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Thursday, January 29, 2015

The "Searching for a Read: Part VII - Mercer Tiles" Story

Foreword:  My stories on St. James Episcopal Church are slowly coming to an end.  Over the course of my posts I have taken the text and photos written by Franklin & Marshall professor H.M. J. Klein and long time church and vestry member, William F. Diller and  tried to make it more manageable to read.  I'm sure I have inadvertently deleted some important features or may have misinterpreted the text and changed history somewhat, for which I am sorry.  I have thoroughly enjoyed writing these stories about my church as I recuperated from back surgery and hope you enjoyed reading my interpretation of the history of St. James.

St. James Church altar surrounded with Mercer tiles.
It was an ordinary day.  Standing in front of the altar of St. James Episcopal Church in downtown Lancaster, Pennsyl- vania taking photographs of the biblical tiles that were installed in 1916.  The three-dimensional, hand-painted clay tiles tell the stories of the Bible in remarkable artistic renderings that are fashioned from clay.  
Henry Mercer - 1856-1930
The artist of these tiles is archaeologist Henry Chapman Mercer who founded the Moravian Pottery & Tile Works in 1898 in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.  The name of his business came from the Moravian cast-iron stove plates from which he eventually obtained his tile designs.  The Salem United Church of Christ (a short distance from his tile works), the Fonthill Museum (formerly Mercer's estate), the Mercer Museum, a church in Baltimore, MD, and the Lancaster Theological Seminary in Lancaster, PA are thought to be the only other places besides St. James  that feature biblical tiles, since the designs were never duplicated after these installations.  
The Moravian Pottery & Tile Works in Doylestown, PA
The designs for Mercer's tiles were inspired by stove plates that date back to the 16th century, primarily from Germany.  German immigrants in the 18th century tried to replicate the stove plates, but were not the craftsmen that their forefathers were.  The stove plates would line the inside of a stove on all sides and many of them featured biblical stories.  
A stove plate is part of the fireplace design at the Deitz
Refectory at the Lancaster Theological Seminary in Lancaster, PA.
Eventually stove plates fell out of favor leading to their near extinction until the early 1900's when they became collector's items.  Henry Mercer acquired a large collection of the intricately designed stove plates and eventually made plaster casts of the designs so he could use them as molds to make his tiles.
One of the tiles in St. James titled "Wedding at Cana,
Changing of water to wine."  This is from St. John 2:1-11.
Notice the colors and glazes on the tiles.
He imprinted the designs on the clay with a hand-operated tile press and applied glaze with a method capable of producing a large range of colors and different effects.  Mercer later wrote a book called The Bible In Iron to tell the tale of his bible tiles.  
This tile is titled "Miracle of the oil." On the left - Widow
approaches the prophet; center - Widow pours oil from
  miraculous jug; right - Man pours oil.  From II Kings 4:1-7.

The tiles in St. James came about during the Arts and Crafts Movement in America which was from 1875-1920. I took photos of many of the biblical tiles and then found that our church secretary, Karen, had designed a small pamphlet titled "Chancel Tiles" telling what verses of the Bible are associated with the different tiles in the church's apse.  
A tile titled "Peace" which is represented by Mennonites.
I should mention that at the time I was reading about the Mercer tiles as described in my Foreword, there was an article  published in our local newspaper telling about the Mercer tiles at the Lancaster Theological Seminary.  I gave the Seminary a call and made a visit to view their tiles which I must say are less colorful and dramatic than the tiles I am standing in front of at the moment.  
The beautiful and glowing Mercer tiles line the
main aisle of St. James Episcopal Church.
The St. James tiles were installed, as stated before, in 1916 and then in 1927 the weathered carpet on the church's floor was replaced with Mercer floor tiles.  Then again, a few years ago, during another renovation, more Mercer tiles were added in our new Narthex.  I know a two-dimensional photo cannot duplicate the beauty of the three-dimensional colorful tiles, but you can still get an idea of Mercer's artistry and what the parishioners of St. James get to see all the time when they attend church services at the historical church in downtown Lancaster.  It was another extraordinary day in the life of an ordinary guy.  
PS - remember to click on the photos to enlarge them.

Here you can see the Mercer floor tiles leading to the altar.
Another photograph showing the apse with the Mercer Chancel tiles.
Looking towards the west side of the church.  Tiles line the floor from front to back.
One of many individual tiles that add artistic balance to the Chancel tiles. 
"Garden of Eden" scene from Genesis 2
Corner tile titled "Miracle of the widow's oil" from II Kings 4:1-7
This is part of the new construction that was recently finished.  The tiles are new Mercer tiles and are part of the Narthex.  Directly through the windows can be seen our new fountain to the left and the windows of the Chapel hallway to the right.
This photograph is from the St. James website and shows the church steeple in the center with the Narthex to the left.
This is a photograph I took years ago from the church steeple.  It shows the original courtyard which is the same area in the above photo where the fountain is located.   In my younger years I was not fazed by climbing the winding and narrow steeple stairs to exit onto the landing where the church bell was located.  The cross in the courtyard was made from a large tree that had died.  The Chapel is the building at the top of the photo.  
And finally, the inside of the brochure that was designed and printed by our church secretary, Karen.  Click on the photo and you can see all the tiles that are part of our Henry Mercer Chancel Tiles.

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