Brenda Belfield's Stained-Glass Exuberance

By Turner-Yamamoto, Judith Bell | The World and I, August 2005 | Go to article overview

Brenda Belfield's Stained-Glass Exuberance

Turner-Yamamoto, Judith Bell, The World and I

Painter and stained-glass designer Brenda Belfield speaks about the colors of stained glass as if she were describing a wealth of luscious ripe fruit. "Lavenders, turquoise, peaches, rusts, violets, opal, the color range is enormous. For every shade of pink, there is a piece of glass somewhere. Each batch of hand-blown glass has an individual variety that makes it beautiful." The Reston, Virginia-based artist and winner of six national design awards for major commissions from a chapel in Marin County, California, to the American Embassy in Saudi Arabia launched her career in glass at the Washington National Cathedral. Just published by the Washington National Cathedral, Jewels of Light: The Stained Glass of Washington National Cathedral includes the sixty windows she designed there from 1974 to 1987.

In what she describes as a life-transforming moment, Belfield met Rowan LeCompte, a principal stained-glass artist for the Washington National Cathedral windows, in the early seventies at an exhibition of her paintings. "He told me I should be designing glass. The cathedral wasn't looking for craftsmen to replicate fourteenth-century designs; they wanted artists to come to glass with a fresh point of view.

"I was a young mother stuck in a house with clerestory windows. I could only paint what I saw outside my small world, so I painted trees, I abstracted them, I painted the light coming through them." Belfield's handling of color, she soon discovered, was very similar to what one does with stained glass. "You make a color glow by surrounding it with its opposite. Red becomes luminous if it's encircled with blues. Even the shapes I was working with--think of bare trees--were very glasslike."

At first, Belfield designed a number of memorial windows and smaller windows in the northwest and southwest towers of the cathedral. One of first windows was a memorial to the bishop of the diocese of Missouri. "They told me, 'We'd like you to use the diocese symbol of a fish with a shepherd's staff coming out of its mouth. The bishop was one of the first to support programs for the poor, so we'd also like a vignette of Jesus, and sheep, saying, "Feed my sheep." And we'd also like a personal symbol. The bishop was very fond of the Grand Canyon.'

"I was so new at this I was determined to please them, even though I was overwhelmed by all the content."

In the final design, Belfield positioned the Grand Canyon at the top, using blue glass to indicate the Colorado River. The blue of the water spiraled through the simplified design, incorporating all the desired motifs.

Once she proved to Richard P. Feller, then Clerk of the Works and final decision maker on window iconography, that she could design a true Gothic window, she was allowed more creative license.

"At one point, I wanted to leave the borders off a design I was working on. Feller said they were necessary so that when windows were removed for repair the workmen wouldn't chip into the actual design. I asked, 'How often do they have to do that?' He answered, 'About every nine hundred years the lead has to be replaced.' You just couldn't think about that; if you did you'd be too inhibited to work."

In 1975, a major opportunity unfolded in the nave of the cathedral. The International YWCA wanted to put in a window about women in the Bible, and they wanted a woman designer. "Most of the windows in the nave were very harsh and angular," recalls Belfield. "I decided a more female orientation would be desirable."

To tell three stories of women from the Old and New Testaments--the Pharaoh's daughter who discovered Moses; Martha and Mary; Naomi and Ruth--Belfield used free-flowing lines, creating a sensation of uplifting movement that reinforces the window's message of devotion and faithfulness among women.

The project launched her career. Private commissions poured in, including the chapel at Richmond University, a NATO base in Sicily, and the corporate offices of the American Association of Retired People, all while Belfield continued her work at the cathedral. …

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