The elaborate stained glass windows in medieval churches were more than just beautiful: in an era of widespread illiteracy, they were also instructive to the faithful. Many lessons about Christ and the saints and church history could be communicated graphically, without a single written word.
It’s sad that so many of these windows were lost from American churches during the wreck-o-vation frenzy of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and unfortunate that modern churches are being built with such banal windows. But take a drive to the country, where money was generally too tight to squander on demolishing perfectly good artwork and liturgical furnishings, and you can find some absolute gems.
A prime example is St. Peter’s in Piper City, which I mentioned in a post several weeks ago. The church’s stained glass windows are nothing short of stunning—but, at the same time, they are also educational. That became especially clear to me this morning, when we celebrated the Feast of the Ascension (don’t get me started on our, uh, disappointment that this feast has been moved from its proper day — that’s a subject for another post). During his homily, the priest directed our attention to the massive window depicting the Ascension (the photo I’ve included doesn’t do this window justice; all I had was a cell phone camera this morning). He then walked us through the symbolism in that image, primarily that the Lord is depicted wearing rose-colored vestments and surrounded by the apostles. Rose is a color of rejoicing, which is an important message of this feast: the apostles returned to town with great joy, and went out to spread the Good News. We need to do the same, and he encouraged us to be more joyful and more apostolic.
The priest’s use of the stained glass window made his homily much more memorable and powerful. I imagine that in the future, when the congregation returns for Mass, even after this particular priest has moved on to another assignment, those who view the Ascension window will see it in a different light (no pun intended) than they did before today. That window will continue teaching the congregation for a long time to come.
Of course, what made the window a powerful teaching tool is that the priest took the time to explain its symbolism — and the relevance of that symbolism for us. I’d looked at that window a hundred times, and had seen only a beautiful picture. Going forward, I will look at it and see a beautiful lesson. I’m not usually one to offer advice to the clergy, but for what it’s worth: if you’re blessed with a treasury of beautiful artwork in your church, help your congregation understand and take advantage of it. It’s a shame so few churches still have these treasures. It’s an even bigger shame when congregations don’t understand, and can’t fully take advantage of, the treasures that surround them.