Stained glass windows are pretty. Their rich tones and poignant messages heighten the worship experience of churchgoers from Turin to Tuscaloosa. Indeed, part of their original purpose was to help the illiterate masses of the Middle Ages learn Bible stories in picture form. But beyond the educational, decorative purposes of stained glass windows, there are deeper messages that they can impart to us.

Stained glass windows first appeared in the French Abbey of Saint-Denis, just outside Paris. The revolutionary structure was concerned by the Abbot Suger during the twelfth century. He designed the windows to be a physical representation of supernatural reality. In contrast to the heavy stone walls of Romanesque churches, the dominant architectural style in Suger’s day, he installed these windows to “empty the walls and color the light.” The windows at Saint-Denis were not created to be structural or aesthetic openings in the wall to admit light, but transparent walls. Abbot Suger recorded that the result of his Gothic design, which he was convinced had been inspired by a celestial vision, was that the “entire sanctuary is thus pervaded by a wonderful and continuous light.”

During the period in which stained glass windows were born, light was considered the essence and source of all visual beauty. It was believed to be the least material of all natural phenomena. This feeling for light brought forth a special appreciation for stained glass windows where light, usually concealed by matter, becomes the active principle. Windows, as all other matter, are aesthetically real only insofar as they partake of, and are defined by, the luminous quality of light. Therefore, the stained glass window seemingly denies the impenetrable nature ...

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