God in the Details
The Passion of a Lifetime Shines Through Rowan LeCompte's Cathedral Windows

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."

* * *

Notions about art and beauty began to form in LeCompte's soul when he was 10 or 11. "I wanted to be either a painter or an architect," he says.

A stained-glass artist, of course, is both.

In long-sleeve salmon shirt, tan sweater vest and dark blue pants such as French workingmen wear, LeCompte looks on a recent morning like a work of art himself. His watch is worn outside his shirt cuff to keep the band from slipping up and down his reedy wrist. He has wisps of white hair above his ears and spangly eyes that match his blue beret.

It's a gray, rainy day. He's at his suburban-style home in the hills of Virginia just west of Charlottesville. He doesn't really have a studio, just a tiny guest bedroom with a window, a drafting table and a gooseneck lamp. Occasionally he brings in panels of glass, but this room is for design. In most cases, a designer's window is pieced together by a fabricator and, with the help of installers, put into place.

"Goodbye, my love," he calls to Peggy, his second wife, who is stepping out for lunch. They have been married 34 years.

A compact man, he sits in a little office chair on rollers. There are vast drawings attached to the wall and sketchbooks here and there. Nearby is a watercolor and India-ink sketch of the work of the moment -- a new Isaiah window for the south side of the nave.

He sends such a sketch -- and a set of full-size drawings -- to the person who will actually cut the glass and piece it together according to LeCompte's design. From large sheets, LeCompte and the fabricator choose the colored glass, most of which comes from Europe. The design is modified according to available glass. The fabricator then arranges the cut glass to craft a temporary window -- which is divided into panels for easier handling -- using wax instead of lead to hold the pieces together.

A panel of the Isaiah work sits on scaffolding in front of the picture window in LeCompte's room. He examines the colorful panel at different times of day to see how the light slides through. If there is too much light showing through one portion, he paints linear hatch marks on the glass to control the flow of light. "It's a very subtle and difficult thing to do," he says.

When he is finally satisfied with every panel, he will send them back to the fabricator, who will fire the glass and then set it in lead. Installers will place the window in its proper location at the cathedral.

* * *

Rowan LeCompte first saw the light of day in Baltimore on Saint Patrick's Day 1925. "We were poor," he recalls. "There was a sense of needing to not waste anything."

To make ends meet, LeCompte's father ran a small business making beaten biscuits. Beaten biscuits differ from traditional biscuits because all of the air and fluffiness is pounded out of the dough, making the results denser and more like loaf bread. LeCompte's father baked the biscuits in an oven until they were just the right color, then sold them to chefs.

LeCompte had other interests. He had an uncle who was an architect and a painter, and an older brother who liked to draw. "Art was respected in our home," LeCompte says.

He remembers the exact date his life was changed. July 1, 1939. "It was a gorgeous day. The sky was blue. The air sparkled."

That day his aunt took him on a tour of Washington and he fell in everlasting love with the Washington Cathedral. "It was a blessed day for me," he recalls. "I was dumbfounded. I had never seen such as this."

The building, three decades old, was still under construction. There was a derrick perched above the main nave. There were wooden steps, unfinished columns, tin walls and tarpaper roofs, but visitors could see the grand plan starting to unfold. "I stepped inside and was immediately in another world," he says. "It smelled like wax. There was music."

The aromas, the sounds, the sights. And the windows! LeCompte remembers the North Rose "floating in the dark" and he was struck by the stained glass "glowing in this gloom."

It was, he says -- his eyes twinkling like crystals -- "the most electric hour of my life."

He went again a couple of months later and focused on the stained glass. "I was thunderstruck."

Back in Baltimore, he walked to the Enoch Pratt Free Library and read every book he could on the process. He found affordable scraps of material in a stained-glass shop in Baltimore. "I started making little studies in stained glass," he says, "and selling them for five dollars apiece." The heads were modeled after 13th-century figures in Chartres Cathedral windows.

Drawn to the spaces where stained glass loomed, he frequented certain churches in Baltimore. One day, he dropped by the Cathedral of the Incarnation to glory in the glass, and the canon introduced him to a man named Philip Frohman, who turned out to be the architect of the Washington Cathedral.

When LeCompte eventually visited Frohman in Washington, "he was very welcoming to me," LeCompte says. "He told me something that was priceless. He said there were three qualities he longed for in modern stained glass: clarity, richness and sparkle."

Ever since the teenage LeCompte heard those words, he has tried to piece together his windows -- and his life -- accordingly.

At the cathedral's request, LeCompte created his first window: a beautiful, medieval-style rendering of Saint Dunstan. He was paid $100.

At home, LeCompte's mother discovered that his painted glass could be baked in the family's oil furnace, even hotter than the oven that baked the beaten biscuits, and using that primitive method, he created a second, home-baked window -- depicting Saint Dunstan's coat of arms -- that he donated to the cathedral.

In those first two skinny lancet windows, which still stand in the cathedral's Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage, all of LeCompte's gifts that would evolve through the decades are already evident, Runkle says.

Drafted when he turned 18, LeCompte served first as a combat engineer and then in a mapmaking outfit during World War II. He was in Normandy. When he came home, he made windows again.

* * *

Over the years LeCompte has designed five windows for a church in Baltimore, a large window at Princeton University, a window in the chapel at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., a half-dozen Venetian glass mosaics for the cathedral and other artworks, but most of his life has been spent adorning the Washington Cathedral with windows.

The day LeCompte fell in love with glass, he stared up at Lawrence B. Saint's Moses window -- installed in 1933 -- in the north transept. The center panel shows a golden Moses with the Ten Commandments tablet and a blue backdrop. The figures on the side panels are set against dazzling crimson.

"Our modern civilization," Saint said in 1925, "calls for windows in which there is a good deal of [light], not gloomy and depressing, but energizing, thrilling."

The first windows in the cathedral were created in London and initially installed in the Bethlehem Chapel in 1911. The window LeCompte is making is a 15-by-30-foot work depicting the Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Micah. It will replace one that illustrates the same subject on the south side of the nave that was created by LeCompte in 1981.

The problem was the amount of light being allowed into the nave at that point. "The choir looked dull compared to the nave," LeCompte says. The Building Committee wanted the window "retuned" to bring more light into the space.

LeCompte, being LeCompte, decided to make a whole new window. "Hopefully the last window will be installed by this time next year," he says.

While eating lunch at a Chinese restaurant near his house, he shows his mind is still agile. He speaks of Walt Whitman's life and quotes from an Emily Dickinson poem. He talks of documentarian Peter Swanson, who is working on a film, "Let There Be Light," about LeCompte and his windows.

Conversation turns to the purpose of stained-glass windows. "Windows should keep you focused," he says. "They shouldn't be too bright. Medieval windows look so very mysterious."

By increasing a window's opacity here and there with more deeply colored glass, LeCompte tries to balance that mystery with light.

He also insists that windows be strong. "Function makes form," LeCompte says.

In other words, he says over a dessert of ice cream and mushrooms, the work of art should not apologize for being a stained-glass window. The window should be a window first and a masterpiece if possible. It should stay in place, bring in light and last for a lifetime.

For many lifetimes. And more.

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