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August 03, 2005

Who looks on glass? The Spiritual Significance of Stained Glass

Posted by Roger Homan

Prof. Roger Homan considers the spiritual significance of stained glass in churches. The ambience - the subdued light - coloured glass can give to churches is central to its spiritual function.

It is recorded that in 675 Benedict Biscop commissioned French craftsmen to glaze the windows of St Peter's monastery at Monkwearmouth in Northumbria. The limitations of windows in early churches, however, afforded little scope for adventures in glass and the standard figurative art in churches of the Romanesque period was wall painting. After about 1200 Gothic construction offered more scope. Both walls and windows functioned as instruction for those who could not read. According to the French theologian and mystic Jean de Gerson, it was to show "aux simples gens, qui ne savant pas l'escriputre, ce qu'ils doivent croire" (to simple folk who do not know the scriptures what they ought to believe).

This is seriously to understate the degree of literacy required to view medieval stained glass in an intelligent way. The great transept window at Canterbury known as the Biblia Pauperium (poor person's bible), for example, depends upon an extensive visual vocabulary of symbols and an awareness of the supposed theological links between the biblical scenes featured in adjacent panels. The notion that during a sermon vagrant minds might be captivated and cathechized by a window is optimistic: on the other hand, during the hours of daylight a preacher could make useful reference to the window, especially if for the sake of simples gens the sermon were delivered in the vernacular. The didactic function of medieval glass has been widely noticed, the reading of Gothic iconography being informed not least by the work of Emile M‚le.

Having been used before the Reformation as an adjunct to preaching and as a means of theological instruction, glass is frequently redeployed in protestant use as illustration, text and memorial. It is used to echo the study of the Word, not to explore it. It functions more as a visual aid to teaching, less as a setting for personal devotion.

However, content is not all that matters. Stained glass has also the function of lending to the church a distinctive and appropriate ambience. While it is not confined to Christian use, it is distinctive of it. There were "storied windows richly dight" that in Milton's observation cast a "dim religious light" upon the church interior and they may be witnessed in places like Farford in Gloucestershire, the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris and in the nearby shrine of Ste-Chapelle which has 6650 square feet of stained glass from the thirteenth century. Non-figurative designs may lend such a light: they are seen to do so in York Minster where the sober "Five Sisters" take their name from the austere Cistercians and in the lights by John Piper that replace those destroyed by enemy action in St Margaret Westminster.

As with these examples, the original purpose of stained glass was not the desire to illustrate but the need to sedate light. A stained glass window slows us down; it inclines us to proceed reverently and lower our voices. It is atmospheric. In churches and cathedrals it speaks as the voice in the burning bush "the place whereon thou standest is holy ground". Curiously, images in the glass of reformed churches where the use of colour is restrained sometimes draw attention to themselves but play a subordinate role in creating the conditions for worship. So it is, arguably, at Wesley's chapel in City Road or Luther's Schlosskirche at Wittenberg.

The content of stained glass schemes may as well be conveyed by other genres: the biblia pauperium can be compared with Giotto's fresco scheme in Padua. Its effect upon the environment of devotion is complemented by other conventions such as the pointed arch and vault of the Gothic manner. But there are properties of coloured glass that are of deeply spiritual significance and have been recognized by, for example, Pseudo-Dionysius in the first century and Bishop Grosseteste in the thirteenth. We view not an image but the light beyond which it mediates for us. The image owes its life to that ultimate light. This sense is much keener than it is in respect of the reflection of light upon opaque surfaces. The stained glass image is therefore like an ikon: we are not to look at it but through it.

Some designers and workshops are more sensitive of this property than others. Burne-Jones and Morris knew how to dispense with redundant ornament and obtrusive leading that had cluttered inferior glass: they used light where it belonged and edged their windows with white glass or "silvering" to produce the overall effect of a halo. In the wake of Burne-Jones, the devout Henry Holyday wrote and thought deeply about glass as a religious expression; the schemes of apostles and early saints in the south aisle of St Michael-in-Lewes is executed to his designs by Powell of Whitefriars. In the twentieth century the wisdom of Grosseteste is demonstrated in the delicacy and mystical effects achieved in the later work of Charles Eamer Kempe and by Sir Ninian Comper. They tend to focus upon a single figure at a time rather than a narrative scene, to explore the mission and soul of the subject, to dispose in the viewer a reverent posture toward examples of saintly life. Their windows are not portraits by another name but lives through which the Light shines. In the words of the seventeenth-century English divine George Herbert:

A man who looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye,
Or if he pleaseth through it pass,
And then the heavens espy.

Roger Homan is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Brighton and author of The Art of the Sublime: Principles of Christian Art & Architecture, (Ashgate, 2006).


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I know what book I want for Christmas, even if I need to wait a little longer than that. Meanwhile might Prof Homan treat us to a piece on wall paintings? I have seen fragments of very few, but together with the stained glass they must have made cathedral interiors a very different experience indeed. Many thanks for this.

Posted by: s masty at August 4, 2005 10:24 PM
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I've just read the following sentence in "Labyrinth" by Kate Mosse: "ďAlaise tried reading the page from the top from left to right, but that didnít make sense and she came to a dead end. Next she tried deciphering the page from bottom to top, right to left, like a stained-glass window in a church, but that didnít make sense either.Ē

Is there any truth to that comment about how to read a stained-glass window, and if so, where can I read about it?

Thank you.

Posted by: Olivette at August 15, 2006 07:19 PM
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