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STAINED GLASS WINDOWS AS CATHOLIC ICONS:
REASONS FOR THEIR USE AND CARE


While a church building may have many corollary uses its ultimate purposes are to glorify God and to facilitate the sanctification of God's people.

What is "Catholic" about a Catholic church building?

While God can work at any time, any place and any way, something badly conceived or poorly executed is not God honoring or appropriate. Therefore, can we know God's heart regarding what a building to be used for such exalted and sacred purposes should look like?

Fortunately, he has not left the Church to flounder on this issue. Through his Word in the Bible and through the continuing inspiration of the Holy Spirit he has given us many guidelines.

For instance, when Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments God also told him to fashion a Tabernacle in a way that would involve almost every form of representational art that men have ever known. (Schaeffer, 12) Then God said, "Make this tabernacle and all of its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you". (Ex. 25:9, NIV) Where did the pattern come from? It came from God.

Similarly, the temple was not planned by man. The Bible says that David gave his son, Solomon, "the plans of all that the Spirit had put in his mind for the courts of the temple of the Lord and all the surrounding rooms, for the treasuries of the temple of God and for the treasuries of the dedicated things." (I Cron. 28:12, NIV) Like Moses, David knew what to have built because of what God had told him.

The traditional Catholic response to God's direction and inspiration

Numerous examples can be found to demonstrate that there is no one "Catholic" style of church architecture. However, throughout history the most "orthodox" Catholic church buildings have always been designed based on the expression of Catholic thought and values. Over the centuries there has evolved a rich, complex, and subtle language of symbols - of building forms, of details, of shapes, of location, and of emphases to name just a few - that seeks to communicate theological and liturgical ideas through the artful use of materials. (Schloeder, 9)

Iconic stained glass window from Munich Studio of Chicago, 1923, at Church of St. Mary of the Assumption, Maple Park, IL.
If this is the case, church architecture and its accompanying art can correctly be regarded as "built theology ". Therefore, it is important that the form of the building and whatever is inside it accurately depict and convey the truths they represent. (Schloeder, 12 and 43; Rose, 31)

However, developments in modern thought from the Enlightenment through Postmodernism have in relatively recent times frequently overwhelmed God's influence on church architecture including churches of the Catholic faith. As one Catholic commentator on sacred arts has stated "bad theology has done more damage than bad taste" with the results being that some churches are bazaar in appearance, engender the wrong responses in worshipers and that are, frankly, "ugly as sin" and theologically inappropriate. (Rose, 135 and 173)

The theology of icons

An essential principle of classic Catholic church building design is that of iconography. This is the understanding that man's mind is raised in contemplation through material objects. These material objects are the church building itself as well as all the devotional art within it. (Schloeder, 145 and Rose, 26)

Statuary, furniture, stained glass windows, Stations of the Cross and other types of art in the forms of reliefs, mosaics, frescoes or murals are all designed to raise our minds and spirits to God and to things eternal.

It was also God himself who established the role of icons such as when he commanded Moses to construct the Tabernacle with gilt figures of the cherubim inside of it. (Ex. 25:18, 26:1, NIV)

In mystical theology an icon is a sacred image through which, one contemplates a higher level of spiritual reality. The importance lies not in the object but in the subject. The holy icon represents something invisible such as a saint now in heaven or a biblical event and is used as a tool to contemplate the event.

A quote from St. Thomas Acquinas in the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains the role of an icon further. "Religious worship is not directed to images in themselves, considered as mere things, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate. The movement toward the image does not terminate in it as image but tends towards that whose image it is." (Schloeder, 149)

The stewardship of sacred icons

The wise stewardship of sacred icons such as inspirational stained glass includes the responsibility to care for them.

With regular and proper maintenance a stained glass window made using traditional materials and techniques should have a long lifetime. However, when neglected it can become unattractive, fragile and generally dilapidated and unworthy of being a part of God's house.

Because there are always competing demands for scarce resources when considering the cost of maintenance and restoration, could it be feasible to delay care or repair of a window and to put it off for as long as possible? In our opinion, definitely not. The more a stained glass window is allowed to deteriorate the more difficult and expensive it is to return to its original appearance and condition.

Therefore, are there any circumstances in which the removal and discarding of existing stained glass is ever in order? In our opinion if the stained glass is of high merit the benefits from investing in its conservation will far outweigh any cost savings from its removal.

Perhaps more important than the cost of repairing or replacing any damaged stained glass is the possibility of not being able to repair or replace it at all in the future because of the exquisite nature of the windows and the complicated steps and skills required to execute them.

Others agree with us to the extent that they will even make the special effort needed to move their historic stained glass into their new church building rather than leave it behind and replace it with something inexpensive and uninspiring.

The distinctive nature of stained glass

The Benedictine Abbot Suger developed the prototype for Gothic architecture in the 12th century. He thought of stained glass as "radiant windows to illumine men's minds so that they may travel through the light to an apprehension of God's light" and so to direct communion with Him. (Frueh, 22)

Suger also called stained glass windows "sermons that reached the heart through the eyes instead of entering through the ears." (Rose, 77)

Stained glass is the only art form that relies entirely on natural daylight. Every other art form is designed to be seen by reflected light. However, the stained glass artist designs so that the artistic effect is created by light passing through the glass. In a manner of speaking, he or she uses colored glass to "paint" with the light of God. (Rose,77)

No other art form can compare with the splendor and impact of stained glass which makes it a perfect tool for glorifying God and facilitating the sanctification of God's people.

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Bibliography:

Frueh, Erne R. and Florence, Chicago Stained Glass. Chicago, IL: Loyola University Press, 1983.

Rose, Michael S., Ugly As Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces and How We Can Change Them Back Again. Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2001.

Schaeffer, Francis A., Art & the Bible. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973.

Schloeder, Steven J., Architecture in Communion: Implementing the Second Vatican Council through Liturgy and Architecture. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1998.