Stained Glass and the Book of Revelation: How our Church buildings Reflect the Heavenly Vision of St. John


Most Catholics are unaware of how our traditional church buildings are based on designs given by God himself. Designs that 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 was a casting off 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 thinking was that the Church simply provided a space for the 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 on Wednesday. This thinking began to be set forth as early as the 1950s. Pews were often replaced by chairs which could be moved to suit various functions. And even in parishes which did not go so far as to allow spaghetti dinners in the nave, (mine did in the 1970s), the notion of a church as essentially a meeting space prevailed.

Thus churches looked less and less like churches and more like meeting halls. Bare essentials such as an altar, pews or chairs, a pulpit and very minimal statuary were used, but the main point was simply to provide a place for people to come together. There was very little sense that the structure 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 beyond what is merely “pretty,” and coming to understand the rich symbolism or 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 picture and symbol. Until the past 200 years most people, even among the upper classes, could not read well, or at all. How does the Church teach the faith in such a setting? Preaching, art, passion plays, statues, and stained glass.

Stained glass depicted biblical stories, saints, sacraments, and glimpses into heaven. Over the centuries a rich shorthand of symbols also developed: crossed keys = St. Peter, a sword = St. Paul, a large boat = the Church, 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, that of imaging the foundational walls of heaven. For, recall that traditional church architecture saw the church as an image of heaven. Hence it’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 rise even higher. And in the lower sections of the walls, extending even as high as the clerestory, the jewel-like stained glass recalls the precious jeweled gemstones described in the lower walls of heaven, according to Revelation 21.

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 in seven candles (Rev 4:5). In the stained glass of the transept are 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, 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)!

Photo above: San Chapelle, 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 the choir sings Christe Lux mundi (O Christ you are the Light of the world).

The Sources of many of the photos in this video are:

Also if you are interested, here is a video I did some time back featuring some of the architectural details of my own parish.

The Scripture in Stone and Wood and Stained Glass – A Church Revealed

Catholics have often endured the charge that we are an unbiblical Church. Strange accusation, really, for the Church that collected the Scriptures, determined the canon of Scripture and preached it for 1,500 years before there ever was a Protestant denomination. The fact is we are quite biblical and often in ways that are stunningly powerful.

For the Church, the Scriptures are more than merely ink spots on a page. The Scriptures are manifest in how we live, how we are organized hierarchically, our sacraments, our liturgy and even in our buildings. Long before most people could read, the Church was preaching the Gospel and to do so she used the very structure of her buildings to preach. Many of our older builds are a sermon in stone and stained glass. The Scriptures come alive in our art, statues, paintings, and majestic stained glass windows that soar along the walls of our Churches like jewels of light. Even the height and shape of our older churches preach the word. The height draws our sights up to heaven as if to say, Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, seek the things  that are above where Christ is seated at God’s right hand (Col 3:1).  And the shape of  most of our older churches is the shape of a cross. As if to say, May I never glory in anything, save the Cross of my Lord Jesus Christ (Gal 6:14).

My own Parish Church is a sermon in stone and wood and glass. It is designed around the book of revelation, Chapters 4 and 5 in which John is caught up into heaven and describes it in detail. The fundamental design of the sanctuary drawn from Revelation 4 and 5 includes the throne-like altar (Rev 4:2), seven tall candles around the throne (Rev 4:5), the four living creatures in the clerestory windows above the altar (Rev 4:6-8). At the center of the altar is the tabernacle wherein dwells the Lamb once slain who lives forever, Jesus (Rev 5:6). Around the throne (altar) are seated the twenty-four elders (Rev. 4:4) symbolized by the 12 wooden pillars on the back sanctuary wall and the 12 stained glass windows of the Apostles in the transept windows. The multitude of angels who surround the throne (Rev 5:11) are symbolized by the blue and gold diamonds on the apse wall.

In effect the builders of my Church (built in 1939) were saying, when you walk into this church, you have entered heaven. Indeed, it is a replica of the heavenly vision of John. And when we celebrate the liturgy it is more than a replica for we are taken up to heaven in every Mass where we join countless angels and saints around the heavenly altar. There we worship God with them. We don’t have to wait for some rapture, we go there in every Mass.

I have assembled pictures of these details along with the scripture texts from Revelation in the following PDF document:

Holy Comforter Church in Washington DC and the Book of Revelation

Perhaps your own parish buildings also speak to you in stone and wood and glass. It is sad that many more modern Church buildings have little to say or teach as ancient traditions of church building were set aside in the 1960s. But I think that is beginning to change. Some of the very newest churches have returned to the more ancient practices. I pray it continues. Our buildings are meant to be a testimony to our faith.

