SR. LOUISE ZDUNICH, NDC
August 29, 2011
Please tell us the story of stained glass windows.
Stained glass windows are one of the most interesting phenomena in art. We might wonder why not simply paint pictures as it would be a lot easier than meticulously arranging pieces of coloured glass. However, their translucent beauty has a special characteristic not found in other forms of art.
Glass, it seems, was the earliest product used in ancient times as decoration in temples, tombs, palaces and as personal adornment. Many fragments of these ornaments have been discovered among the ruins of ancient cities.
However, the glazing of window openings cannot be traced back further than 306 BC with the arranging of coloured pieces of pot-metal, an easily malleable combination of cheap metals.
A full appreciation of glass to transmit light and decorate walls came only with 12th century Gothic architecture, which provided large window openings. As the remaining wall spaces were small, the window openings were the most available spaces for coloured decoration. The windows had to be strong enough to keep out the elements and transparent enough to admit light.
The earliest windows were mosaics made with small pieces of coloured glass usually held together with strips of lead. When figure subjects were added, painting on the glass with metallic pigments was introduced.
The oldest surviving painted window, believed to be late 11th century, in the Ascension in the Cathedral of Le Mans, France, is vibrant with rich tones. The 13th and 14th centuries produced windows even more brilliant in colour and more skilfully executed. Among the most beautiful are the France's Chartres Cathedral's 143 exquisite jewel-like windows containing 1,350 subjects with more than 3,000 figures.
As better materials became available, the windows were more brilliant in colour and more skilfully blended, the figures drawn better and the faces more delicate with a natural expression to the eyes.
However, the end of the 14th and the 15th century brought changes. Artists failed to understand the meaning of stained glass windows and the need to make them in keeping with the architecture of the building. Therefore, the rules governing good window art were lost.
The French Revolution led to a rejection of religious beliefs which resulted in a lack of appreciation of the significance and beauty of stained glass windows. This led to the destruction of many beautiful windows which were considered old-fashioned. However, the late 18th and the 19th centuries brought a revival of portrayals of the faith in stained glass.
Why did stained glass windows develop such importance in religious art? When light comes through stained glass in churches, it draws forth a faith in God whose first act of creation was the marvellous gift of light. As the windows come to life only when illuminated by light, they seem to show forth God's presence most clearly.
At a time when few people could read, they were a basis for catechetical teaching. Bible stories and lives of the saints were brought to life by the light of God's presence in these windows.
Stained glass windows require artistic skill to design and engineering skill to assemble the pieces and make the window fit well enough to keep out the elements and support its own weight. By shutting out a view of the outside world, they help keep the focus on God.
The artists whose skill coupled with faith create these inspiring images are like icon writers who offer holy images which enable us to pray. They are like musicians who create sublime sound which transports us beyond the mundane. These artists' God-given gifts create beauty which stimulates our faith and draws our minds and hearts to God.
Today, a number of our churches are adding beautiful stained glass windows. Some of these are symbolic representations such as those in St. Joseph's Seminary Chapel which portray the sacraments. Others depict saints and holy people most meaningful to that particular church. These include the new windows in Our Lady of the Nativity Croatian Church which are to be blessed for the feast of Mary's Nativity on Sept. 8.
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