The Cornaro Window
The New York Church Glass Company and Dunstan Powell, The Cornaro Window, 1906, stained glass. Thompson Memorial Library, Vassar College
The Cornaro Window, or Great Window, is the striking focal point of Vassar’s Thompson Memorial Library. In panes of painted and stained glass, the window depicts Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia (1646-84), the first woman to receive a doctorate, defending her thesis in the Cathedral of Padua in 1678. Elena was clearly intended as a model for the female students at Vassar. She has been frequently referenced in the Miscellany News and Vassar Quarterly and is a fondly remembered protectress or even companion for those studying under her watchful gaze.
Installed in 1906, the window was given by Mary Clark Thompson to Vassar to ornament the library, which she also funded. It was designed by Dunstan Powell, an Englishman, and executed by the New York Church Glass Company. Although it depicts a seventeenth-century subject, its style is revival Gothic. Its depiction of Elena was drawn from contemporary portraits of the young scholar, while the scene creatively dramatizes her thesis defense, adding invented characters and allegorical elements.
Strikingly, Elena is portrayed not only as an early modern Italian scholar, but also enthroned as a Marian figure and a personification of the Liberal Arts and Virtues. By borrowing from and synthesizing diverse sources of Medieval and Renaissance art as inspiration, the window’s designers presented Elena in a completely original mode that elevates learning to the high status of religion, and honors not only Elena herself but also women’s education overall.
Unknown sculptor, Elena Cornaro Piscopia, 1680s, marble; University of Padua, Italy (Photo: Katherine Rabogliatti)
The New York Church Glass Company and Dunstan Powell, The Cornaro Window (detail), 1906, stained glass. Thompson Memorial Library, Vassar College