At the age of seventy-six, Ellis Schwab still remembered when his mother took him to the Tiffany Studios to witness the making of the Mount Sinai Window. As recorded in a newspaper article from The Richmond News Reader (1990), Ellis Schwab recalled the variety of colored glass in the studio and how “Mother took me to New York any number of times while the window was being produced to check on it and see it was being done [the] way she wanted it to be done.” In 1923, Mrs. Leon Schwab commissioned Tiffany Studios to create the Mount Sinai Window in the recently built Beth Ahabah temple in Richmond, Virginia, as a memorial to her parents. The Mount Sinai Window is still located in the temple and provides an opportunity to examine a Tiffany window in its original context. Although Tiffany Studios is better known for their ecclesiastical windows made for Christian churches, the Mount Sinai Window was intended for a Jewish synagogue demonstrating how the building boom for places of worship in America during the early twentieth century was not exclusively a Christian phenomenon. While natural light has filtered through the aesthetically pleasing Mount Sinai Window for nearly a century, the window has gained historic value as a point of intersection between American Judaism and the artistic achievements of the Tiffany Studios.
Originally founded in 1841, the Congregation of Beth Ahabah is the sixth oldest congregation in America. When a new temple for this congregation was built in 1904 on Historic Franklin Street in Richmond by the architectural firm Boland and Baskervill in which they turned to Thomas Jefferson’s home of Monticello as their inspiration. Some of the stained glass windows from the older temple were incorporated into the new building, however more windows were still needed. Consequently between 1904 and 1947, ten additional stained glass windows were commissioned by members of the congregation for installation on the East and West walls of the sanctuary’s ground level. Since each window was commissioned separately with different sponsors, there is an eclecticism of styles and subject matter. Similar to the requirements for decoration in Islamic mosques, Judaism prohibits figural imagery within the sanctuary since the perfection of Yahweh can never be achieved in visual form. Thus, the temple’s set of windows include symbols such as the Burning Bush and the Garden of Eden as a way to memorialize both important individuals of the Beth Ahabah community and significant religious moments. Prior to the nineteenth century, landscape scenes were not considered an appropriate subject for the stained glass windows of any religious building; in fact, Tiffany is often credited with changing this perception of landscapes through his glass studios as a suitable theme for a stained glass window in a place of worship. Thus, the natural setting of the Mount Sinai Window reflects this trend for landscapes in religious windows and was especially well suited to the Jewish strictures for decoration within the sanctuary.
The Mount Sinai Window is the only window made by Tiffany Studios in the Beth Ahabah temple and is located along the East side of the sanctuary. As mentioned previously, the Tiffany window was donated by Mrs. Fanny Mitteldorfer Schwab. Surviving receipts indicate that Mrs. Schwab paid a total of two thousand dollars to Tiffany Studios for the Mount Sinai Window. The receipt also describes the chosen subject matter for the window as “The glory of the Lord was like unto devouring fire upon the mount.” Mount Sinai at the moment of eruption symbolizes one of the most significant moments in Jewish history: when God’s presence became manifest to Moses with the granting of the Ten Commandments. Mrs. Schwab had consulted with Rabbi Calisch about choosing Mount Sinai for the subject of the window, and he agreed that this crucial event in Israel’s history was a good choice. In the Beth Ahabah Bulletin from October 1923, the Mount Sinai Window is mentioned as being the latest of the stained glass windows to be installed: “It is a beautiful and artistic symbolization of an important epoch, in Israel’s history, presenting a vivid picture of Sinai’s cloud enveloped peak at the Giving of the Law.”
Since the window was commissioned in memory of Mrs. Schwab’s parents, a painted inscription is included on the bottom panel that states, “In loving memory to my dear parents Ellis and Barbette Mitteldorfer, by their daughter” (fig,2). Mrs. Schwab’s father, Ellis Mitteldorfer, was the son of Moses Mitteldorfer who was one of the first presidents of the Beth Ahabah congregation. Thus, the argument could be made that another reason Mrs. Schwab chose Mount Sinai where Moses received the Ten Commandments as the subject of the Tiffany window was how it indirectly related to her grandfather’s namesake. Thus, the Mount Sinai Window simultaneously commemorates a significant event in Judaism, Mrs. Schwab’s parents, and even Moses Mittledorfer. Through the subject of Mount Sinai, the window relates to the Beth Ahabah community at a religious, personal, and social level.
