The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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February 9, 2001 Issue
Foundations of Faith

Telling the Gospel with pieces of glass

Stained glass lets us read without letters

By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. If so, a stained glass window can be worth far more words - some found in the Bible and some in years of Christian tradition.

Using stained glass in churches dates to at least the seventh century. (St. Paul Monastery in Jarrow, England, has windows dating to 686 AD). But use of stained glass in churches began in earnest around the turn of the first millennium and continued ever since.


One would be the very reason we create any art - because it's beautiful.

Because stained glass in churches is sacred art, it is also created to glorify God.

Mostly, though, stained glass has been used to tell stories. Stained glass first became popular during the later part of the Middle Ages, a time that had little beauty for the average person.

"The Middles Ages in Europe were a time ravaged by wars, disease, and famine and hampered by the ignorance born of illiteracy," says Fr. Gerard Sloyan, a visiting professor at Georgetown and Catholic University.

For much of the first two millennia of church history, in fact, people were generally illiterate. Even for those who could read, there were few books. Not until 1456 and Johannes Gutenberg's perfecting of a printing press with movable type, did the door open to mass production of books.

Yet, just because there were few books, people still knew the Bible and its many stories of God's salvation. In fact, there was a deep devotion to the Bible and the saints, perhaps because life was so hard. Stained glass windows - the earliest of which were largely portraits of Christ and his saints in glass - served to remind people of the beloved stories of their faith, and the promise of salvation. This was the case with all forms of art used in churches, whether paintings, statues, or the glass mosaics that preceded stained glass.

"What books are to those who can read, such is a picture to the ignorant who look at it," wrote Pope St. Gregory (d. 604). "In a picture even the unlearned may see what example they should follow; in a picture they who know no letters may yet read."

Books are now commonplace and more people than ever before can read. But stained glass windows remain popular because they tell stories. And who doesn't like a story? Especially stories we have heard since we were children.

For example, consider a stained glass window that reflects the story of the Epiphany feast we celebrated just last month. With just one glance, we can see the entire story: Mary with the Baby Jesus welcoming the three wise men carrying their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. While we must first hear that story - which takes up roughly 200 words of Matthew's Gospel - we need just one picture to hear it again in our mind.

However, stained glass windows as an art form developed to the point where one window could remind us of more than just one story. Symbolism became popular and reminded people of yet more stories about their faith. And symbolism was not just used in art.

Legend says that St. Patrick evangelized the people of Ireland, using a shamrock to teach them about the Trinity. Whether the legend is true, the symbol is so effective that, today, we only have to see a shamrock to think of Ireland and Patrick, as well as the Trinity.

"In human life, signs and symbols occupy important places. As a being at once body and spirit, man expresses and perceives spiritual realities through physical signs and symbols" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1146).

Symbols quickly explain realities that would take many words to express otherwise. Christ understood this, using symbols of light, salt, vines, a mustard seed to express the mysterious reality that is the Kingdom of God. For anyone who has heard the gospel, these images would bring to mind the stories of Jesus. For a follower of Christ, seeing a city set on a hill means more than just a geographical location.

So it is with stained glass windows. For example, another window is ringed with leaves. They are not just any leaves, they are fig leaves. Fig leaves represent Adam and Eve and the loss of Paradise. Shown growing around the infant Jesus, fig leaves remind us that - through Christ - God has renewed creation.

Some have said that the Bible is many stories which really tell just one big story - that of salvation, the love story of God for us. The next time you see a stained glass window, test yourself to see if you get the story.

(Sources: Catechism of the Catholic Church; The Practice of Religion; the Christian Symbols home page by Walter E. Gast; The Stained Glass Association of America; The Crucifixion of Jesus: History, Myth, Faith; The Catholic Encyclopedia)

Window symbolism

Here are just some of the symbols used in stained glass to represent Christian teachings.

Nimbus - the halo around the heads of Mary and the baby represent the light of holiness. With Jesus, the nimbus contains the cross. Only Christ is represented by this nimbus

Trefoil - three joined circles (sometimes stylized) represent the Trinity and the eternal, unchanging nature of God

Quatrefoil - four joined circles representing the gospels

Altar - reminder of the Paschal Mystery of Christ (Mary sits on an altar in this window)

Star - the epiphany, the revelation, of Christ's glory. The six-pointed star here is a stylized Star of David, representing Israel

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