There is no denying that stained glass is lovely. From the towering windows of Notre Dame Cathedral to small windows on scores of local churches across the nation–stained glass is simply a delight to church members and communities. They have been delighting congregations for more than a thousand years. In fact, they span generations and denominations alike. Regardless of people’s beliefs from church to church, one fact that most agree on is–stained glass windows are simply enchanting. But why do churches have stained glass–beyond simply beauty. Is there something more to these pieces beyond artistic value? Why are they such a ubiquitous part of cathedrals and chapels across the US? As it were, there are actually a few reasons why stained glass is so prevalent in churches. Today we will highlight the two most prominent ones–spiritual and practical.
The Christian Religion’s Relationship With Light
In the Christian religion, there has always been a special relationship with light. Stained glass in churches clearly represents this. In fact, it allows for the use of light in a particularly ethereal way. It is understandable then, that churches from Methodists to Catholic appreciate the play of light combined with the iconography so important to them. In Genesis, God’s first words were “‘Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3-4) With this type of reference to light so early in such a sacred book, it is easy to see why Christian churches would embrace light through stained glass. And accordingly, spend much time and energy developing a church feature that perfectly embodies God first gift to man. Stained glass windows in churches shine light into an otherwise dark interior, it casts out shadows and brings relief. Not unlike the God of Genesis. There is no doubt that early architects wanted light through the lovely ornate windows of old to play out much like it did in the Bible. They saw stained glass as a perfect way to highlight the spiritual truth of light while at the same time being functional. Ostensibly this happened over 1000 years ago, as, the oldest surviving stained glass window is found in the Augsburg Cathedral in Germany and was built in the 11th century. Since those days stained glass windows in churches have changed significantly. However, embracing the proverbial light of God has not. In fact, stained glass windows evolved in their relationship with the church over time to become more than just spiritually significant but practical as well. Eventually, these windows began to not only served as a representation of the light of God but as a critical teaching tool as well.
Stained Glass Symbolism As A Teaching Tools
During medieval times, stained glass windows were the primary way to teach the poor about God. During this period, the masses were illiterate. Everybody lacked access to biblical stories in written form, save the rich and clergy. Bible stories were, therefore, easier to recount through the glass itself rather than books. It was more accessible and easier for the poor to understand. If fact, in some larger church windows almost all the important stories from the books of Genesis to Revelations played out in glass. Soon the saints too appeared on windows and helped inspire both the poor and rich struggling on their Christian journey. They lent hope to the hopeless in their time of need in a most lovely way. The stained glass and the light dancing light were the perfect primers for the Christian religion. As cathedrals grew in size and technology so too did the depth of the symbolism contained in the stained glass. The new colors achieved through evolving chemistry appeared on the windows and were given deep meaning. Read the list of the various ways colors and symbols came to have meaning on stained glass over time.
Stained Glass Symbolism Explained
- Jesus: Represented by Lifelike images; cross; lamb; a shepherd
- Holy Spirit: Represented by a flame; wind; a white dove
- The Saints: Represented by an image of the man or woman; the name of the saint; the way the saint was martyred
- Virgin Mary: Often depicted wearing blue robes; on her own or with her son
- Black: Death
- Blue: Heavenly Love, Virgin
- Brown: Death
- Grey: Mourning, Humility
- Green: Spring, Charity, Life over death
- Purple: Royalty God The Father
- Red: Love, Hate, Martyred
- Violet: Love, Truth, Passion, Suffering
- White/Gold: Innocence, Holiness
- Yellow: Jealousy, Treason, Deceit
Why Stained Glass In Modern Churches?
Obviously, times have changed quite significantly since stained glass began adorning churches. Today most churchgoers here in the US can ready and don’t need stained glass to guide the way. However, stained glass on churches still remains revered and important. Beyond the Christian religion–many religions have come to embrace these lovely works of art. Today, rather than being a teaching tool for this generation, stained glass has become a way to preserve history for the next generation. Because today’s church stained glass has significant historical value. Furthermore, while still useful for conveying religious themes–it also has become very valuable secular art. Every window of every church here in the US has significant historical value since it was made in an era of what could be considered the last frontier. Furthermore, churches today often use stained glass windows to honor beloved family and patrons–making it valuable on a personal level. For these reasons, although stained glass in chapels and churches has changed over time, it is just as important today as it was 1000 years ago. It is an incredible asset for any church to preserve and restore when necessary.