Emil Frei Window Description

Information about the Laclede Groves Chapel windows from Aaron Frei, the fifth generation president of Emil Frei and Associates, the window’s creators and installers.

The chapel windows at Laclede Groves are without question the work of our studio. The Munich Pictorial was a style we did heavily (almost exclusively) from 1898 to 1940 or so, with periodic executions in the decades since.

Where to start? Since the windows were really the legacy of my great-great grandfather, perhaps a little background to the person and his proliferation of this style should be in order. Emil Frei Sr. studied at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts right as the Munich style of painting was beginning to exert great influence in Germany (1880s). Seeking to avoid the fascist direction Germany was heading, he immigrated to the U.S. taking his skills with him. After working for a couple of years in San Francisco as a muralist, he eventually set up shop in the German-dominated area of St. Louis where churches were being constructed mere blocks away from each other. With no shortage of work, and plenty of skilled artists and craftsmen to meet the demand, his company soon became a national leader in the Munich style. 

A great majority of German churches in early 20th century America bear testament to this style, which was precisely the aim of King Ludwig I, the recognized patron of this art. With the unification of Germany in the mid 1800s, he sought to strengthen the bond between the previously fractured states under the banner of a common culture, with art carrying a heavy load. What he probably didn’t foresee was how this style would serve that exact purpose with the great surge of German immigrants coming to America shortly thereafter. As is the case with many immigrants settling in a foreign land, retaining a sense of their nationality in a tight community was paramount. The Munich Pictorial style, then, isn’t just about beautiful sacred art – it was also a source of unity for a transplanted community, a tie to their motherland and the people they left behind. It is a history of a people. 

I think that this aspect of the Munich style is quite often neglected or unknown, much to the detriment of our ancestors and our connection to them. From a practical perspective, this knowledge would also help people who recognize both the beauty and the history of their treasures, to raise money to preserve the artwork left to us by our grandfathers and their grandfathers. And from a Catholic or theological perspective, it also serves to underscore a key truth to our faith – we are a community of believers, both the living and the dead, united in the Mystical Body of Christ. Artwork from previous generations is a tacit and yet powerful reminder of this fact – a fact that overwhelmed me while studying in Rome. 

Moreover, sacred art has always been a wonderful vehicle to deliver the faith, either in the content depicted or in the beauty which inspires. When we allow that art to fall into a state of disrepair, we may unintentionally send a signal, however subtle, to others about our appreciation of that faith and to the evangelical power of beauty. I think that if you stress the sacred nature of this art, you may find more willing and enthusiastic donors. 

As to the particular history of your windows, our records have been lost over the years. It is quite possible that they were created in our Munich branch (which would date them no later than 1942 when our studio there was destroyed in the Allied saturation bombing). If you do possess records stating that they come from a later date, then it would probably mean that they were created in St. Louis. (Our windows were installed in 1919). Regardless of the location, the artists’ names would not have been recorded. This style was really never the work of one artist, but rather a team of them specializing in their respective areas. This is simply because painting on glass is a totally different animal than more traditional methods (oil painting, watercolors, etc.). It is far more time-consuming and uses completely different materials. The process reveals, especially to the uninitiated, just how labor-intensive and unchanged the art is. It is, in part, due to this fact that the Munich Pictorial faded out of use. 

As to the exact style of Art, I would describe your windows as Munich Pictorial with a grisaille (pronounced “gri – zye”) background. In the history of stained glass, it is unquestionably the pinnacle of painting on glass, especially in the technical sense. The Munich style can also be credited with returning stained glass to the more prestigious role it experienced in the gothic age. From the 17th century up to the late 19th century, stained glass experienced a great decline, and for a variety of reasons). By returning to richly colored glass to determine the color of the window, the Munich style recognized what made stained glass so attractive to begin with. 

In content, the Munich Pictorial favored a more devotional style of sacred art, concentrating on the lives of saints (usually depicted in portrait-like poses with their accompanying symbols), key events in the life of Jesus (Nativity, Last Supper, Crucifixion, Christ as the Good Shepherd) and Marian dogma (devotion to the Blessed Mother was at a peak during these years, culminating in the pronouncement of the Assumption as dogma in 1950 by Pope Pius XII). I qualified your windows as “Munich” with a grisaille background because it departs from the norm by not including the architectural canopy background that is so common to these windows. The advantage and employment of a grisaille background was threefold, as far as I’m aware. First, it admitted more light, turning an otherwise dark interior into one that wasn’t so dependent on artificial lighting – a problem that today’s population doesn’t quite appreciate. Secondly, by reducing the visual impact of an intricate background, the figures are allowed to take center stage, thereby commanding a stronger presence within the church. Third and lastly, it was sometimes a concession to a more limited budget. The more painting there is, the more labor there is, which translates into a higher cost. If funds weren’t readily available, this was one way that the Munich Pictorial could remain a viable option.

Regarding your own desire to see these windows preserved with the dignity they deserve, allow me a few words of advice. First and foremost, I think you’ll find that raising money towards their preservation is a great deal easier than doing the like for plumbing or other mundane necessities. In our experience, people are much more generous when it comes to contributing towards something beautiful. Towards that end, though, it requires a concerted effort between members of the organization to make that a reality. Sometimes that means creating a pamphlet describing the content in the windows in order to drum up interest (you would not believe how many people are uninformed regarding their windows). At other times it means having the windows appraised so that the parish realizes just how much they’re indeed worth. On other occasions, we’ve been asked to come and lecture on the history and process of the craft, which makes the organization view them in an entirely different light. Whatever you can do to get your people interested in the windows and to appreciate them goes a long, long way.

We have an open invitation to any past, present and prospective clients to come and tour our studio. Every time we re-discover one of our past works, it’s like meeting a long-lost member of the family.

And good luck on your endeavors.

Aaron Frei
Emil Frei and Associates