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Stained Glass and the Book of Revelation

July 28, 2014

072814Most Catholics are unaware of the fact that our traditional church buildings are based on designs given by God Himself. Their designs stretch all the way back to Mount Sinai, when God set forth the design for the sanctuary in the desert and the tent of meeting. Many of the fundamental aspects of our church layouts still follow that plan and the stone version of it that became the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Our traditional church buildings also have numerous references to the Book of Revelation and the Book of Hebrews, both of which describe the heavenly liturgy and Heaven itself.

There is not time to develop these roots at length in this post today, though I hope to do so in a series of future posts.

Sadly, in recent decades there has been a casting aside of these biblical roots in favor of a “meeting house” approach to church design. No longer was the thinking that our churches should reflect heavenly realities, teach the faith,  and follow biblical plans. Rather, the idea was that the church simply provided a space for people to meet and conduct various liturgies.

In some cases the liturgical space came to be considered “fungible” in that it could be reconfigured to suit various needs: Mass today, concert tomorrow, spaghetti dinner next Wednesday. This thinking began to be set forth as early as the 1950s. Pews were often replaced by chairs, which could easily be moved to suit various functions. And even in parishes that did not go so far as to allow spaghetti dinners in the nave (mine did in the 1970s), the notion of the church as essentially a meeting space still prevailed.

Thus churches began to look less and less like churches and more and more like meeting halls. The bare essentials such as an altar, pews or chairs, a pulpit, and very minimal statuary were still there, but the main point was simply to provide a place for people to come together. There was very little sense that the structure itself was to reflect Heaven or even remind us of it.

That is beginning to change as newer architects are returning more and more to sacred and biblical principles in church design. Further, many Catholics are becoming more educated on the meaning of church art as something more than merely that it is “pretty.” They are coming to understand the rich symbolism of the art and architecture as revealing the faith and expressing heavenly realities.

Take stained glass for instance. Stained glass is more than just pretty colors, pictures, and symbols. Stained glass was used for centuries to teach the faith through pictures and symbols. Until about 200 years ago, most people—even among the upper classes—could not read well if at all. How does the Church teach the faith in such a setting? Through preaching, art, passion plays, statues, and stained glass.

Stained glass depicted biblical stories, saints, Sacraments, and glimpses of Heaven. Over the centuries a rich shorthand of symbols also developed: crossed keys = St. Peter, a sword = St. Paul, a large boat = the Church, a shell = baptism, and so forth. And so the Church taught the faith through the exquisite art of stained glass.

But stained glass also served another purpose: acting as an image of the foundational walls of Heaven. Recall that traditional church architecture saw the church as an image of Heaven. Hence a church’s design was based on the descriptions of Heaven found in the Scriptures. Now among other things, Heaven is described in the Book of Revelation as having high walls with rows of jewels embedded in the foundations of those walls:

One of the seven angels … showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall with twelve gates … The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third chalcedony, the fourth emerald, the fifth sardonyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst ... (Revelation 21:varia).

Thus because Heaven had great, high walls, older churches almost always had a lot of verticality. The lower foundational walls gave way to the higher clerestory and above the clerestory the vaults of the ceiling rose even higher. And in the lower sections of the walls, extending even as high as the clerestory, the jewel-like stained glass recalled the precious gemstones described in the lower walls of Heaven.

The compelling effect of a traditional church is to say to the believer, you are in Heaven now. In my own parish church, the floors are a green jasper color, and the clerestory walls, red jasper. On the clerestory are painted the saints gathered before the throne-like altar in Heaven (Heb 12:1; Rev. 7:9). In the apse is the throne-like altar with Jesus at the center (Rev 5:6); the seven lamp stands are surrounding him with seven candles (Rev 4:5). In the stained glass of the transept are the 12 Apostles joined with the 12 patriarchs (symbolized by 12 wooden pillars). Together they form the 24 elders who surround the throne in Heaven (Rev 4:4). Above the high altar, in the clerestory windows, are the four living creatures also said to surround the throne (Rev 4:6-7).

Yes, it’s amazing! I stand in my church and realize its message: you are in Heaven when you enter here and celebrate the sacred mysteries: sursum corda (hearts aloft)!

The photo above is of the Sainte-Chapelle, a royal medieval Gothic chapel located in Paris, France.

Here’s a video I put together on stained glass. Enjoy these jewels of light that recall the lower walls of Heaven as you listen to the choir sing “Christe Lux mundi” (O Christ you are the Light of the world).

