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November 2009 issue

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Biblical Themes in Stained Glass Windows

By Jessie Rogers, Mary Immaculate College (University of Limerick) and the Dominican Biblical Institute

I have come across very few Old Testament scenes and characters in Irish Catholic church windows. This is in contrast to Church of Ireland churches, where almost a fifth of biblically themed windows draw upon the Old Testament.

As a newcomer to Ireland, I have been struck by the richness of the stained glass tradition. Even small parish churches have light streaming through beautiful windows. Since I am a Scripture scholar it is the representations of biblical scenes and characters that particularly catch my eye.

Just over two fifths of stained glass windows in Irish Catholic churches represent biblical themes, one third are saints, and most of the remainder draw upon traditions without a clear basis in the biblical text to depict Christ and Our Lady (e.g. the Sacred Heart and the Assumption of Mary). Of the biblical windows, almost all the scenes and characters depicted are from the New Testament, with scenes from the life of Jesus and the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary being the most common.

The windows in the ambulatory chapel leading to and from the Lady Chapel in Letterkenny Cathedral (St Eunans) give a good indication of how the story of the Blessed Virgin is typically told in stained glass. The scenes, in order, are: the Betrothal of Mary and Joseph; the Annunciation; the Flight into Egypt; the Holy Family, with Mary spinning while Joseph teaches Jesus carpentry; the Deposition, in which Jesus body is taken down from the cross; and the Coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven. Biblically-inspired depictions of Mary are clustered around the stories of the Nativity and the Passion. She is often shown together with St John at the foot of the cross, and frequently appears with the male disciples at the Ascension. Pictures of the Assumption and the Coronation of Mary extend her story beyond the account found in the canonical Gospels.

The scenes from the life of Jesus overlap somewhat with those discussed above. In addition to the Nativity and Passion, events commonly rendered in stained glass include Jesus baptism by John, the Transfiguration, the Resurrection / post-resurrection appearances and the Ascension. There is a huge emphasis on the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus. This is all the more noteworthy in light of the fact that the stations of the cross, found in all churches in some form, are seldom rendered in stained glass, the church at Dublin Airport being one exception. The agony in the Garden of Gethsemane and the crucifixion are especially frequent. Comparatively few windows show the earthly ministry of Jesus; those that do, depict miracles and parables or more general scenes of Jesus teaching. Jesus as the Good Shepherd and Jesus blessing the children are popular images of Christ.

There is a strong correlation between the scenes from the lives of Mary and Jesus most frequently rendered in stained glass and the Mysteries of the Rosary. Even the scene of the boy Jesus in the Temple confounding the scribes with his wisdom usually has Mary and Joseph entering the scene, suggesting that it is the Joyful Mystery, the Finding of Jesus in the Temple, rather than simply Jesus among the Scribes that is being imagined [Fig 2]. A five-light window in St Johns Cathedral in Limerick brings most of the Mysteries together. It is dominated by a representation of the Assumption of Our Lady spanning the middle of the three central lights, and has the Joyful Mysteries (Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, Presentation, Finding Jesus in the Temple) at the foot of each light. Most of the Sorrowful and Glorious Mysteries are arranged around the Assumption, with depictions of the Agony in the Garden, Scouring at the Pillar, Carrying the Cross, the Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, and the Coronation of Mary. Only the Crowning with Thorns and the Descent of the Holy Spirit are not pictured.

I have come across very few Old Testament scenes and characters in Irish Catholic church windows. This is in contrast to Church of Ireland churches, where almost a fifth of biblically themed windows draw upon the Old Testament. King David may make an appearance as a musician, and Moses and Elijah feature in (New Testament) Transfiguration scenes. The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, a reminder of the sin of humanity, is placed in the bottom corner of a three light window of Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Mary Immaculate College Chapel [Fig 3]. Here the Old Testament scene provides the backdrop to understanding the major theme of the window. Similarly, a window showing the Last Supper in Waterford Cathedral also includes Old Testament cameos of Abel, Melchizedek, and Abrahams sacrifice of Isaac which are used to illustrate a section of the First Eucharistic Prayer: Look with favour on these offerings and accept them as you once accepted the gifts of your servant Abel, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the bread and wine offered by your priest Melchizedek.

