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John La Farge and the Recovery of the Sacred

September 1–December 13, 2015
Showcases monumental stained glass window triptych gifted to BC

CHESTNUT HILL, MA (July 2015) – The McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College presents John La Farge and the Recovery of the Sacred, an exclusive exhibition that comprises more than 85 paintings, stained glass windows, and works on paper by one of America’s most complex artists. A pioneer in the reinvention of the art of stained glass, John La Farge (1835–1910) devised innovative solutions to negotiate boundaries between realism and symbolism. 

According to organizers, the exhibition is occasioned by “the magnificent gift” to Boston College in 2013—from Alison and William Vareika, a 1974 Boston College alumnus—of a La Farge stained glass triptych, and the completion of its restoration. The exhibition probes La Farge’s lifelong efforts to investigate and represent the sacred. [More on the gift follows.] 

John La Farge and the Recovery of the Sacred demonstrates how the artist’s quest was manifest in representations of religious figures, nature, and still life as well as in stunningly imaginative book illustrations of romantic fantasy, and also explores how La Farge’s trips to Japan and the South Seas in 1886 and 1890–91 reinforced the multicultural range of his spiritual inquiry.

“In celebrating the restoration of the spectacular gift from William and Alison Vareika of three stained glass windows by one of America’s finest artists, John La Farge, the McMullen Museum is pleased to present the first exhibition focusing, from an interdisciplinary and multicultural perspective, on the evolution of the artist’s visualization of the sacred in various media,” said McMullen Museum Director and Professor of Art History Nancy Netzer.
[MEDIA NOTE: Images available on request from the McMullen: Please email Kate Shugert ( Slideshow of images, more exhibition details at]

Public Opening Reception: Sunday, September 6, 7–9:30 p.m.
On Sunday, September 6 at 7 p.m., the public is invited to join BC community members for a first look at John La Farge and the Recovery of the Sacred. The free event will be held at the Museum in Devlin Hall 110,

John La Farge; Stained Glass Window Triptych Gifted to BC
“John La Farge was one of the most innovative artists of the late nineteenth century in America,” according to exhibition curator Jeffery Howe—a scholar of nineteenth-century art and architecture and Boston College professor of art history. “The restoration of this triptych is, in a sense, a metaphor for La Farge’s revitalization of religious art.

“His stained glass windows introduced an unsurpassed richness and subtlety of color through the use of opalescent glass and complex layering of plates of glass; he was widely credited with reinventing the medium,” Howe noted. “La Farge’s paintings, watercolors, and illustrations reveal the extraordinary breadth of his cultural and spiritual interests, ranging from European Renaissance and medieval art to Japanese art.  

“This exhibition reveals many aspects of this multi-faceted artist with works drawn from numerous public and private collections. We are especially grateful to William and Alison Vareika for their generous gifts to Boston College, and also for Bill’s unparalleled knowledge of the works of John La Farge.”  

Howe worked closely with William Vareika to identify relevant works by La Farge and to obtain loans for the exhibition. Captivated by La Farge’s murals and glass while meditating in Trinity Church during his sophomore year at Boston College, Vareika pursued an independent study on the artist during his senior year. He and his wife have become the foremost dealers in the artist’s work in their Newport, Rhode Island gallery, which they opened in 1987. They have discovered and catalogued hundreds of La Farge’s works—14 of which comprised earlier gifts to the McMullen—and spearheaded campaigns to preserve, restore, and relocate his stained glass and paintings in churches in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

The Vareikas’ recent gifts to the University include three stained glass windows representing St. John the Evangelist, Christ Preaching, and St. Paul and a promised gift of two life-size oil paintings of the Virgin and St. John the Evangelist by John La Farge, which will also be featured in the exhibition.
Originally created by La Farge in 1889, the triptych of windows was presented to the McMullen in honor of three Boston College Jesuits: University President William P. Leahy, SJ, former President and University Chancellor J. Donald Monan, SJ, and the late William Neenan, SJ; and in memory of the artist’s son, also a Jesuit, John La Farge, Jr., SJ (1880–1963), beloved by many for his activism against racism and anti-Semitism. The stained glass windows—which have been cleaned and restored by Roberto Rosa and his fellow conservators at Serpentino Stained Glass Studio—will have their permanent home in the atrium of Boston College’s new McMullen Museum of Art at 2101 Commonwealth Avenue, slated for completion in 2016. The two oil paintings will form part of an installation in a permanent La Farge room on the first floor of the building.  

