can come,” and the Cincinnati Enquirer said of it: “The inspiring grandeur of the cathedral is a tribute to the artistry of man and the glory of God.”

Today, visitors come to the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption in ever-increasing numbers. Stepping inside, they can experience the original colors and mastery of these historic stained-glass windows as Franz Mayer first created them more than a century ago. Light floods into the Cathedral’s interior. Colors are as brilliant and vibrant as when the glass was first placed, the art is as masterful and accomplished as if it were by Michelangelo, and the detail in each is as impressive and exquisite as if it were created in a dream. Franz Mayer’s windows remain among the finest examples of Munich Pictorial Style stained glass in existence.

Stephen Enzweiler is a writer and journalist. He has been a columnist for the Kentucky Enquirer, the Oxford Citizen, and was a senior editor at Y’all Magazine. He is the author of “Oxford in the Civil War: Battle for a Vanquished Land (2010).

Featured photo: Detail from the “Wedding at Cana” window. The exquisite detailing of eyes, eye lashes, and hair are clearly seen. (Photo by Nicolaus Enzweiler)

“Waking up inside of a diamond.” Walls of light and color flood into the clerestory and vault of the Cathedral Basilica from all sides. Photo by Stephen Enzweiler.
Interior of St. Mary’s Cathedral, circa 1916. The clerestory and south transept windows are not yet installed due to World War I and the moratorium on exports from Germany. Courtesy of Kenton County Public Library, Covington.
The Great North Transept Window is one of the largest church stained-glass windows in the world. (Photo by Stephen Enzweiler.)
During winter months, the clerestory windows throw intense color against the upper stone of the colonnade, giving the interior an unexpected warmth. (Photo by Stephen Enzweiler.)
Detail from the “Immaculate Conception” window. A medieval tradition holds that the devil must appear in at least one cathedral window. Here, St. Michael the Archangel drives satan back down from whence he came. (Photo by Nicolaus Enzweiler)

4 thoughts on “Our Rich History: Historic stained-glass windows in Cathedral Basilica draw new generation of admirers

  1. Very much appreciated your article on the beautiful windows of the Cathedral In Covington. Growing up the Cathedral was our familiy’s parish church. I was blessed to also have been married there. Please advise me how I can obtain a copy of your article. It would mean so much to me.

    1. You are welcome to copy, paste and print the story as much as you want, Ms. Berger. That’s the best way to save a copy. We’re so glad you liked it and that it brought back such fond memories.

  2. Hello, I am trying to find out who made this stained glass window back in the 1920’s? It was Jesus being baptized by John and there is a third person on top that I think is the Father. When you open the brochure please click on folded brochure to see the stained glass window that I am talking about. This is for class.

    Thank you.

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