Lessons of Faith in Glass
Stained Glass Windows: Decoration or Inspiration?
by Megan Oliver
Megan Oliver is a seventeen-year-old home-schooled senior from St. Louis, Missouri. The second oldest of eight children, she has one older sister and six younger brothers. She enjoys sewing, reading, writing, studying piano and clarinet, and playing with her baby brothers. She has been teaching piano for three years and loves it! Her other interests include raising guinea pigs and making jewelry. She hopes to major in math and music in college.
[Details about the Young Writers Award.]
Stained glass windows have been used in churches for hundreds of years. As early as the fourth century, stained glass windows, originally used by wealthy Romans in their homes, were used in Christian churches.1 The designs in glass depicted Biblical characters, the saints, martyrs, and God. In such shapes, the windows could do more than simply add light and beauty to the church. The pictures in stained glass windows can also serve another purpose; they instruct, console, and inspire those who look upon them.
One of the main and best-known purposes of stained glass windows is to add beauty to churches. For many, the beauty of stained glass windows is calming, and allows them to feel more prayerful at church. In this respect, the colors can have as much impact on one’s emotions as the picture.2 Windows using soft colors can create a calming presence that inspires one to pray. Harsh, clashing colors can take away greatly from the beauty of a church that might otherwise have been a wonderful place to meditate.3
The window portraying the Ascension in the Broadway United Methodist Church of Kansas City is an excellent example of a beautiful window. Christ is shown ascending to heaven, with His apostles clustered around where He had just been standing. Surrounding this image are twenty-one other windows, each providing a kaleidoscope of color.4
The light coming through stained glass has a dazzling effect. From within the church during the day, light streaming through the windows creates lovely patterns where it falls. This also helps create an atmosphere in which it is easy to meditate. As the light changes throughout the day, the patterns are altered, creating an ever-changing atmosphere in and out of the church. At night, light from the church coming out of the windows provides an alluring image, welcoming people to come inside.5 The seasons also affect the light coming through the windows. In the warmer months, the light is usually more brilliant. In the cooler months, the light is usually dimmer.
Light can also be used for emphasis. In the stained glass window picture of the Nativity, in the church of Saint John Nepomuk in Saint Louis, the sky, ground, and most of the people are rather dark, while the image of the Christ Child is white. This allows for the most light to shine in, showing that Christ is the Light of the world.
Stained glass windows also serve to instruct those who view them. They often portray Bible stories and the lives of the saints.6 Throughout the Middle Ages, only the wealthy and priests were educated.7 For the Church to instruct its members, Biblical plays were hosted by churches and windows were erected that portrayed Bible stories.8 Many windows showed the relationship between events from the Old Testament with events from the New Testament, such as a picture of Jonah emerging from the fish adjacent to Christ rising from the dead.9
Even today, where people are highly educated, there is much to be learned from stained glass windows. Children too young to read can learn Bible stories and stories taught in Sacred Tradition. These images, especially the more beautiful ones, can be kept in their minds forever, a perpetual remembrance of their faith.
In the times of the early Christians, when stained glass windows were used greatly for instruction, simple images could have great symbolic meaning. Articles held by the portrayed saint, how they were dressed, or where they were standing told much about the saint’s life, why they are honored, or how they died.
The aforementioned image of the Nativity offers much in the form of symbols telling stories. All of the figures but the shepherds have halos. Only two lambs are present with the shepherds; one over the shoulders of a shepherd, suggesting the parable of the Good Shepherd, and one laying on the ground suggesting that Jesus is the sacrificial Lamb. A crown and scepter lying at the foot of the manger shows that Jesus is the true King.10
Color can also have an important meaning in window symbols.11 Blue is symbolic of spiritual love and consistency. This is why the Blessed Virgin is most often portrayed wearing blue. She is also seen wearing white, the symbol of purity. Red represents blood and suffering. Green signifies hope. Numbers also have special meanings. The number one represents the unity of God, two “dualities such as good and evil”, and three, the Trinity.12 Shapes are also used to convey concepts and people. A circle, made out of a single line, represents God, the only perfect being. As God has neither beginning nor end, so does a circle. Unfortunately, the ability to “read” the symbols has been mostly lost to people, and the modern designers must use words in the windows to “convey meaning to a more literate society”.13
Other stained glass windows depict images from the catechism. Windows depicting the beatitudes, the sacraments, the four evangelists, and the corporal and spiritual works of mercy are used today for both their beauty and their instruction. These continue to educate and add beauty to the church.
