The marble baptismal font that anchors the southwest corner of the nave is beloved by the congregation. It is a work of beauty and nobility, timeless in its appeal and meaning. The youthful, kneeling angel with long, flowing hair wears a garland of flowers around its head and holds a large scallop shell that serves to dispense the waters of baptism. The angel font and the congregation share a long history in the venerable building. The font was the first work of art to be installed in the newly completed Grant Street church. It was also an important work of liturgical art, employed to celebrate the baptismal liturgy.
The centrality of the sacrament of Holy Baptism in the Lutheran Church was demonstrated physically by the initial placement of the font. Less than one year after consecration of the building, the 8,000 pound solid marble sculpture was brought into the church, maneuvered up the main aisle between the sections of new wooden pews, and carefully set into position at the midpoint of the chancel, just beyond the chancel rail at the head of the nave’s center aisle. It was placed at the base of the chancel steps, directly in front of the altar. (The chancel was configured differently at the time.) Members of the congregation must have been deeply affected by the luminous angel of baptism that greeted them on the Sunday after its October, 1889 installation. A substantial three-dimensional sculpture, the white polished marble baptismal font was conspicuous in the subdued, dimly-lit nave, against which it stood a striking contrast. Electrical illumination had not yet been introduced into the nave, and the decoration of the Gothic interior was restrained and linear: dark, carved woodwork, stained glass windows and delicate stenciling on the walls.
The font was given to First Church as a congregational memorial to Charles Porterfield Krauth (d.1883), sixth pastor of the parish and an eminent nineteenth century American Lutheran scholar and theologian. Parish leader B. Frank Weyman, the donor of the memorial, greatly admired Dr. Krauth. A wealthy local businessman with a thriving tobacco establishment in downtown Pittsburgh, Mr. Weyman enjoyed traveling to Europe. It is likely that, while visiting Italy in 1887, Mr. Weyman commissioned the baptismal font from an American sculptor working in Florence–a man with the name of either Park or Frank Vittor. Both names are mentioned in archival records and the identity of the sculptor is unclear. The font was to be executed in white Carrera marble, a find-grained stone suited to the carving of traditional sculpture and quarried in the nearby town of Carrara. Nearly five hundred years earlier, Michelangelo had selected the same exquisite marble for his first masterpiece, the Pieta. The timing and circumstances of Mr. Weyman’s order for the execution of the font were fortuitious: the commission provided a fitting tribute to Dr. Krauth, anticipated the completion of the new church building, and brought a font into the church so that the liturgy of Holy Baptism could be celebrated properly.
In its subject matter and aesthetic appeal, the baptismal font reflects Late Victorian sensibilities and taste. The angel is in harmony with its surroundings and seems to be at home in the setting of the late nineteenth century Gothic church interior. As the catalogue entry indicates, however, the font is a copy of an earlier nineteenth century work, Bertel Thorwaldsen’s sculpture known as “The Kneeling Angel”. Thorwaldsen carved the original angel font in Rome in 1827 for the church of Our Lady–the Vor Frue Kirke–in Copenhagen, Denmark. It was a part of a major commission for this Lutheran church that also included sculptures of Christ and the Apostles. Born in Copenhagen, Thorwaldsen spent most of his life in Italy, first as a student of antiquity, and later, as a teacher and sculptor working in the classical tradition. His works were highly regarded and immensely popular throughout the nineteenth century in Europe and in the United States. Thorwaldsen’s working methods, especially the use of full-scale plaster models and specialized mechanical devices, made it possible for others to copy his works with accuracy. His studio in Rome employed sculptors of all nationalities, including Americans.
Half a century after Thorwaldsen’s death in 1844, the artist’s original sculptures continued to serve as prototypes for new marble copies. The number of copies made of a work was limited only by the number of copies commissioned, so editions of a work–especially the most popular ones–remained open for decades. These are the conditions under which First Church’s angel font was executed between 1887 and 1889. It is not known how many copies of “The Kneeling Angel” were made, but it is likely that numerous copies exist in Europe and in the United States. The only known copy was purchased in 1891 by the pastor of the First Universalist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota as a gift to his congregation. The piece now stands in the nave of the roman Catholic church of our Lady of Lourdes, in the same city. A comparison of First Church’s font with the Minneapolis font reveals subtle, but clear stylistic and compositional differences between the two copies, notably in the slight variations in the tilt of the heads and in the direction of the angels’ gazes. First Church’s angel also appears to be younger and its facial features modeled more softly. Discrepancies between copies of a work might indicate flaws in the copying method, but they also show the hand of different artisans. Each copy can be considered an original in its own right.
The story of the angel font’s creation and journey to Pittsburgh more than a century ago is engaging, but it does not overshadow the theological and liturgical significance of the work. A devout Lutheran, Mr. Weyman would have commissioned the font for its appropriateness to the ecclesiastical and aesthetic needs of First Lutheran Church. The baptismal font brings together two images–angel and shell–into a whole that is unified in appearance and meaning. Angels are spiritual beings, whose roles as protectors and guardians of human beings is scriptural. The angel’s presence in the nave is especially suitable in the context of the baptismal liturgy. In its arms, the kneeling angel holds a scallop shell, traditional symbol of Holy Baptism. At First Church, the cleansing waters of baptism are dispensed from the shell. The angel font holds an honored place in the liturgy and in the nave.