A trademark of Tiffany Studios was its inventive use of colored glass, which in the case of the Mount Sinai Window provides a sense of vitality to the scene. A mountain afire is conveyed through a composite of pieces of streaky glass fitted together almost like a jigsaw puzzle in which the warm hues of Mount Sinai arecontrasted with the blue and purple background. The vividness and glowing effect of the colored glass is partly achieved through the transfusion of natural light through the glass (creating an ever-changing landscape) and also through Tiffany Studios’ technique of plating. Although the Mount Sinai Window is often described as a stained glass window, this term should not be taken literally since the coloration has not been painted on, but rather the pigment is a part of the glass material. During renovation in 1963 by George Payne Inc., several layers of the plating were taken off since the window was sagging and could potentially collapse. A brochure from 1964 claimed that this de-layering of the Mount Sinai Window “did not spoil the effect or the color, but only allowed additional light to come through to make it even more beautiful.” While the beauty of the window is subjective, it is unfortunate that the original layers had to be altered such that the window that is seen today is not how it would have appeared in 1923.
Both the article, which mentions the memories of Ellis Schwab and the surviving documents in the Beth Ahabah archives emphasize Mrs. Schwab’s contribution to choice of glass used in the window. From her son’s memories, it is evident that Mrs. Schwab wished to be involved in the making process since she made frequent visits to the Tiffany Studios in New York. Ellis Schwab remembered how, “One time the clouds above the mountain looked sort of like a dog head or wolf head. That would never do. She made them change it.” Even Cohen, who was the chairman of the restoration work of the sanctuary during the 1960’s, also relayed a similar story of how a particular piece of glass looked more like a dog than a cloud and commented, “She insisted that it be changed, and the window is more attractive today because of it.” Such lore among the Beth Ahabah congregation follows a similar pattern found among other patrons of Tiffany ecclesiastical windows as to how important the patron’s contribution was to the overall design. This anecdote about the choice of glass for a part of the mountain’s smoke provokes one to consider the actual role Mrs. Schwab had in the design of the window beyond choosing the subject matter.
Notably, there is another smaller version of the Mount Sinai Window, which is in a private collection. About one-third of the size found at the Beth Ahabah temple, this smaller version is different than the version in Beth Ahabah temple in coloration with the body of the mountain being composed of green and yellow streaky glass. The fact that Tiffany Studios reused Mount Sinai as a subject for another window follows the company’s practice of recycling themes, such as The Sewer or John the Baptist, for several ecclesiastical projects. Although there is more than one version of a Tiffany window with the subject of for the Beth Ahabah temple is distinct in how the subject matter relates to its contextual surroundings.
In examining the Mount Sinai Window, an artistic dialogue between Judaism and Tiffany Studios is revealed. The new methods that Tiffany Studios used in creating their ecclesiastical windows, especially in relation to colored glass, well suited the aesthetic taste at the beginning of the twentieth century. Also, Tiffany’s emphasis on landscape imagery complied with the Jewish tradition for temple decoration. Through the depiction of God’s presence manifested to Moses as an erupting mountain, the Mount Sinai Window simultaneously conveys this important moment in Judaism while also memorializing several members of the Beth Ahabah congregation including Ellis and Barbette Mittledorfer, Mrs. Schawb and Moses Mitteldorfer. Thus, the Mount Sinai Window is multi-layered with cultural meaning like the layers of glass it is composed of. Similar to how the Mount Sinai Window evokes memories for Ellis Schwab of his childhood, others can look at the Mount Sinai Window and see through its landscape of multi-colored glass an intriguing history.
© Courtney Ahlstrom Christy 2014-2018
Ahlstrom Appraisals | Personal Property Appraisals and Art Consultations | Serving Atlanta & Southeast | Fine Art, Antiques & Vintage
 Ann Holiday, “Window Works.” The Richmond News Leader (February 23, 1990), 23.
 Beth Ahabah Congregation (Richmond, Virgnia: 2010). Brochure.
 Discussion with volunteer at Beth Ahabah Temple.
 Beth Ahabah Congregation (Richmond, Virgnia: 2010). Brochure.
 “Congregation Emanuel of the City of New York” in Stained Glass Window (Greenwald Hall: date unknown).
 Tiffany Studios, Receipt from the Ecclesiastical Department of Tiffany Studios (New York: March 10, 1923).
 Sam Cohen, “The Miieldorfer Window: How We Acquired It,” CBA Bulletin (Richmond, Virginia: Congregation of Beth Ahabah, 1964), np.
 CBA Bulletin. Richmond, Virginia: Congregation of Beth Ahabah, 1923.
 Sam Cohen, np.
 Sam Cohen, np.
 Ann Holiday, 23.
 Cohen, np.
 Beth Ahabah Museum and Archives. Correspondence between Congregation of Beth Ahabah from Lew Bialick (May 22, 2002).