Stained glass windows provide comfort to people in times of confusion or grief. Many people, seeking God’s guidance and comfort, go to church. There, stained glass windows would prove to be soothing in times of grief, comforting in times of stress, and always calming.14
One suffering from grief may find a stained glass window picture of the Blessed Virgin at the foot of the cross consoling. The Blessed Virgin was present for the passion and death of her only Son. This may offer strength to the grief-stricken as well as encourage them to pray to the Blessed Virgin.
A picture of Job and his trials may prove to be comforting to one who suffers from stress. Job is an excellent example of a man who had more reason than most to be extremely depressed. After he lost all of his possessions, his friends encouraged him to despair. Yet, he prayed to God and offered up his sufferings and trials. This may motivate the depressed to seek comfort in prayer, as Job did.
The colored light that comes from stained glass windows creates a calming atmosphere that can have an emotional impact on people.15 Many find it easier to pray in such a place. The silence of a church partnered with the soothing colored lights coming through stained glass windows helps to calm the troubled hearts of many seeking peace. One window that offers such consolation is the window of Jesus and the Children, from the First Presbyterian Church in Kennett, Missouri. Christ is illustrated with a child on His lap, His hand on the head of another, and a third child behind Him. The peaceful expressions on the faces of the children and Christ, partnered with the soft colors used, create a soothing atmosphere.16
Stained glass windows serve to inspire. They may inspire in a spiritual way, such as helping one to see God’s will. They may inspire in a practical way, such as serving as the inspiration for a piece of work.17
They may help one to see the will of God. This may be done by a person contemplating on a window of a priest, nun, or monk, perhaps being inspired to enter the religious life.
Stained glass windows may also be the inspiration for a piece of work. One may chose to write a poem about a stained glass window. One may use stained glass windows as the topic for a paragraph, essay, or research report. Stained glass may be the inspiration for a musical piece. One may even see a person or event portrayed in stained glass and use it as the model or subject for a statue or painting.
Stained glass windows may also inspire people to holiness. Contemplating a window depicting a saint or the Holy Family may inspire people to lead a better life or to offer up their trials. Reflecting on a window portraying a holy saint may encourage one to strengthen one’s prayer life.
It is clear that stained glass windows offer more than simply beauty; they also offer education, consolation, and inspiration in churches worldwide. From early Christianity to the present, the Church has used stained glass windows to help educate its members. Stained glass windows have helped thousands of people grow in faith through both their beauty and the images they portray. The calming effect provided by stained glass windows fosters a prayerful atmosphere in churches. Stained glass windows have aided worship for thousands of people for many generations and will continue to do so for generations to come.
1 Shannon Fitzgerald, “Ancient Origins” in “Introductory History of Stained Glass”, www.uwm.edu/Dept/ArtHistory/StainedGlass/history.htm.
7 “VII Medieval Education” in “History of Education”, http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761561415_2/History_of_Education.html#s8, 2007.
14 Joan Mitchell, “… an aura of sublime quietude that soothes the spirit…” in “Reflections On A Stained Glass Window In Christ Church”, www.mysticlightpress.com/index.php?page_id=49.
17 “…were designed to influence, to inspire, and to stimulate the worshipper…” in “Stained Glass Windows”, www.fbchsv.org/ aboutfbc/windows.html, 2007.
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