Rowan LeCompte (1925-2014) was a world-renowned stained-glass artist best known for his work in Washington National Cathedral that spanned an unprecedented 70 years of artistic commission. Rowan LeCompte: A Life in Light celebrates LeCompte’s artistic inspiration, distinctive technique, and unique perspective on a medieval decorative art which he transformed into a fine art for modern times.

Interviews with family members, collaborators, and Rowan himself trace his fascinating trajectory from a determined teenager who found his life’s calling in the possibilities of color and light to an unstoppable, charming octogenarian with a clear vision of what stained glass can do within and beyond cathedral walls. More than an artist biography, the film illuminates the essence of human nature and its balance of light and darkness.

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Where to Watch

Rowan LeCompte: A Life in Light comes to CPTV Spirit and CPTV in May 2020. Tune in on:

  • Thursday, May 7 at 10 p.m. on CPTV Spirit
  • Sunday, May 10 at 10 a.m. on CPTV Spirit
  • Thursday, May 14 at 11 a.m. on CPTV Spirit
  • Monday, May 25 at 10 p.m. on CPTV

Here’s how to find CPTV Spirit on your cable channel.

The program is also now available to stream on this page, on video.cptv.org and on CPTV and PBS streaming platforms.

More About the Program

Rowan LeCompte was a world-renowned stained glass artist best known for his work in the Washington National Cathedral, spanning an unprecedented 70 years of artistic commission.

Growing up in Baltimore, young Rowan LeCompte was fascinated by color and light, collecting colored glass fragments that his older, scientist brother, Stuart, had discarded from his lab at Johns Hopkins. His brother’s lessons in geology and biology nurtured a curiosity that formed the groundwork for stunning depictions in stained-glass storytelling. But a visit to Washington National Cathedral at age 14 with an aunt would prove transformative for LeCompte, so moved by the beauty of the relationship of color and architecture he later referred to the day as his “second birthday.” Inspired to study stained glass to combine his love of architecture and painting, at age 15, LeCompte knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

Just a year later, through dogged determination that led to an introduction to Philip Frohman, the architect of the National Cathedral, he earned his first commission in the very place that forged his destiny. As shown in the film, Rowan LeCompte’s seven decades of work in stained glass not only fulfilled his teen ambition beyond expectations – a rare feat in any field – it changed the art form itself.

As LeCompte saw it, the muted, quiet stained glass often used in churches is, as he explains in the film with a wink, “why people fall asleep in church.” His work would break that mold with an unprecedented richness of color and attention to the patterns of daylight and weather in relation to glass.

Frohman himself wanted “sparkle” in the windows of his buildings, and LeCompte happily obliged, eventually honing a distinctive technique marked by the use of cross-hatching to paint the glass and chipping to create facets in the glass that would scatter the light coming through a window and manipulate transparency to dynamic effect. LeCompte called his iconic “West Rose” window “just one person’s meditation on the complexity of the universe,” but his modesty belied the impact of his imagination and innovative designs on the potential for storytelling in modern stained glass.

Rowan LeCompte redid the Isaiah window in his 18-part series for the Nave Clerestory at Washington National Cathedral to better manipulate the light and its effect on the choir’s performances. (Photo credit: Peter Swanson)

Rowan LeCompte: A Life in Light takes viewers behind-the-scenes of LeCompte’s process, hearing from the artist firsthand about his unexpected inspirations – and rejected ideas – for color and design, and watching him work from the first “cartoon” drawings that are the story board for the window to painting the finishing touches on some of his best known work.

Viewers also hear from LeCompte’s two main collaborators in his late career – master stained-glass maker Mary Clerkin Higgins, who helped finish painting his later windows using his techniques, and master craftsman Dieter Goldkuhle, who cut and assembled the glass to LeCompte’s specifications.

Viewers gain a deeper understanding of Rowan LeCompte’s artistic philosophy in personal interviews with the charming, gentle man behind this powerful art, filmed over a period of 10 years in his studio. Further insight from LeCompte’s widow Peggy and nephew Robert explores his early home life, his deployment to Belgium during World War II and its influence on his art, and his marriage and artistic partnership with the late Irene Matz LeCompte.

As Mary Clerkin Higgins explains in the film, Rowan LeCompte “brought a serious modernity to the stained-glass world” that elevated this traditional religious adornment beyond decorative art to fine art. At times it caused him to be at odds with his commissioners, but LeCompte talks in the film about not sacrificing beauty for the sake of message in his windows, specifically in the design of the West Rose window, his most famous commission for the National Cathedral. Inspired by the light and color of the fall leaves of the Shenandoah Valley, the artist set out in his words, “Free of having to preach,” offering “no lessons to be learned” but designed in a way that people would want to study it for its own artistic merit. LeCompte’s windows for the cathedral that sparked his career, as well as others around the world, demonstrate how innovation can illuminate the world in new ways.

One of his last projects before his death at age 88 in 2014, for a church in North Carolina, is shown unfinished in the film in the early painting stage. It used not religious figures but, as LeCompte describes, “people trying to make the world a better place – doctors, musicians, all the people.” It was this single-minded determination to create works that make the world a more beautiful place that will mark Rowan LeCompte as a great master for years to come.

Rowan LeCompte: A Life in Light follows Peter Swanson’s film Let There Be Light, which documented LeCompte’s final commission for the Washington National Cathedral’s centennial celebration. The film – winner of the Best of Festival award at Washington, D.C.’s Independent Film Festival – was distributed via American Public Television (APT) to public television stations in 2017.

Rowan LeCompte: A Life in Light is presented by Connecticut Public Television (CPTV) and distributed by APT.

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