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Why stained glass works in sacred and secular spaces

Posted November 15

Stained glass windows are both permanent and ever-changing. They can’t be easily moved from their frame or rearranged, but shifting sunbeams affect what each new admirer sees.

“Stained glass brings light and color and story into a building at the same time,” said Virginia Chieffo Raguin, an art history professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. “No other medium does that.”

The art form's unique characteristics have attracted artisans and architects for centuries, even as the demand fell for traditional houses of worship, where stained glass was first widely used.

“In the 20th century, you get lots of secular buildings with stained glass: subway stations, schools and shopping malls,” Raguin said.

Utah Valley University will soon join this secular stained glass movement, which often draws on storytelling techniques associated with religious displays. On Friday, officials will unveil an 80-panel stained glass project along the front of the UVU campus library.

“Roots of Knowledge,” which required almost eight years of research, fundraising and labor from UVU leaders and artists at Holdman Studios, aims to capture the various sources of human knowledge, including science, literature and the world's religions. If stained glass often tells a story, these windows contain a multi-volume epic.

“I loved the idea of taking this ancient art form and channeling it into something that’s appropriate for a modern, secular institution,” said UVU President Matthew Holland.

Exhibits like "Roots of Knowledge" honor the rich history of stained glass artwork, while creating designs that speak to contemporary audiences, experts said. The subject matter doesn't have to be religious for stained glass to move people deeply.

"For some people (their response) will be intellectual. For some people, it will be aesthetic. For some people, it will be spiritual," Holland said. "It will reach people in different levels and ways. That's what I think great art always does."

Stained glass in churches

Stained glass, like paint or colored pencils, can be used to capture all kinds of ideas or images.

But it's long been associated with religious buildings, because faith communities were able to commission pieces when the medium was first becoming popular, wrote Terry Bloxham, a stained glass expert who works at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, in an email.

"Many innovations in what we would now call the 'decorative arts' began in churches. Decorated windows, tiled floors (and) painted walls were expensive to produce and the church seems to have been the only institution in the West able to afford these arts," she said.

Religious buildings were frequented by the whole community, which meant that everyone benefitted from efforts to beautify them, Raguin said.

"The religious building was the most important building in the city, even beyond the king's chapel or the king's buildings," she said. "Unlike today, everybody in the city participated in (religious life) — the nobility and the merchants and the clergy and everybody else."

Additionally, stained glass windows helped faith communities express their identity, Raguin said, noting that "unlike regular art, like paintings, that can move from place to place, stained glass … has to be made for a specific place."

Church leaders would meet with a stained glass artist to decide how to feature a local saint. As with the development of UVU's "Roots of Knowledge" display, the process required research and debate.

"People just didn't say, 'OK, John, go ahead and do some windows.' You had the archbishop, the head of the chapter of monks, all these people" making decisions about the windows, Raguin said.

Community-specific windows would be paired with others that depicted familiar Bible stories. During the Middle Ages, stained glass windows were a valuable teaching tool, because many worshippers were illiterate, Bloxham said.

"Narrative windows are often referred to as 'Bibles of the Poor,'" she said.

Evolving church buildings

Stained glass windows continue to have spiritual meaning for many believers, especially those who view light as a symbol for the divine, said Ashlee Whitaker, curator of religious art at Brigham Young University's Museum of Art.

"I think anyone who goes into a space with stained glass can feel some of that radiance," she said. "I think there's something really magnificent about the idea of creating an image where light makes it come alive."

Whitaker recently had the opportunity to oversee the installation of a stained glass window in BYU's exhibit of devotional art. She tried to ensure that viewing it would remain a spiritual experience, even if the window had been removed from a purely religious context.

The nearly 10-foot tall window, which is artificially lit from behind, portrays the Samaritan woman at the well, from the New Testament's gospel of John, chapter 4. Jesus is depicted with his finger in the air, teaching about God and his offer of "living water."

"In a space like we've created here, it connotes that aura of worship and reverence," Whitaker said.

BYU's window comes from the Presbyterian Church of Astoria in New York, where it hung for nearly a century. It was part of a set of six, which were sold after the congregation gave up its building due to declining membership and financial pressures.

Other stained glass windows have reached a similar fate in recent years, both as a result of changing design tastes and moves away from older church buildings that are expensive to maintain.

Religion-related projects still occupy many stained glass studios, but there's growing interest in pieces for secular spaces, said David Judson, the first vice president of the Stained Glass Association of America. His Los Angeles company, Judson Studios, is working currently on two church projects, but also pitching a design for a dome window on a cruise ship.

"It's a very diverse world out there, but we are seeing a trend of glass being more acceptable or respected in a secular world," Judson said.

In a mall, airport or train station, stained glass is still beautiful, but it likely doesn't inspire people to reflect on the divine or say a prayer, Whitaker noted.

"I've definitely been in buildings that had stained glass that weren't churches. In those spaces, my mind is on a different task. I'm walking to and fro — that kind of thing," she said.

Stained glass today

The increased presence of stained glass in secular spaces did not happen overnight, experts said. Throughout the 20th century and through today, designers and architects have viewed this type of artwork as a way to create a public space that will be breathtaking and memorable.

UVU's display, although unique in its subject and scope, follows in the footsteps of other prominent stained glass projects at U.S. universities, such as a collection of 18-foot tall panels installed in front of Princeton's art museum.

But Holland said he was still prepared for pushback to the "Roots of Knowledge" project. He didn't blame people for assuming the design would have a religious tone, even though that would be inappropriate at a school focused on inclusiveness.

"People would say, 'Oh, stained glass. What are you thinking here?'" Holland said.

The design process challenged school officials, professors and the artists at Holdman Studios to think deeply about how students and others would respond to the finished windows. Would they see themselves in the artwork or feel forgotten or left out?

This question affected people's responses to the initial drawing of the display's opening panel, which included a replica of Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam," from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The famous image shows God and Adam about to touch index fingers as they reach out to each other.

"That was Tom's (Holdman) original sketch and a lot of us really loved it," Holland said. "But it did generate some real discussion within the faculty group. There were lots of different positions taken."

The committee settled on a different design for the opening of "Roots of Knowledge," which includes less obvious religious imagery. There is still a man and a woman sitting together, who could be understood as Adam and Eve, but there are many other human forms nearby, as well as a representation of evolution.

The overall project is very different from famous stained glass displays in places like Chartres Cathedral in France or Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Rather than convey a biblical lesson or portray a famous saint, it tells the story of humanity, drawing on religious details in the same way it highlights scientific achievements or famous pieces of literature.

Although some might wring their hands and worry about stained glass losing its religion, many art experts say they're glad this medium lives on and that people still appreciate its beauty.

"It is a magic experience to enter a building, religious or secular, and be bathed in colored light," Bloxham said.

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com Twitter: @kelsey_dallas

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