John La Farge and the Recovery of the Sacred
This exhibition is presented in five sections: Religious Art; In Search of Nirvana; Illustrations to Fire the Imagination; Mythic Visions, and Finding God in All Things. The final section has three subsections: Landscape: Visions of Nature and Spirit; Still Life: Vanitas in the Modern World, and Decorative Works: Geometry and Order as Signs of Sacred Patterns.

La Farge—born in New York City to a successful family of French émigrés and educated in Jesuit schools—began a number of religious paintings in the 1860s that were fundamental to his development. His goal in all projects was to recover a sense of the sacred for American culture. Central to this effort was the reinvention of the art of stained glass, an area in which he was challenged by rival Louis Comfort Tiffany. Preceded by his scheme of murals and wall colors—an early benchmark for the emerging American Renaissance—La Farge’s first stained glass window for Boston’s Trinity Church was installed in 1883. This depiction of Christ in Majesty on the west façade was the model for the window of Christ Preaching (1889), now at Boston College.

La Farge embodied many of the contradictions and aspirations of his age—a deep respect for tradition juxtaposed with a modernist drive to experiment with materials and to explore space and time, roaming across global cultures and past eras. He was one of the most interesting examples of the aesthetic movement of the late nineteenth century, and his art is a unique bridge between European, Asian, Islamic, and American cultures.

For La Farge, who contemplated the nature of representation and understanding of a work of art, the mystery of art became a metaphor for the mystery of the meaning of life itself.

Exhibition: Curators, Sponsors, and Support
Organized by the McMullen Museum, John La Farge and the Recovery of the Sacred has been curated by Jeffery Howe. The exhibition is underwritten by Boston College, the Patrons of the McMullen Museum, Alison and William Vareika, and Jane and Gerard Gaughan. Additional support has been provided by the Newton College Class of 1975.

Exhibition Catalogue
A scholarly catalogue, published by the McMullen Museum, accompanies the exhibition, with essays by experts—including several from BC—in a range of disciplines: David Cave (scholar of comparative religions and director of development, Morrissey College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Boston College), Jeffery Howe, Cecelia Levin (Asian art historian, former faculty, Boston College), James O’Toole (professor and Clough Millennium Chair in History, Boston College), Virginia Raguin (professor of art history, College of the Holy Cross), and Roberto Rosa (conservator and co-owner, Serpentino Stained Glass Studio).   
McMullen Museum of Art
The McMullen Museum is renowned for organizing interdisciplinary exhibitions that ask new questions and break new ground in the display and scholarship of the works on view. It serves as a dynamic educational resource for all of New England as well as the national and international community. The Museum mounts exhibitions of international scholarly importance from all periods and cultures of the history of art. In keeping with the University’s central teaching mission, the Museum’s exhibitions are accompanied by scholarly catalogues and related public programs. The McMullen Museum of Art was named in 1996 for the late BC benefactor, trustee, and art collector John J. McMullen and his wife Jacqueline McMullen.
McMullen Museum Hours and Tours
Admission is free; handicapped accessible, open to the public. Located in Devlin Hall 110
on BC’s Chestnut Hill campus, 140 Commonwealth Avenue. Hours during this exhibition: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Closed on September 7, October 12, and November 26–27. No campus parking available on: Friday, September 18; and Saturdays: September 5, 12, 26; October 10, 31; November 7. Free docent-led tours every Sunday at 2 p.m. starting September 13. Tours also arranged upon request by calling 617.552.8587. For directions, parking, and program information, visit


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