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Stained Glass "Miracles" at the Cloisters

Today's New York Times has a lovely review by art critic Holland Carter of the exhibit Radiant Light: Stained Glass from Canterbury Cathedral, now on view at the Cloisters in upper Manhattan. The windows, originally designed for a shrine to Canterbury's own St. Thomas Becket, depict ancestors of Christ -- most of whom you won't find depicted in many contemporary churches. Their beauty has Cotter waxing metaphorical:

Medieval Christian religious art, like Christian theology, is based on a complicated interweaving of darkness and illumination. Church interiors were both sunk in shadow and saturated with light: sunlight filtering in through windows; candlelight glinting off gold vessels; halos radiating from images of saints. The idea that light penetrated glass but left it unbroken was taken as a symbol of the virgin birth. Churches were conceived of as truth-holding boxes of light, but also as power stations, feeding light into the world.

The review is as much meditation as appreciation, and well worth reading.

Stained glass windows, especially very old ones, are one of the best reasons to poke your head into Europe's great old churches. As for these windows, you can study them online at the Cloisters website, but I'm hoping to make a pilgrimage to see them in person. The exhibit is there through May 18, which means it can wait until Aprille with his shoures soote / The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote. On the other hand, with the winter we've had, March might be the perfect time to seek out a little extra light.

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



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Many years ago, I finished reading Barbara Tuchmann's wonderful "A Distant Mirror" in some fading January sunlight somewhere in the Cloisters... a religous experience I've always treasured.


I've always wondered why so much artistry was exercised in difficult to see stained glass windows a hundred feet above the pavement.  The traditional answer has been that the artist had God as his audience and was not concerned with mere mortals.  I believe recent scholarship has emphasized that medieval preachers and painters spoke the same language, i.e., stressed the same themes, incidents, and morals, whether biblical or familiar lives of the local saints.  There was not such a division between elite and lay understandings as was prevalent in at least some of the Renaissance.  The minor gods and goddesses, muses and so on would draw more of a blank than the obscure scenes of a St. Roch presented to a medieval. And of course in our own day there's perhaps an even more substantial gap between modern artists and the unwashed masses.


Another topic: Asubtle use of typology in the old cathedrals that might give us pause today --  Old Testament stained glass scenes were often placed along the North aisles where the light was dim as an indication of their status as fading shadows in contrast to the NT glorious scenes on the South.

"From earliest Christian times, the priest (ad orientem) and laity faced the direction of the rising sun, awaiting the Second Coming of Christ; for this reason, Catholic churches were always oriented to the East. Thus, Old Testament themes were placed on the north side, since the North was associated with darkness, cold, and evil; conversely, New Testament narratives were placed on the south side. The west side, associated with human history, typically featured the Last Judgment, serving to remind the faithful that they passed from time into eternity when they crossed the cathedral threshold."

I hasten to add that this North/South practice is not universal and certainly not common in modern churches.  Nor are Last Judgment scenes - they seemed to have vanished in the twentieth century or earlier.  Whether this is due to progressive and ecumenical attitudes or to the loss of the ability to read older churches is debatable.  

There may be an echo of the new orthodoxy (that the OT has been transcended) in Cotter's NYT conclusion:

"And, inevitably, because human history is dynamic and chaotic, the meanings of the windows have altered. Today, the ancestors they immortalize, patriarch after patriarch, imbued with the politics and prejudices of another day, are not necessarily models to admire or personalities to love."


You might also like reading Cotter's reflections on city churches from about five years ago.  A good essay for people who like living in cities.

In my father's village church, when we recite the Hail Mary children gather around a statue of Mary. On the left side above the altar, there is a large stained glass window depicting a Mary in a bright blue robe with a bright green snake under her foot, but no one ever turns to the stained glass window when praying to Mary. In fact no one in my knowledge has ever commented on what is represented on the stained glass windows in the church, as if no one paid attention to them. Why do statues attract people in a way that stained glass does not? Are glass windows, somehow, less "real" in spite of their colors?

Were stained glass windows used in liturgy in medieval times? When there was a prayer to a saint who was depicted, did they turn to look at that window in their prayer? When the reading was about some scene represented in a window, did the preacher use that window in his homily? (It never happens nowadays.) 

There is a whole season of "The Wire" devoted to a feud between the Baltimore longshoreman's union and the police that is touched off by which group has the bigger stained glass window in the local church.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that this kind of one-up-manship isn't new and that people in the Middle Ages were just as likely to make a commissioned glass a point of pride as the guys in "The Wire." 

Claire's question about the use of stained glass in liturgy is interesting, and I don't know the answer. I have seen Anglican priests refer to windows of saints in their sermons, sometimes explaining the iconography. I fear that sometimes these windows just create a general churchy ambience and fade into the background. 

