At the turn of the twentieth century, a church building boom provided new opportunities for artists and craftsmen. The blending of religious traditions was characteristic of the era. Influenced by the Gothic Revival and the Anglo-Catholic movement, High Church Anglicans and Episcopalians assimilated Catholic ecclesiastical decoration and embellished their churches for the glory of God and the enjoyment of their congregations. Presbyterian churches, once austerely neoclassical, added brilliant stained glass windows as memorials to their deceased members. Christian Science, a new, controversial sect without an architectural tradition, adopted High Renaissance classicism to lend authority to its places of worship.
Violet Oakley decorated church interiors with stained glass and murals over a period of fifty years. She was well-equipped to meet the rigorous demands of religious art, which required exceptional skill at drawing the human figure, the ability to visually articulate theological principles, and knowledge of Christian iconography. Raised in an Episcopalian family devoted to Bible reading, she was familiar with Holy Scripture from childhood. Studying art in museums and churches at home and abroad convinced her that, as she noted in a 1930 interview with the New York Herald Tribune, “Religion has been the inspiration of most of the significant painting in the world.”
In 1899, at age twenty-five, Oakley obtained an apprenticeship in stained glass at the Church Glass and Decorating Company of New York. On the strength of her apprentice piece, an Epiphany stained glass window, she was hired to design murals, lancet windows, and a mosaic reredos in the chancel of All Angels Church on the Upper West Side. Her highly acclaimed chancel decorations brought her to the attention of the art world and attracted other commissions, including a mural series at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in 1902. She designed a stained glass window of Three Marys at the Sepulchre for the Convent of the Sisters of the Holy Child in Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania, in 1903. (Its present location is unknown.) Five years later, she produced a double-lancet memorial window of The Wise and Foolish Virgins (1908–9) for Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church in Germantown. As an instructor in mural decoration at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) from 1912 to 1917, Oakley trained her student Edith Emerson in ecclesiastical stained glass design. With her mentor’s support, Emerson received a commission in 1919 to design the monumental Elijah window as a memorial to President Theodore Roosevelt for Keneseth Israel Synagogue in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania.
During the late twentieth century, dwindling religious congregations sold or demolished their churches. Consequently, most of Oakley’s early ecclesiastical decorations were removed from their original sites and—with the sole exception of The Wise and Foolish Virgins, now in PAFA’s collection—their current whereabouts are unknown. However, many of Oakley’s preparatory drawings, preliminary studies, cartoons, and photographs have survived, making it possible to reconstruct and research her first religious commissions. Fortunately, a later religious mural series, The Great Women of the Bible (1945–49), is preserved in excellent condition in its original site at First Presbyterian Church of Germantown.
While Oakley maintained an ecumenical attitude toward religion, Christian Science was the center of her spiritual life. Founded in 1879 by Mary Baker Eddy with a feminist interpretation of Scripture and faith in spiritual healing, Christian Science initially attracted large numbers of women who were denied a role in the theology and the clergy of mainstream Protestant churches. Oakley consulted a Christian Science practitioner at the end of the nineteenth century when her father’s health was failing. She converted to the new religion after being cured of asthma in 1903. The following year she attended the dedication of the First Church of Christ Scientist in Concord, New Hampshire, to see Eddy in person; she made two portraits of her from memory of this experience. Oakley became an active member of the growing Christian Science community in Philadelphia. She was instrumental in the building of the first two Christian Science churches and served as Second Reader in Sunday services. In the 1930s, she contributed illustrations to several Christian Science publications, including the Christian Science Monitor, the Christian Science Sentinel, and the Christian Science Journal. The transcendent ideals of Christian Science sustained Oakley’s belief in the spiritual progress of humanity through the Depression and World War II. She passed away at High Oaks Christian Science Rest Home near Cogslea in 1961.
The religious beliefs of the Society of Friends, or Quakers, had a profound impact on Oakley’s worldview. She embraced the Quaker principles of racial and gender equality, non-violence, and international cooperation, and demonstrated their importance in American history in her mural paintings at the Pennsylvania State Capitol. Although she remained an unwavering pacifist, she supported the spiritual well-being of the American troops during World War II by making non-denominational portable altarpieces for the Citizens Committee for the Army and Navy.
Several studies for projects that were never completed shed light on Oakley’s continual interest in religious subjects, among them a stained glass window of the Vision of Saint Hubert in the Wood, Eve at the Feet of Mary Proposed Fountain, and Three Communions, an altarpiece representing the unity of religious beliefs.