Here’s another video I created. Many of the photos in the video can be found here:

http://www.romeofthewest.com
http://viewfrombackpew.blogspot.com/



And finally, if you are interested, here is a video I made some time ago featuring some of the architectural details of my own parish.

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Comments (40)

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  1. Dani MarieBernadette D'Angelo says:

    These are exactly some of the reasons that people are not coming as they did before. It is as if when Vatican II opened the windows they made the mistake of throwing the baby out with the bath water. I am 66 and I am here to tell you it is so very hard to get into the prayerful mood, when one feels like they are in an auditorium instead of a House of God. Someone should be in charge of making sure that the good and holy traditions.. the ones that make you feel God are put back into the faith. We need it more than ever. I am so tired of people saying we can’t go back.. I don’t want to go back but I want our beautiful Catholic traditions.. the ones that separate us from other christian churches.. restored to the people. Then reverence and awe might see a return as well. God Bless You. This was an awesome post and I look forward to more in the future from you.

    • Regina Weiner says:

      If you want your parish to be revived, find where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved, and visit Our Lord as often as you possibly can. Pray for your parish. I started to do this at our parish about sixteen years ago, and it is now nothing like what it was. The life of worship is very good, and the life of charity is increasing as well. All I can say is try it. You will not be disappointed.

  2. Larry Krusio says:

    Thank you for a very nice and informative article.

  3. Harold Koenig says:

    This past Sunday, as the chaos of pre-Mass settled, babies nattering, the elderly making their deliberate way to their pews, and crucifer, servers, lectors, and celebrant ordering themselves in the back, the word “Synaxis”, unbidden, rang in my inner ear. I saw the saints without number, differing from one another in glory. Ministering spirits accompanied the true Celebrant as He prepared the eternal liturgy, and holy music shook the house from foundation to vaults.

    That our worship is foretaste is a truth which cannot be held back by tawdry buildings, minimalist ornamentation, or banal hymnody. Still, it would be better if the frame and bones of our synaxis prompted and aided the realization rather than obscuring it.

    Thanks for the article.

  4. Harold Koenig says:

    This past Sunday, as the chaos of pre-Mass settled, babies nattering, the elderly making their deliberate way to their pews, and crucifer, servers, lectors, and celebrant ordering themselves in the back, the word “Synaxis”, unbidden, rang in my inner ear. I saw the saints without number, differing from one another in glory. Ministering spirits accompanied the true Celebrant as He prepared the eternal liturgy, and holy music shook the house from foundation to vaults.

    That our worship is foretaste is a truth which cannot be held back by tawdry buildings, minimalist ornamentation, or banal hymnody. Still, it would be better if the frame and bones of our synaxis prompted and aided the realization rather than obscuring it.

    Thanks for the article.

  5. Panmon says:

    The tendency to make churches in the half circle is particularly corrosive. Rather than looking at the priest, and being focused on what he is doing, you eyes are treated to views of all your fellow parishioners. You can see every single one of them, and you get distracted – this one is wearing something odd, this kid is fidgeting, these teenagers are texting.

    If you wanted to design a church to make it impossible to pay attention at the mass, you have succeeded.

    • Roger the Lesser says:

      Yes, those Protestant style churches that pretend to be Catholic are all the rage. In my city, the “money” parish is a Protestant style auditorium. The tabernacle is hidden next to a broom closet. The red lamp, also buried in a corner. Confession? By appointment only, held in the open. They don’t have Mass, they hold “services.” Says so, right in the bulletin. ELCA in all but name only. And USCCB wonders why the Catholic Church in America is shrinking rapidly…….

      • Regina Weiner says:

        So go to confession in the open. Visit Jesus in the broom closet. If it’s good enough for Him, make it good enough for you. Reform the Church one person at a time, and start with yourself.

      • Antoinette Merenda says:

        I guess your pastor is not following the norms as set by the Holy See. It dictates the place of the tabernacle. Check it out and remind your pastor he is to follow the norms.

  6. Teresa says:

    Please continue with these roots in a series. Your insights on music and art are strengthening elements in my prayer life and I thank you greatly for them. The church is an image of Heaven and is a synagogue and Temple fulfilled; absolutely!

    Have you read or seen Dr. Denis McNamara’s work? Your writings reminded me of the video series he made available on youtube featuring his book, Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy.

