God in the Details

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 28, 2008

A life is like a stained-glass window. Colorful yet clear. Translucent yet obscured. Strong yet fragile. An arrangement of shard-moments held by a force that keeps everything in place. Miraculous things -- life and stained-glass windows. Still, yet moving. Works of art that change as daylight inevitably turns to nightdark.

At 83, Rowan LeCompte is in the later stages of both windowmaking and life. His life's work has been the dreaming and designing of exquisite stained-glass windows for the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, better known as Washington National Cathedral. Over the years he has created more than 40 windows. He fashioned his first when still a boy. He is probably working on his last.

The LeCompte windows give the cathedral heavenly color: The kaleidoscopic West Rose that celebrates God's creation of heaven and earth. The green, red and gold Calling of Peter window on the north side of the nave. The delicate little Gable Wheel window in the Pilgrim Observation Gallery.

Among the 233 stained-glass windows in the majestic edifice, LeCompte's have a special glow. He has designed more windows in the cathedral than any other artist. LeCompte is "an artist who marries together traditional techniques and sensibilities with contemporary style," says the cathedral's conservator, the Rev. John A. Runkle. LeCompte, he adds, is skillful at "spanning the ages."

Clambering up narrow stairwells and along the clerestory catwalks, high above the sanctuary, Runkle delights in pointing out the grand gestures of LeCompte's artistry and the small touches, such as the spinning-top-size crystal that LeCompte sneaked into the magnificent West Rose.

A successful stained-glass window, Runkle says, "is a piece of art that conveys a timeless story of Christian tradition, capturing those words in light, form, figure and color."

All 16 clerestory windows overlooking the nave were designed by LeCompte. "Here he tells the stories of the Bible," Runkle says, "in the sequence of the book itself." Another hidden treasure: In the Suffering and Redemption window on the north side, an actual piece of antique wall from Jerusalem serves as an opaque marker.

The windows of LeCompte are everywhere. There is weightiness in the work. And wit and whimsy. Tucked away on a dark-staired turret is a little jewel representing a passage from the Book of Revelation. Depicted is a wild, windblown, energetic woman with flowing blond locks reaching heavenward toward a swirl of color. In her arms she holds a tiny child, placid in the turbulence. In a 1984 nave window representing prophecy, LeCompte tossed in a white-tied, lavender-suited, Bible-thumping televangelist. And in one at the high altar illustrating the childhood of Jesus, LeCompte's face of Joseph is actually a self-portrait.

Runkle marvels at LeCompte's ability to work with literal as well as abstract imagery.

Scurrying down into a crypt, the conservator gestures toward the lettering on vaults that contain the ashes of the dead. The letters are blocky and uniform. He then points to a stone container that has different, thin, almost Eastern letters. Irene Matz LeCompte. "This is Rowan's first wife," Runkle says. "He insisted on making his own lettering."

As Runkle leaves the room and locks the door, he says, "Rowan's approach to his whole life is so creative. Everything he does."

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