Symbols are often included in the iconography to help us to identify characters. So St Peter holds golden keys, St John the Baptist wears a rough brown garment and Moses has horns and carries the Ten Commandments. Mary Magdalene, sometimes present at the foot of the cross and the main protagonist in a post-resurrection narrative, can generally be recognised by her uncovered hair, usually red [Fig 4]. Her special symbol is the jar of ointment with which she intended to anoint Jesus body. Tradition links the Evangelists, Ss Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, with the four living creatures before Gods throne in Revelation (4:7), and they have as their symbols a winged man, ox, lion and eagle respectively. St John the apostle is almost always depicted as young and beardless and St Paul often holds a sword and a book. Often, however, it is only a name or biblical text included in the window that allows one to identify the character with any certainty.

A striking example of a window which reflects a careful and detailed reading of the Bible is the St John window of the Honan Chapel in Cork. I have always seen it described as including scenes of the Passion from the Gospel of John. In fact, it is exactly what the name implies, a window which tells the story of John, the disciple of Jesus who is commonly identified with the disciple referred to anonymously as the disciple whom Jesus loved, the John who recorded his apocalyptic visions in the book of Revelation, and to whom tradition ascribes the fourth Gospel. It draws upon all four Gospels and the book of Revelation to tell the story of St John. There is an eagle at the bottom of the window, the sign of John the Evangelist. The colourful picture above that shows Jesus, accompanied by two disciples, beckoning to John and his brother James who are on a boat together with their father Zebedee. This scene reflects a close reading of Matthew 4:18-22 (cf Mark 1:16-20), even to the extent that Peter and Andrew, who have already been called, are with Jesus. Just below this, in much more muted colours, we have two circular insets which show John as the immature disciple. In one, he stands with clenched fist while his brother gestures heavenwards and Jesus is turned toward them, signalling them to desist. Luke 9:52-56 records how James and John want to call down fire from heaven to destroy a Samaritan city that has denied Jesus and his followers hospitality, and Jesus turns and rebukes them.

If this first scene shows an impetuous and vengeful John, the second shows Johns arrogance. John and James look on as their mother asks Jesus to bestow on her sons the honour of sitting on Jesus left and right hand side in his kingdom (Matthew 20:20-23. The similar story in Mark 10 has the brothers making the request themselves, without the mediation of their mother). The two circular pictures in the centre of the window just below the crucifixion scene depict a very different St John, one who is marked by love, sorrow and compassion [Fig 5]. He is shown reclining against Jesus at the Last Supper (John 13:22-25) and walking away from the crucifixion scene with the mother of Jesus, whom Jesus had entrusted to his care as he was dying (John 19:26-27). These images invite the viewer to consider the crucifixion scene directly above them, which follows convention in placing the Virgin Mary and St John at the foot of the cross, from the perspective of the man who stands there, gazing at his dying Lord. The round picture on the left hand side above the crucifixion shows St John and St Peter dashing to the tomb, after they have been told by Mary Magdalene that Jesus body is not there (John 20:2-4). Its companion has the risen Lord appearing to St Peter and St John. Jesus and Peter are walking and talking beside a lake, with John following them closely, suggesting to me that this is the scene recounted at the end of Johns Gospel, where Jesus appears to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias (John 21). The focus of the picture at the top of the window is not on St John, who is off to one side, head bowed, but is his vision of the glorified Christ described in Revelation chapter 1, including the Alpha and Omega symbols and the seven candlesticks.

The scenes depicted on this window are not random. They tell the story of the growth of the saint from immature young disciple to beloved friend of Jesus, witness to the resurrection, and visionary and writer of sacred Scripture.


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