The Nature of Stained Glass
Designing for stained glass windows is not as mysterious as it may seem at first glance.
The nature of stained glass is to render ideas symbolically. All of the design elements, color, line, light and shade, texture, are all at play in the design for a stained glass window. This is our grammar, our means of communication just as the words on this page are symbols for meaning.
In work for the Christian church we also have a thousand year history of the stained glass artists that have gone before and left for us lasting monuments to their ingenuity, intelligence and skill.
Working with a church, the stained glass artist creates a window bringing all of these elements to the discussion of the design for a stained glass window to enhance the beauty of a worship space. It is all predicated on the fact that human beings will be seeing the windows in the context of a religious space. Church members are predisposed to see the art work, whether it be windows, sculpture, or tapestry, is of a religious nature.
Recently, I received a phone call from a divinity school student who was assigned to write a paper about an artwork in a church. The student wanted to know what, as a stained glass artist, prompted my design process. For her subject she chose a stained glass window in created for a church in North Carolina by our company at least ten years ago.
Before entering divinity school, she had been a faithful member of the congregation attending that church for two years. She recently returned to the church to look with new eyes at the stained glass window. Once she permitted herself to be contemplative, she discovered that the window had a story to tell. We discussed how the window reflected the donor families’ deep roots in the community. The window tells the story of the old rugged cross in brown glass painted to resemble wood. The five areas of red glass further the story of the wounds Christ suffered during His crucifixion.
It’s natural to think in concrete terms of the story told through symbols and images. Creating an image with glass, lead and paint, is a form of abstraction. The object depicted in the window is a symbol and a guidepost for the viewer to interpret for themselves the meaning of the symbol. The window should provide an instant “Yes” and a prolonged “Why” and should remain open for individual interpretation. It’s not that the symbols are hidden, but in plain sight, woven into the pattern of an open design.
In the process of choosing a stained glass studio it’s important to become familiar with the studio’s body of work. What you request must be within the studio’s abilities and range of styles. It is the studio’s responsibility to meet your expectations and in the end the window belongs to God as a reflection of our faith.
One question to ask about the design of the window is “What do you want the viewer to feel when viewing the work of art?”. Begin with a lyrical idea and a thought that deepens the theological underpinnings of the window. Should the window be a celebration? Express mystery? Will the window be in a room for meditation or in a space set aside for worship by the congregation?
Typically the process of commissioning a window begins with a conversation between the window designer and the appointed members of the congregation and the window designer. The designer produces an initial sketch. This is just the beginning. The sketch may not solve all the issues in the design, indeed, it helps to define them.
Some of the references may not speak to everyone, but it will speak to some. By keeping the design open in this way, it will allow the viewers to interpret the meaning for themselves and their own individual spiritual journey.
In the design process it’s important to consider the scale of the room along with the other environmental conditions such as the amount of natural sunlight and the time of day when the room will be used. The window design should respond to the room in which it will be displayed, as a different environment may not communicate the story as well. Also to be considered in the design process is the purpose of the room and who will view the window. Design revisions respond to the ideas and concerns identified in discussion with the church committee, the architect and the designer. A donor may want the window to celebrate a marriage or to commemorate a loved one and may offer useful suggestions for the design of the window. After these conversations are concluded the studio then begins the process of creating the window. Along the way many choices have been made about the types and colors of glass and special art work techniques to be used. At this point in the process the focus is on letting the window become the window.
When the window is in production in our studio, it’s like the story of the ugly duckling turning in to the beautiful swan. In its new home the stained glass window will begin to sing as it becomes whole.
The presence of a stained glass window in a church sanctuary educates and challenges the viewer and has great potential for contributing to the principle of Christian formation.
The truth discovered in the window will be witnessed by people now and for many generations to come.