Eastern State Penitentiary opens up to ‘spiritual occasion’ of stained glass

As it spruces up for spring, the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia is installing new stained-glass windows.

The 183-year-old prison, held in a state of sustained decay, had art glass put in its isolation cells. The glass echoes the penitentiary’s original spiritual intent.

On a cold, sunny Saturday, two guys with power tools and portable scaffolding installed the windows into frames badly warped from age and weather. They had some problems.

“I just want to make sure you guys are careful with the windows on the floor,” Judith Schaechter nervously announced. The Philadelphia-based glass artist was commissioned to make the windows for the crumbling prison walls.

“Despite shows like ‘This Old House’ and ‘Martha Stewart,’ making something and putting it into an installation like this — no matter many precautions you take, there’s always something,” said Schaechter. “I don’t mean to be negative, it’s just the nature of materials and the physical world.”

The disconnect between ideals and reality is the subject of Schaechter’s 16 narrow windows — 40 inches long by just 4 inches high — and one big window that’s nearly 5-foot square. They depict the stories of Icarus and his wax wings; the punishment of Prometheus for delivering divine fire to mortal man; and a standoff between the forces of order and chaos, inspired by the 16th century painting by Peter Bruegel, “The Fight between Carnival and Lent.”

Eastern State Penitentiary, free of prisoners since 1970, was designed to maximize isolation, in accordance with spiritual ideals to make inmates penitent, not just to punish them. Although the stained glass makes the gloomy prison shine with colors the prisoners would never have been privy to, the windows are appropriate to their environment, if only poetically; stained glass has always been closely associated with religious architecture.

“I don’t think it’s possible to make a decent stained-glass window without them acting as spiritual conduits,” said Schaechter, who says she was raised by “radical atheists.”

“You cannot have shining light through color, with the sun coming through, without some kind of impact. A proper stained glass window is always a spiritual occasion,” she said.

Schaechter’s stained glass windows will stay at Eastern State for one year. The large window will be on view beginning March 31. The narrow windows can be seen now.

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