By Steven Zimmerman
Not too long ago, I was photographing stained glass windows in some of the historic churches in El Paso and Juarez. For me, the most striking feature of any church are the windows and the stories they tell.
It was during one of my sessions in Juarez that a woman approached me from Egypt.
During our conversation, she asked me what the purpose behind stained glass windows was. As I was explaining, I noticed that several others started listening in. It was then that I realized that we might be losing the meaning behind these windows and replacing it with something more mundane: the windows are there to beautify the space.
As churches are built, stained glass windows are falling to the wayside.
So, just what was the purpose of stained glass windows within the church? The simple answer is they are there to tell a story.
There was a time in human history when the illiteracy rate almost equalled the world’s population. Obtaining an education, much less the skill to read, was left to the privileged classes. The average man’s daily life was one of unending work and toil.
For those who could not read, for those who could not read the scriptures for themselves, there were the windows in the local church.
The Council of Trent said, “by means of the stories of the mysteries of our redemption portrayed in paintings and other representation, the people are instructed and confirmed in the articles of faith. These images ought to be borne in the mind and constantly reflected upon.”
The purpose of stained glass windows, historically, was to educate the faithful in Catholic doctrine (as well as Anglican) and give the people a physical illustration of the truths of the Catholic faith.
Pope John Paul II said, “The Church needs art. In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art. Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the word of the spirit, of the invisible, of God. It must, therefore, translate into meaningful terms that which is in itself ineffable.
Art has a unique capacity to take one or other facet of the message and translate it into colours, shapes and sounds which nourish the intuition of those who look or listen. It does so without emptying the message itself of its transcendent value and its aura of mystery.”
Windows, if you were to follow them in any parish, will tell the complete story of Jesus Christ from His birth, death and resurrection. You will find the stories of the Apostles as they share the message of Christ far and wide.
There will be stories from the Old and New Testament, bringing to life the shared history of the Christian peoples.
Simply put, and this is an explanation I use quite often, the windows are a Glass Bible.
Today, in a world where most have access to the Holy Scriptures and possess the ability to read them, the Glass Bible may be losing its place within sacred architecture. More often, in newer constructions, we are seeing churches that look more secular than sacred.
Beautiful windows that would call to mind a passage of scripture or a moment in the life of Christ are being replaced with windows bereft of symbolism.
Even today, those windows have a purpose. As you find your way into a pew, you may stop and reflect upon a scene found in a window. As you begin to kneel and fold your hands in prayer, you find yourself being drawn into the sacred by that window, by its story and message.
That is why you find stained glass windows in churches the world over. They tell the Story, they bring you into a state of reflection, they engulf you in the light of heaven – they are windows into heaven.
It saddens me when I walk into a church, and the story, the Glass Bible is missing. The space feels as if it is crying out for a purpose, for meaning. It’s begging someone, anyone, to write the greatest story ever told upon its glass.
What are your favourite windows?
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