Stained Glass Windows
Part 3 - The Life of Jesus
The twelve large stained glass windows on the right and left walls of the nave show significant events in the life of Jesus our Lord. They are arranged chronologically, beginning on the right wall nearest to the front and proceeding clockwise around the nave.
Location: Right wall closest to front of nave
This window, showing the angel Gabriel’s appearance to the Virgin Mary, and is depicted in the first chapter of the Gospel according to St. Luke, verses 26 through 38. After deciding that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on December 25, the Church centuries ago set aside the fixed date of March 25 for the feast of the Annunciation, appropriately exactly 9 months before Christmas Day.
Gabriel is shown holding a spray of white lilies. This is a very traditional artistic device to emphasize that the woman in the picture is Mary, since white lilies symbolize purity, chastity, and innocence. When the angel tells Mary that she is to bear a son, Mary questions the idea by saying, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Gabriel explains that “the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” The artist has illustrated this answer with the dove at the top of the window, and rays of brilliant light descending from the dove that alight on Mary. We know that the dove represents God’s Holy Spirit, and the artist emphasizes the divine and holy nature of this dove by giving it the traditional artistic mark of holiness: a nimbus. Mary, too, is shown with a nimbus. But the dove’s nimbus has a special feature that you can see repeated in every one of the stained glass windows that depict either the Holy Spirit or Jesus: it is a “cruciform” nimbus, bearing a hint of the four branches of the Christian cross in its four colored stripes.
Location: Right wall 2nd from front
The stained glass window that depicts “The Nativity” is in the middle of the wall on the right side of the nave, placed between the “Annunciation” and “Presentation” windows. It depicts Joseph, Mary and the Baby Jesus in a manger topped by a pair of white doves.
Bruce Thomas notes, "It transports my thoughts to be with the Holy Family in Bethlehem, much more than my actual visit to Bethlehem was able to do. As I’ve written elsewhere in this series, religious stained glass windows serve a variety of purposes: “as beautiful adornment that reflects our great love for God; to bring light (‘the light of God’) into the dark
corners of the church; and to serve as a Biblical textbook.”
Location: Right wall 3rd from front
Hebrew law (Leviticus 12:1-8) dictated the date for the circumcision of a newly born male child, on his eighth day of life. In addition, the law prescribed that the mother must wait until the 33rd day after his circumcision for her to be considered purified from the birth of that child. On that 40th day of his life, she was to present herself to the priest of the temple, and bring with her both a burnt offering and a sin offering. In Mary’s case, since she apparently could not afford a lamb for the burnt offering, she took the more affordable option of bringing two doves (or pigeons) for her offerings. In the stained glass, you can see both little birds in the cage near Mary’s feet.
Because February 2 is the 40th day after Christmas, the Church on that date celebrates the feast called “The Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple.” The emphasis for this feast, though, has been placed on the second reason for the temple visit of Jesus and his parents: adherence to another law of the Hebrews (Numbers 18:15-16) that required a first-born male, when he was about a month old, to be “redeemed” at the temple for a specific price, because the first-born always belonged to God.
During their visit to the temple that day, the Holy Family encountered the elderly, righteous, and devout man Simeon. The Holy Spirit had promised Simeon that he would not die until he had witnessed the long-awaited Messiah. Taking Jesus into his arms, Simeon recognized that the promise had been fulfilled. Here, we see Simeon raising his finger towards heaven as he praises God with the words that have become known as “The Song of Simeon.” This song (the Nunc Dimittis) is included in the liturgy of Evening Prayer, and sung beautifully at Evensong services by the St. David’s choir.
"The Baptism of Jesus"
Location: Right wall 4th from front
In the detail of the window, you can see John’s garb, made from camel hair, with a leather belt about his waist. Alluding to John’s life in the desert, there is a canteen attached to his belt. In the background, the waters of the Jordan can be spied, with a pool of the river in the foreground. The most fascinating detail for me is that the artist has mimicked the way light is bent when it travels through water. As a result, Jesus’ feet are shown noticeably bigger than they would be seen to be if they were resting on dry land. Growing next to the spot is a type of plant we’re used to seeing in marshy areas, the cattail.
John the Baptist has his hands full: in one hand is a shell from which he is pouring water to baptize Jesus; in his other hand he holds a staff from which flutters the same banner we’ve noticed in the central rose window above the altar. If you read the 36th verse in the first chapter of the Gospel according to John (the Evangelist) about John (the Baptist), you should be able to understand the reason why the artist has used this banner to tie together the two windows. Above it all floats the dove, representing the Holy Spirit of God descending upon Jesus.
"You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased."
"The First Miracle"
Location: Right wall 5th from front
Jesus’ first miracle was at a wedding in Cana, which the evangelist John gives us in the second chapter of his Gospel account. Our Lord’s blessed mother, Mary, recognizes the wine has run out, and that this calamity will spoil the wedding feast. She doesn’t tell Jesus straight out what to do; she merely infers it. She says to him, “They have no more wine.” He, as a loving son, understands her wishes immediately, but there is mild tension in his response as he protests the task she has set for him. He gently pushes back while at the same time showing proper respect: “Dear woman, why do you involve me? ... My time has not yet come.” But Mary, bless her, proceeds exactly as only a mother would. Pointedly, her next words are not directed towards Jesus, but to the servants of the household: “Do whatever he tells you.” Jesus understands, relents, and obeys his mother’s wishes. Water is changed into wine, and the wedding feast continues, a huge success.