    Thank you also for including the wonderful architectural details of your parish! Our parish has been moving towards bringing in more of a visual reminder of the glimpses of Heaven we are partaking in.

  7. profling says:

    No wonder many Latin Catholics are drifting over to the Eastern rite churches. Our churches look like warehouses.

    • Things are changing. Many of the newest churches are much better. Also others are being reworked. Here’s a 70s Church I recently visited that has been reworked: https://plus.google.com/photos/111356241149745574650/albums/6039685204501803441

      • Sean North says:

        Sorry, Monsignor, but ‘ya can’t polish pig iron.

        That church is one of those “church-in-the-round” models which is a violation of the nature of hierarchy. The democratic “People of God” (read: Democratic People’s Republic of the Post-Conciliar Church) incarnated.

      • Regina Weiner says:

        That is splendid, Father. Our church is not “in the round,” because it was built in 1977, before the craze got to the South. We were able to add art to warm up a very cold interior. Interesting how well traditional icons go in those modern buildings. When we first started to make changes, people began to notice immediately, and I was particularly pleased to hear one parishioner saying to another, “What happened? It looks like a Catholic church.”

      • Antoinette Merenda says:

        There is a beautiful church in Keller TX. ST MOTHER SETON. it is worthy of basilica status but it is only 13 years old and has not established a “history”. Stain glass large indeed and the liturgy -well it takes the novo ordo and brings it to a high standard. Altar servers deacons clergy a full house in the sanctuary. Yes a Vatican II mass can be beautiful and inspiring when done to the glory of God.

  8. George says:

    There is also another symbolism about stained glass windows.
    When you see them from the outside (walking in the street or sidewalk)
    they look gray and you can’t really see their real color or design.

    It is only when you are INSIDE the church
    that you can appreciate their TRUE color, design, and beauty.

    Once inside the Church, you find truth.

  9. NinaBG says:

    St Michael Church in Atlantic City is a jewel box! Check it out if you’re in the area.

  10. Greg says:

    Monsignor: what is the name of the music that is playing in the background of your church video?

  11. Father Henry Liguori says:

    You need to check out St. Joseph, Husband of Mary, in Las Vegas, NV. You will be inspired by the architectural design implemented by its first Pastor, Fr. Joe Anthony, who built the Church.

  12. Xander Larkin says:

    Historically the form Christians adopted as they moved to public spaces in the fourth century was meeting halls, namely basilicas.

    • This is a good reminder. Though to be fair the “basilica” was in the form of a royal meeting hall. It was not a simple meeting hall. The word basilica according to some etymologies is rooted in the Greek word for king and kingdom βασιλεία, (basileia). Hence the image is of a royal meeting hall, not a moose lodge etc.

  13. Christopher Klein says:

    Thank you for this insightful study.
    Studying art history gave me an understanding of the buildings and the method of building that the architects used in building the great cathedrals. Your article works very well with what I’ve learned.

  14. Bernard says:

    Another element of church architecture was the heavy doors and construction material that effectively blotted out the noise of the surrounding city.
    When you enter into these old churches you really feel removed from the world outside. There seems to be a momentary sensory deprivation that helps you to accept that you are have transcended into a different space. When you couple this with the visual and acoustic changes that occur as you move into the sacred space the transition to a more prayerful attitude is simplified (in my opinion).

  15. Tim Andries says:

    Goood article, there is so much that can be learned and taught just using the church build. Also the altar, candKim , ect….I have to agree that much has been lost in the name of the “spirit of Vatican II”.
    May take on part of the problem is when we started calling Mass “services”, priest are celebrants or presiders, kum bags replaced the the worship of Almighty God…lay involvement at Mass are simply things we do instead of our vocation to who we are, priests simply “say” or “do” the mass, intead of focusing on who and what a priest is. We’re not taught to pray the Mass. It’s not hopeless, but that seems to be the fundamental problem.

    God Bless you Father….

  16. Tim Andries says:

    A good book to read, Why Do Catholics Do That, by Kevin Orlin Johnson. Covers the the rich symbolism in Catholic art.

  17. Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh says:

    It would be interesting to see citations of biblical passages that indicate that the design of churches should be based on “…the design for the sanctuary in the desert and the tent of meeting.”

    Also appreciated would be citations of passages from Revelation and Hebrews that speak of or to the design of churches.

    I’m just looking for citations to passages, not a full development of the “roots” idea.

