Stained glass windows
By Ken Root
Editor’s note: Ken is taking a break from Root Zone this week. We hope you enjoy this column originally published in June 2009.
The piano music drifting out into the street let passersby know that Sunday services were in session. The white wooden frame building had a basement below and a steeple above, but its most endearing detail was the stained glass panels that arched over the upper windows. It was a touch of elegance, and perhaps even extravagance, for a simple house of worship in the little Plains community.
I differ with those who say that the citizens of rural America aren’t great lovers of art. If art has meaning, it has value and is appreciated. In churches of all denominations, the beauty of stained glass brings comfort to those both inside and out. Even people of meager means who face a hard life every day can find great joy in colored light that gives off a holy meaning.
How is it that a pane of glass can become a religious icon? It starts with an idea and moves to technology and labor before ending as a self-illuminating illustration of our faith and founding. Those who do the work are often unknown; the task is tedious, but the result is breathtaking. The work parallels that of farmers as the dream of a field of grain is brought to life by technology and labor and, some would argue, with the direction of God’s hand.
Stained glass has a long history in Europe that caused it to be incorporated in churches and pubic buildings in America. The most noted artist of the Midwest, Grant Wood, created a stained glass window that many consider his finest work, even surpassing his famous painting “American Gothic.” The veterans’ memorial window (Cedar Rapids, Iowa) took much study, development work in Germany, and two years of labor. It was a tribute to the struggle of all American wars, measuring 24 by 20 feet, with life-size soldiers from the Revolutionary War to World War I lined up across its base. Above is a towering figure of a woman as a symbol of the republic. When it was unveiled in 1929, the newspaper account said: “A woman in Grecian robes of lavender with pale rose cast, standing 16 feet tall with toes pointing down as she floats in the clouds, giving the spiritual effect achieved in many of the Renaissance paintings. On her head is a mourning veil of blue. In her right hand, she holds the palm branch of peace and in her left the laurel of victory.”
Churches use stained glass to display the life and death of Jesus and the images of saints but also to show the wonders of life and the work of man. In Union City, Oklahoma, the Catholic Church has a stained glass panel showing a rising head of wheat wrapped with a banner. It is a fitting tribute to the crop that brought people to the land and supports them to this day. Many windows have borders that symbolize stalks of corn or fields of hay as recognition of the honored profession of agriculture.
The enduring beauty of stained glass, especially the leaded windows of the past century, hold their value and often survive longer than the church. Many are sought by new churches, like religious icons, to adorn a modern structure and link our past and present.
Stained glass looks best from a distance. Close inspection often diminishes the effect of merged images that are so vibrant from afar. Perhaps the small pieces or uneven colors are like our daily lives—when taken singly, they are fractured, but observed as a body of work, they are brilliant.
As a photographer, I often try to capture a window and find it one of the easiest photos to take. Just get on the dark side and let the window send the light to you. Still, it can’t compare to the mood I can attain by sitting in a darkened sanctuary and studying the images and representations from top to bottom. There is a feeling of holiness and history all placed in front of me, to absorb all at once or in repeated visits.
Editor’s note: The Grant Wood Memorial Window can be seen online at http://www.cedar-rapids.org/government/departments/veterans-memorial/grantwoodwindow. Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 39 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or send mail for him to High Plains Journal.