Here’s a little video I put together on the architectural details of Holy Comforter – St. Cyprian Church:

Appreciating the Blessed Sacrament


Two weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to make a pilgrimage to Rome with one of our parishes. The trip struck me in many different ways, two that I’ll blog about here.

The first was the awe-inspiring beauty of the churches there. The picture to the right is just one of the many pictures I took in Rome…my picture-taking slowed after the first three days because there was just too much beauty to take it!

Additional, after a while many of the churches seemed more like museums. About half the churches did not have the Blessed Sacrament present, most buzzed with tourists doing their best to keep quiet, and amid the gilded enormity of the spaces, it was hard to find an intimate space in which to pray.

Obviously I don’t say this to criticize these artistic masterpieces or their preservation in any way. I just think that I was expecting to be struck in a more reverent, spiritual way by these buildings.

Surprisingly this “disappointment” made me appreciate our little chapel here at the Central Pastoral Administration building of the Archdiocese. Anyone who has heard me talk about this chapel knows how little I care for its design. Picture a big empty box, plain brick walls, angular color-block stained-glass windows, spotty lighting, grayish carpet, and our lovely 70s-era avocado-green leather kneelers.

But ya know what? Even in that artless room, I feel closer to Him than I did standing in the exquisite St. Paul Outside the Wall. Why? Because Jesus is present in the Blessed Sacrament! And in the afternoons when I go to pray, I know He is there for me…regardless of how ugly the kneelers are.

My Lord and my God, I firmly believe that you are here, that you see me, that you hear me.
I adore you with profound reverence; I ask you for pardon of my sins and grace to make this time of prayer fruitful.
My Mother Immaculate, Saint Joseph my father and lord, my Guardian Angel intercede for me.

-Handbook of Prayers

By Their Buldings You Will Know Them

In the Middle Ages the Cathedral was the true skyscraper of most ancient cities. It could be seen for miles and dominated not only the skyline but occupied the central square of the town. As the Renaissance set in, Palaces and government buildings began to dominate the central square and even the skyline  as the Churches shrunk in stature and moved to the side streets. Today, our great cities such as New York and Chicago have skylines dominated by great buildings of commerce and industry. The Cathedrals of these great cities would be hard to find by most visitors. What does all this say about our culture? How are we known by our buildings? What are the priorities and central focus of our time?

Fr. Barron, in this video makes an interesting observation in the recent renaming of the Sears Tower to the Willis Building. It now appears that the three tallest buildings in Chicago are all named for and owned by Insurance companies! What does this say? It seems to say that the more affluent we become the more anxious we become. With all our stuff we have much to protect, much to insure, much to be anxious about. And in whom do we trust to bring us this protection? Surely God, you will say! But look again, by our buildings you will know the answer! Jesus saves, but man insures. There is nothing evil about insurance but our buildings tell us we are quite anxious about many things and that we must insure to ensure looms large in our culture.  

Ugliest Church Art Contest

Well OK, Let’s admit it, the modern age hasn’t exactly been known as the golden age of Church architecture. The following website has collected some of the more “unusual” Church art of the past decades.

Ugliest Church Art Contest

Enjoy, and submit your own entries! By the way, I don’t agree that all the sites listed here are ugly. This is just for fun. It is well to remember the old Latin admonition: De gustibus non diputandem – In matters of taste let there be no disputes. According TO ME some of these entries are authentically ugly, even scary, but some aren’t so bad. You be the judge. And remember it’s just for fun. No polemical ugliness intended here.

And are some more really awful Church exteriors:

Really Ugly Church Buildings

On a more positive note, here is a video I recently put together on some of what I CONSIDER to be some beautiful Church interiors.

Everything Old is New Again

Here is a quick but thorough tour of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, in La Crosse, Wisconsin. The Church looks old but it is brand new, just opened a couple of months back! I’ll bet that in the years to come they may paint the ceilings in a renaissance fashion. Enjoy this video:

Even More Beautiful Churches

I put this video together, this time focusing on exteriors. The music is Nisi Dominus sung by the Majorstua Kammerkor. The Text of the psalm is rather long to produce in full here but the opening text, translated from the Latin, goes as thus:

Unless the Lord build the house, those that labor to build it do so in vain. In vain is your earlier rising and your going later to rest, you who toil for the bread you eat. For God pours gifts on his beloved when they slumber!

Enjoy the Video