Stained glass in our Catholic churches is not only an artistic expression of our faith, but also a chronology of salvation history as told through imagry. Most of the great cathedrals of Europe are filled with stained glass, Chartre and Notre Dame are two exapmples. However one should always remember that the purpose of stained glass in Catholic churches has always had dualfold purposes; artistic expression and catechesis. The various stories of both the Old and New Testaments was colorfully displayed through the artistic use of colored glass for a largely illiterate population of Catholics to teach the faith through depictions of biblical stories.
Traditionally, the presentation of multiple subjects relating to salvation history is a complicated topic to study. Medieval artisans utilized stained glass to provide an instructional tool for the faithful through colored glass while providing a colorful majesty to the church’s architectural and asthetic atmosphere. When considering the use of stained glass in churches, it often follows the progress of Genesis and Exodus when illustrating themes from the Old Testament, while New Testament panes of glass depict significant events in the life of Jesus Christ or the lives of the saints. Ultimately, regardless of the topics depicted through the fine use of stained glass in our churches, it provides faithful Catholics with a heightened experience of the celebration of our faith and allows the vocational artists an opportunity to visibly demonstrate their skills in glorifying God.
Often, modern stained glass does not incorporate the detailled work and use of majestic colors adopted by stained glass artisans in the 18th and early 20th centuries in the United States. Stained glass, like other gendres characterized by ages (eg. Victorian, Edwardian, Modern,) is an artistic craft that changes and develops with the needs of the local communities it serves. However, there are also times when remnants of antique stained glass are restored and included in new building projects.
Whether it is new or antique, stained glass is a welcome highlight in our Catholic churches because it permits the community of faith to utilize art through stained glass to transcend the mundane and reflect on the eschatological aspects of salvation history, which is a kairotic (sacred) time, unencumbered by time and space but inclusive of the past, the present and the future. In recalling kairotic time, the reality of the effects of the Incarnation are realized and that same Incarnation of Christ continues to restore and nourish all of human history through the Paschal Mysteries of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. The use of stained glass reminds us often of the events in the life of Christ and through the artisan’s hands, we glimpse historical images of our faith and hope for the future with Christ.
Catholic artisans engaged in the profession of producing stained glass are entrusted with a magnificent responsibility always with the subliminal message of faith that permeates their works. When an artisan produces qualitative examples of stained glass, it has an aire of permanency as part of the artist’s work. It is placed into a permanent place, a sacred building however the work communicates the pilgrimage of faith which unites all believers, past, present and future into a cosmological reality that culminates with eternal life with Christ Jesus. Perhaps the stained glass artisan is really more of a theologian with a skilled artisan’s craft as they create the pallette of colors, images of faith and redactions of past events which proclaim the vitality of life, the transcendence of hope and the everlasting desire we all share…to achieve eternity. The artisan achieves all of these things through their artistic representations of faith, we achieve them in our faith motivated pilgrimage towards our omega point, Christ Jesus.
So, the next time you contemplate the complex intracies of the stained glass in your local parish church, think of the great lessons of Catholic theology they communicate to everyone that takes the time to appreciate the great mysteries communicated through glass, that lead us to a deeper spiritual life of our Catholic faith.