CHURCH WINDOWS

I’ve long joked that our Quaker meetinghouse has the prettiest stained-glass windows in town. That’s because they’re clear, looking out to the hardwood trees surrounding the grounds and all of the seasonal changes. The colors are those of snow and ice, spring greening, fog, mist, rainfall, autumn foliage. Admittedly, the new synagogue, with its view over a hillside to forest beyond, and the Methodists, at the edge of a millpond, can make rival cases. I’ll plead to being partial.

Crucially, though, transparent windows remind us of the world beyond the house where we sit in worship, a reflection of our awareness that our faith is a constant part of our various daily life activities. They remind us as well of the powerful rhythms of nature and God’s creation.

On the other hand, most congregations – including the Evangelical United Brethren of my childhood – gather within rooms of filtered light cast by stained-glass designs. I was puzzled by it then, and remain so today. Yes, I know the colored windows of the great medieval cathedrals were illustrated storybooks for the illiterate populace, but what I encountered always felt second-rate and often mildewed. Few individuals, I suspect, could say much of anything about the event being depicted or express any understanding of the decorative filling. Pointedly, the translucent windows cut off any view beyond the room. Perhaps the intention is to create a holy space – one set apart from normal life; perhaps, too, this hints at eternity as a departure from the landscape we know. But a shady or even creepy quality always seemed to lurk in the shadows. This is, I will note, quite different from the icon-based frescoes of Eastern Orthodox custom.

Apart from a few December afternoons at the National Cathedral in Washington, when I finally experienced the dazzling sunlight through the windows and recognized how Rose windows earned their esteem, my encounters with stained glass were few and fleeting. That is, until late one afternoon last year when I arrived early for our weekly chorus session and stepped from the room where we rehearse, crossing into the sanctuary on the other side of the sliding shutters. The square vaulted room is dominated by two imposing displays in traditional style – painting, essentially on pieces of colored glass that are then leaded together. Something about these, though, suggests quality sustained by wealthy donors. The impressive room has demanded closer investigation.

If the late 19th century brought about a flowering of stained glass in America, it was also a time before the spread of public art museums. Windows like these, then, would have been art made available to all for their wonderment.

The south wall of the sanctuary is dominated by this traditional design, which includes a row of named angels along the bottom.
The south wall of the sanctuary is dominated by this traditional design, which includes a row of named angels along the bottom.
A detail of one of the angels.
A detail of one of the south windows.
Traditional stained-glass style using cut pieces painted with enamel.
Traditional stained-glass style using cut pieces painted with enamel.
A decorative window in a social hall where our chorus rehearses.
A decorative window in a social hall where our chorus rehearses.

5 thoughts on “CHURCH WINDOWS

    1. Many of them, we might note, are also in need of some costly maintenance … before we lose them. The deep pockets that was funded such care, alas, are no longer around in these places.

  1. Interesting, I absolutely love stained glass, but I prefer clear glass so I can look out at God’s creation. For me it is out in nature that I see and hear Him the most…

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