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Heart of Glass

On the windows of Sterling Memorial Library, there are knights and ladies, doctors and nurses, saints and characters from Shakespeare. There are scenes from Hiawatha, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and Huckleberry Finn. There’s a smiling chef presenting a Christmas pudding, a medieval David swinging his slingshot at Goliath, and an eighteenth-century Japanese dancer.


The 3,301 stained-glass images in Sterling were created in just over a year.

All of them—the majority brilliantly rendered reproductions, some of them original art—are the work of G. Owen Bonawit (1891–1971), a New York City master craftsman, and his studio. Sterling has 3,301 of these stained-glass decorations, including nearly 700 full-sized window panes. They were produced in a staggering burst of creativity that lasted just over a year, during 1930 and 1931.

According to Gay Walker’s Bonawit, Stained Glass and Yale,  Bonawit’s father and uncle were both stained-glass craftsmen, and Bonawit trained in design at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Early in his career, James Gamble Rogers chose him to produce the windows of Harkness Tower and the Memorial Quadrangle (now Branford and Saybrook Colleges). For Sterling Library, Rogers directed that “the Ornamentation is . to symbolize the great or interesting facts connected with libraries, bibliography, books, etc.” Accordingly, a Committee on Decoration decided on the subjects for the stained glass, and library staff searched the collections for images for Bonawit to adapt. For some subjects, Bonawit created the design himself.

Adequate light for reading was essential in the library, so large portions of the windows were left clear, with only small medallions of decorated glass. For most of the work, Bonawit used a medieval method combining deep brown paint with silver stain that produced a range of golden tones when the glass was fired.

Probably the most spectacular work is in Sterling’s vast entrance hall. Each of the ten large upper windows carries eight panels on the history of New Haven, Yale, and the library. Some of the more notable scenes include Sir Isaac Newton selecting books from his library for the Collegiate School, ox carts fording a stream to bring the college’s books to New Haven, and students in 1764 caught feasting on stolen chickens.

The art in many of the rooms reflects their original purpose. There was Japanese art for the Far Eastern Collection and, in the staff lunch room,  literature of food: Little Jack Horner, Jack Spratt and his wife, and the Queen of Hearts.

Bonawit went on to design windows for Trumbull, Jonathan Edwards, and Berkeley colleges and the Hall of Graduate Studies—as well as Temple Emanu-El in New York City, the palace of the King of Siam, and many other venues. But in 1941, newly divorced and struggling financially in the aftermath of the Depression, Bonawit closed his studio, destroyed his records, sold the last of his glass, and moved to the Southwest. There he became a technical photographer. Some of the last commissions for this astonishingly creative artist were  to photograph Arizona’s Parker Dam and the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.  the end


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