In England, where small parish churches tend to be left open to visitors unlike here, the church ladies often leave little handouts or brochures by the poor box that tell you about the points of interest in the church. I was quite moved by the glass in one church, one pane of which was like a crazy quilt of medieval glass, painted with partial images. The story was that when Henry 8 was sending thugs around to smash glass, the locals carefully dismantled it and hid it in their homes, where it sustained damage. After Elizabeth came in, the parishioners brought what glass had survived back, and the broken pieces were used to create a new window.

I fear that sometimes these windows just create a general churchy ambience and fade into the background.

Me too. From Patrick Molloy's very interesting link:

 But the windows were not self-evident. In an age of aural learning, these windows were designed to be explained, to be taught: the shorthand of their visual symbols evolved over several centuries into a lexicon of identifiers for those initiated into its complex theological “facts.” [...]  “The stories are told by gestures and poses. Everything is abbreviated in a highly expressive form of narrative shorthand.”

That highly expressive narrative shorthand is precisely one of the things I love the most about those windows. Once understood, a small visual symbol is enough to enrich our prayer. But it has to be explained first, and I fear that I and others do not understand most of those symbols. Like much of the liturgy and of our religious heritage, it's a closed book.

Claire -

Yes, the way I learned it  the windows were meant to be teaching aids, more history than objects of veneration.  Also, they are two-dimensional like pages in history books.  True, most medieval people couldn't read, but some could.

Statues, on the other hand, are three-dimensiona, so they're more like the things they symbolize, which might explain why people use them as symbols for present saints. 

Re: Stained glass windows use in liturgy

It seems to me that the stained glass windows require external light passing through to be most effective as a teaching tool.

For some reason, I found the British border panel the most appealing, probably because I have a huge crush on baroque music.  I think that the symmetry of the panel has a similar appeal, and the lovely colors serve to enhance symmetry of the patterns.  I find the seeming akwardness of the human figures to be soewhat off-putting, but I also recognise the subjectivity of my reaction.  In any case, my wife and I intend to visit Europe soon, so we look forward to seeing some of this in person.

When ever I see the interplay of light and shadow,on a wall,like right here  outside my window  on the building across the street, or on a street on the ground  or anywhere, II get that feeling that Emily Dickenson succinctly expressed;a heavenly ache it gives us we can find no cause.,That's how I feel when ever light and shadow play.It can be natural or artifical light,in door or outdoor.Light is always sublime though I believe  there is also such a thing as a demonic[cold] light.

On one of my visits to Chartres, I followed a rather well-known English-speaking guide (whose name I forget) as he explained the biblical stories depicted in the windows. I earned several disapproving glances from him until I learned that the questions he was asking were meant to be taken as rhetorical.

I still remember my first sight of Chartres blue splayed across the stones of the floor. It used to be said that it had never been duplicated or equalled since. You had to spend a whole day at Chartres to see the difference in the light as the sun moved across the sky.

And another indelible memory: hearing a group of scouts singing a Gelineau Psalm in French. Thought I had died and gone to heaven,

Last month my parish lost a stained glass window of St Boniface in the chapel  to enterprising thieves. The newspaper had carriied a story about the $2 million would be needed for restoring all the windows.

Just two hinges held this window on .. But a local pawn broker [Jewish?] dropped a dime on the guys and the police recovered the window , now securely bolted,, Boniface ,friars and pashioners all are happy, including my wife who gave a teary interview on TV when it was stolen.. .

You had to spend a whole day at Chartres to see the difference in the light as the sun moved across the sky.

Chartres, of course, is open to the public all day long. Sadly, the American practice of locking up churches does not lend itself to this kind of meditation. If you want to contemplate the glass in your local parish, better do it on Sunday before the priest chivvies you out the door after the last Mass so he can get back to the rectory and watch the ball game.

A good friend, now sadly deceased, used to attend a Melkite Church that was open most evenings for quiet contemplation. They had an altar screen that was done by an Orthodox nun. Quite lovely. I found stopping there after work several times to sit for awhile before heading home in the evening a good way to bring balance and persepective to the day.

i didn't get a whole day at Chartres, but that memory of sitting for 20 minutes in relative quiet on a late August afternoon in 1972 is still strong...  and having read Kenneth Clark's "Civilization" shortly before that helped me with those mysteries...

And our own old city parish -with sturdy 1890ish windows from the Keck brothers studios - does share the mystery on those late afternoons inw ich we havea liturgy or service ... hope this Ash Wednesday at 5:30 may be of late sun as we see NT scenes through the Western windows...



Fr. Komonchak.

"On one of my visits to Chartres, I followed a rather well-known English-speaking guide (whose name I forget)... ."

When I taught a Humanities course I used to show a video, "The World's Most Mysterious Places" (Aachen, Chartrea and Santiago de Compostela")

I still have the VHS (not available in DVD) and just finished playing the Chartres section. A very knowledgable elderly, white haired gentleman, named Malcom Miller, was the narrator.

Thanks, Helen.  That's the man.

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