Stained glass boldly glorifies God and silently speaks to the soul as no other medium can. Powered by pure light, this art form builds upon God’s first creation to enhance the architecture of worship with a glow that is universally and intuitively understood. It is practical and beautiful, a fine art finely crafted, with a prominence and permanence unlike other decorative or liturgical arts. Thus it has a long past and a bright future in the buildings of faith and the affection of the faithful.
Colored glass and lead matrix are merely the physical trappings of the form. The true art of stained glass is an experiential one, dependent upon the ever changing element of light to create fresh tapestries with every sunrise. Light, the visual yet ethereal metaphor of all that is good and life affirming, streams through the glass panels and transforms the worship space throughout the days and seasons. Pools of light and color float around the room from morning to evening, while the windows change their hue and intensity from summer to winter. It is a delicate dance of vivid texture and tone, emanating from the framework and alighting on pews and linens, stone and wood, choreographed over time and space as a recurring reminder of God’s eternal presence as a thing of beauty that is periodically revealed to us but cannot be not captured or confined.
Windows are necessary construction features but stained glass makes them distinctly purposeful to the faith environment. This unique art form reflects God’s own priorities in adding beauty and variety to the practical and the mundane. As windows, they protect the building’s interior from the elements as well as any other but by their color and form, they do so in a way that can be astonishingly beautiful, just as crops flower to feed us spiritually as well as physically. And because the purpose of a sacred space is not so much shelter from the elements as from despair, the inspirational and meditative qualities of stained glass are at least as important as its structural capabilities.
The combination of art and craft, style and structure qualifies stained glass as both a fine art and an architectural one. The raw materials are transformed into a transparent canvas individually engineered and fabricated by hand to be permanently installed in a specific location. Even in America, mass production is of little benefit to the glass studio, where original designs are sketched and colored, detailed portraits and intricate scenes and patterns are painted on glass and kiln-fired piece by piece, dozens of glass fragments and lead strips are precisely joined together to build a panel, and these sections are finally fitted into the framework by installers who often have to build and climb high scaffolding to reach the settings. It is a prayerful and careful business, a collaborative labor of love by artist, craftworkers, and architect, resulting in a lasting legacy, a living, luminous icon of light.
Whether involved only in determining the size, number, and location of window openings, or fully immersed in the selection of style and subject matter for stained glass, the architect creates a master plan to ensure proper proportions of windows to walls when the artisans have executed their works. Like acoustics in a concert hall, the intangible sacred art and concrete architecture are inextricably intertwined in a marriage of beauty and building, and must be compatible with one another if their union is to be a happy one that lasts for many lifetimes. Liturgical appointments and furnishings may come and go as they follow seasons or trends but the windows are an integral architectural feature. On the exterior edifice, the lace-like patterns of their monotone panels denote the building’s purpose and act as delicate veils, shrouding the inner beauty of the space from the harsh glare of the world. Inside, even the smallest stained glass windows bestow a jewel like quality on a multifaceted religious experience, from joy to grief, communal to solitary. Indeed, stained glass serves as a glorious backdrop to gatherings and celebrations but, in those quiet moments when there is neither sermon nor song to guide or console, the empty space still echoes of the architect’s original composition, forever interpreted by mason and glazier, who have left behind a visual harmony, a continuous hymn of praise in stone and glass.
While the durability of stained glass is evidenced by its longevity as a material in existing buildings, its future as a religious art form is assured by its long history and widespread use. Universally associated with religious buildings, stained glass was developed a millennium ago as a Christian art, and has since migrated to other faiths in various forms. In the churches, it was traditionally employed as the ‘poor man’s Bible,’ offering a detailed visual narrative of the Gospel to those who could neither afford nor read books. It was adapted for temples, mosques, and meditation centers, with symbolic or non-representational panels that make powerful use of the material with little or no embellishment, simply to screen out the secular world and bathe the worshipful one in light – an approach which has come full circle to the church in its modern minimalist spaces.
Despite having kept pace with –and even established a few– architectural trends over the past millennium, as charities dependent on donations, religious institutions can never hope to keep up with the latest technological advancements in visual presentations; instead, they have the opportunity –and perhaps the responsibility– to maintain a history of patronage and the highest standards for an art form that is truly their own: one that experiments with new techniques but respects the creativity of the designer and the skill of the craftworker rather than the speed of a computer, one that is commissioned and owned by a community rather than a collector, one that helps to form that community by shaping its collective identity and memory, one that waxes and wanes in intensity with the momentary movement of the sun and the clouds, creating the ‘living windows’ which breathe life into our sacred spaces. In so many ways, stained glass is quintessentially a sacred art, as it strives to mirror the God it glorifies: it is awe inspiring and luminous, and its beauty transcends words with a clarity that is true and good and pure as the light that brings it to life.
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This article appeared in the national ecumenical magazine, Faith & Form, in 2009.
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