“More moving than anything done by the greatest Renaissance masters”

Stained glass windows in Alameda are examples of Christian iconography

St. Joseph’s Basilica, Alameda

The following excerpt is reprinted with permission from the blog, “Giorgione et al“. A tour of the stained glass windows will be conducted by the blog’s author, Francis DeStefano, on February 18 from 2pm – 3pm at St. Joseph’s Basilica, Alameda.

Recently my wife and I spent the whole month of February in the San Francisco bay area. While we did not get to visit any of San Francisco’s noted museums, 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 dated back to the latter half of the nineteenth century and burned to the ground in 1919. Back then the church primarily served Alameda’s Irish community; 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.

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.

Stained glass depicting the Visitation in St. Joseph’s Basilica, Alameda (click to enlarge)

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.

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 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. The first is the presentation of 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.

Risen Christ with Mary Magdalen in St. Joseph’s Basilica, Alameda (click to enlarge)

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, Mary 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.

Full story at Giorgione et al.

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  1. I’ve been there. Nice church. Don’t know anything about the priests who staff it these days.

    • From the original post on the blog: “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.”

  2. Frank DeStefano says:

    Since the original post was written, the Vietnamese associate has moved elsewhere, and been replaced by an associate from the Phillipines.

  3. The stained glass windows are a beautiful use of light.

  4. The pastor is Father George Alengadan, a wonderful priest. St. Joseph’s Basilica is blessed to have him.

  5. The spectacularly colorful interior – with a wide single nave and central transept; features several side chapels, colorful marble floors and walls, massive pink granite columns (8 of which are reportedly original to the baths), frescoed ceilings, paintings, numerous sculpted statues, and the tombs of artists, cardinals, and military leaders. Among the chapels, architectural features, and works of art you’ll see, are: The Vestibule – the rotunda at the entrance to the basilica houses several funerary monuments; two 16th-century side chapels (Chapel of Mary Magdalene and the Chapel of the Crucifix); and ‘Divinity in Light’, an impressive 20th-century stained-glass dome by Italian-American artist Narcissus Quagliata (the colorful glass…

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COMMENTS POLICY: Comments are limited to 750 characters and will be truncated at 750. Comments should not contain offensive or libelous language. Please strive to be civil. All comments are subject to approval by our moderator and to editing as the moderator deems appropriate. Inclusion of your email address is optional.