Spotlight: Lydia of Thyatira

The New Testament is full of singular characters who are effected by Jesus or one of his followers and thereby leave their mark throughout history.  Lydia of Thyatira is one such figure.  She is mentioned briefly in Chapter 16 of the Acts of the Apostles, encountering St. Paul and his disciples and convincing them that she, though a Gentile, believes in Jesus.  Her minor place in the stories of the missionary work of the disciples created an interesting place for her in the religious and art historical imagination.

How to Know Her: In Acts 16: 13-15, it is noted that Lydia is a “dealer in purple cloth”.  The inclusion of this description indicates that this new follower was not just a woman but a woman of prominence, as she was recognized on her own as a merchant.  Specifically, she traded in a purple dye from Asia Minor that was known and sold throughout the Roman Empire.  Her name, as well as her job, is indicative of her location; it is believed that “Lydia” is an ethnicon, a name that is eponymous with one’s place of origin, denoting that she was from Lydia, in present-day Turkey.

If you think you might see Lydia in a work of art, you will know it’s her by her purple garments.

Where to Find Her: Lydia is regarded as a saint in the Eastern Orthodox churches, so she is much more often found in icons rather than in Western European paintings.

Though few examples of Lydia exist in NYC collections, you can see one example in person through January 20 in Louis C. Tiffany and The Art of Devotion on view at MOBIA.

Tiffany Studios, New York
Design attributed to Edward P. Sperry
Lydia Entertaining Christ and the Apostles, Griffin Memorial Window for Centennial Baptist Church, Chicago, Illinois, before 1910
The Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass, Long Island City, New York

 This window’s title is interesting in that it claims that Lydia is encountering Christ and his disciples, while the Bible records that she never actually met Jesus; she encountered Paul and his disciples. The three men with whom she is speaking, then, are most likely St. Paul, with his back towards the viewer, and his disciples, Timothy and Silas.

Lydia Entertaining Christ and the Apostles is an example of Tiffany’s experimentation with opalescent glass.  Though this type of glass was not an entirely new discovery, its application to decorative windows was innovative.  Initially made to imitate porcelain, opalescent glass was widely used to make pressed-glass objects, but Tiffany was quick to envision its creative potential as a means of giving greater detail and shading to leaded-glass windows. 

One of the first kinds of opalescent glass to be produced in sheets was known as “drapery” glass.  Tiffany manipulated this glass to effectively convey the folds and drape of fabric in glass.  For example, Lydia’s robe is rendered naturalistically through the use of fan drapery glass, which is made by holding one end of the roller still and pushing the other end in short, regular intervals across the molten surface of the glass to create fan-shaped folds that emanate from a single point.

– T.C. for MOBIA