    • Well, Rev. Father, you are contentious as always when you comment on this blog.

      I might recommend for a rather thorough treatment of your “question” (which I sense is not really an authentic question but merely a rhetorical one) that you might consult McNamara’s book cited in these comments.

      As for your attitude stuff, I am not sure why you insist on be so contentious about everything when you comment here, but I suspect, having become familiar with your tone over the years that you mistake what is presented as general norms and sources for specific, absolute and blueprint-like insistence. Your question presumes of me a kind of legalism that is not in me, though perhaps you are projecting your own issues with legalism, I am not sure. Nevertheless the nature of your question and the attitude stuff it conveys suggests you have difficulties in moving from the general (i.e. the biblical model) to the specific (namely, Church design which will implant the general norms in diversely specific ways). I usually like to presume certain sophistication in my readers and interlocutors and their capacity to avoid all-or-nothing thinking, and the sort of fearful and accusatory reactions it brings forth.

  18. Terry Carlino says:

    While I have seen several recently built church buildings which reflect the best of traditional church architecture far too many of the buildings in my own diocese are rooted in the 1970’s. And in many buildings nothing less than razing the building to the ground would allow a proper renovation. And there are still those working against it. For example many local pastors have been working to move the tabernacles at their churches out of the closet and back where it belongs, behind the altar. So someone at my local parish donated a large amount of money to renovate the tabernacle in the Eucharistic chapel, which is the back of the sanctuary divided by one of those hotel conference room dividing walls. The old tabernacle sat on a table can could have easily been moved to the niche behind the altar originally designed to hold it. The new tabernacle is embedded in the wall making any effort to move it a major construction project. That will, no doubt, disincline any new pastor from moving it. He will at least have to be really motivated to do it.

  19. Fred Williams says:

    Eventually you will get to acoustics. I remember when back in Christian Brothers College we went to Mass three times during the week plus the Sunday Mass, We were in WWII and praying for Peace. I remember that in our beautiful Gothic style Church we had none of the modern amplifying systems, notwithstanding those in the last pew could clearly hear the Sermon and the parts of the liturgy that are said loud. In comparison, I presently go to a modern (Post Vatican II) Cathedral that has been ‘re-modeled’ several times and that now needs an entire re-do of the ceiling because of reverberating echoes cancelling out sound (or worse). I believe old Churches, built before Vatican II, were built following a construction protocol that enhanced sound propagation.

  20. C M J says:

    luv it

  21. Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh says:

    My question was not rhetorical. I simply asked for the biblical passages you were referring to.

    As to my posts being “contentious,” why do you expect that everyone who reads your posts will agree with them, find them helpful, or accept that your solutions to what you see as problems needing solutions, such as where should a priest place his hands when he is sitting down during mass, are the ones to be followed?

    Is there a rule for this blog that says, “Only those who are in agreement with Msgr. Pope are allowed to post comments”?

    • No indeed. but I but what I puzzle over is why you are so routinely negative. It is the tone of you remarks that it is troubling which here and in previous comments seems smug and condescending. It would be great if you were to say, “I disagree and here is why…” Or perhaps to say, “I think the references to Moses and and Revelation are not binding on us and here is why….” etc. Thats a real discussion where the cards are on the table and where I and/or others can really interact with your comment, view, question or statement.

  22. Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh says:

    If I knew what passages you were referring to I could say, “I think the references to Moses and Revelation are not binding on us and here is why…” but I don’t know what those passages are.

    Which is why I asked, “It would be interesting to see citations of biblical passages that indicate that the design of churches should be based on “…the design for the sanctuary in the desert and the tent of meeting.”

  23. Regina Weiner says:

    We ignore the fact that the “Tent of Meeting” in the Pentateuch was where Moses met with God, not where people met with each other. They actually stood outside the Tent of Meeting while Moses communed with the Lord. It is interesting to see that the earliest churches followed the same architectural patterns that prevailed in the Temple of Jerusalem. They would look very familiar to us, and they should. We are one Church, not only over space, but over time, as well.

  24. Rick says:

    There is much not to like about Notre Dame Univ. but its architecture program (e.g., William Gordon Smith & Duncan Stroik) has been at the forefront of the church architectural reformation.

  25. Rick says:

    There is much not to like about Notre Dame Univ. but its architecture program (e.g., William Gordon Smith & Duncan Stroik) has been at the forefront of the church architectural reformation.