In the stained glass, the artist depicts clear water, gushing forth from the throat of the stone jar, then changing in mid-flow into the purplish color of wine? In the background, the wedding couple sits at table and a servant is bearing a tray of food above his head. Over them, almost as we would see today in one of those large, festive tents erected for lavish wedding receptions, there hangs a large chandelier with blazing candles. Jesus stands large in the foreground beside another servant, who is struggling to pour the water-wine from the huge, unwieldy 30-gallon jar.
The artist has focused on the miracle of the water literally being changed into wine. But in this window that depicts the Miracle at Cana – “the first of his miraculous signs,” as John describes it (John 2:1-11) – we have a foreshadowing of the Holy Eucharist. Jesus provided wine for the wedding feast, just as he provides himself in the wine each time we kneel at the communion rail.
Location: Right wall 6th from front
The healing ministry of Jesus is expressed in the stained glass window that is on the right side of the nave and closest to the gallery. Its name is simply “Healing,” although it looks like it should be called “Healing the Blind.” While the petitioner in this depiction is clearly a blind person, a close inspection of the detail of the window will reveal another person who is using crutches. The Gospels tell us of paralytics, deaf-mutes, demoniacs, persons lame or with withered limbs, people suffering from fever or dropsy, as well as those who were blind. The list of ailments continues with leprosy and bleeding, and even includes the ultimate of ailments: death itself. Jesus was begged to heal persons with a broad range of maladies, and those petitions were always answered. The faith that was shown was always rewarded, with that being a major message for us inherent in this window: “Knock and the door will be opened to you.”
At the peak of the window, the artist has inserted a symbol that announces its subject matter of healing: a single snake curled around a wooden staff. Some may erroneously call this symbol a “caduceus” (which has two snakes), but it is instead the more ancient and correct symbol for the healing professions: the staff of Asclepius.
Location: Left wall 6th from front
The Transfiguration window is the one farthest to the rear of the nave on the left side. In it you can see how Jesus’ face is radiant, and how the artist depicts his clothes as “dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.” Notice how the artist represents the cloud that overshadows them all. In the background stands Moses. Beside Moses is the prophet Elijah who himself had met God on Horeb, “the mountain of God” (1 Kings 19:9-18). Look closely for the symbolic clues the artist has inserted that identify both Moses and Elijah. In the foreground Peter, James, and John look on in amazement. Peter, in his exuberance, suggests to Jesus that three dwellings be erected, “one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” At the peak of the window, you can see how the artist has inserted a trio of tents to illuminate this impulsive suggestion of Peter.
It’s not hard to pick out which of the three figures represents Peter. But of the other two, can you decide how to identify the brothers James and John? Which is which? One of them is balding, while the other has a full head of hair. I suggest you look at the Crucifixion window just to the right of this one, and recall how John in his Gospel records that he was present with Jesus’ mother Mary at the foot of the cross. The artist has assured continuity by showing John with the same features and hairstyle he has in the Transfiguration window.
Location: Left wall 5th from front
The synoptic Gospels are all in agreement about the condition of the daytime sky on that Good Friday when Jesus was crucified. “From the sixth hour [noon] until the ninth hour [3 p.m.] darkness came over all the land.” Contemporaneous non-Christian accounts confirm this midday darkening phenomenon. How was this darkening of the sky to be depicted in the stained glass without compromising the light-transmitting quality of this one window?
The artist has indicated the darkening in two ways: physically as well as metaphysically. Rather than darken the sky, there is only a broad hint of the effect, with a sinuous large dark cloud obscuring the face of the sun. Additional darkening of the picture is achieved by the almost mahogany coloring of Jesus’ body hanging on the dark wooden cross. The evident agony and the bruising of the body darken the moment most effectively. The deep purple cloth that is draped over the arms of the cross also lends a darkening mood without impeding the window’s capacity
to transmit light. The prominent nails in Jesus’ hands and feet contribute another portion of this mood of darkness. Above the scene, at the peak of the window, the nails and the crown of thorns are emblematic of the dark theme of agony and death.
Three other figures surround the cruel cross: Jesus’ mother Mary, dressed in the same sarum blue that she wears in the other three windows in which she appears; the young evangelist John, his hair styled the same as it is in the Transfiguration window on the left; and a lone Roman soldier wearing a cloak that is the same dark purple color as the drape on the cross, serving as the silent background witness to this dark scene.
Location: Left wall 4th from front
This allegory for our Risen Lord, the first verse of Hymn 204, is echoed in the stained glass window depicting “The Resurrection.” Look at the ornamentation at the peak of the window, and you’ll see a visual version of the allegory. Set to the haunting melody of a French carol, the words were written by the poet John Macleod Campbell Crum (1872-1958), an Anglican priest who served at Canterbury Cathedral. The rebirth of all nature in the springtime as emblematic of the Resurrection of Jesus is a theme as old as Christianity.
Compare this window with the one to its left that shows the crucifixion. Once again the artist’s challenge is to manage the light-transmission quality of the medium of stained glass, this time emphasizing the brightness of that first Easter morning, rather than the dark gloom of Good Friday. The brilliant rays of the sun stream forth, dazzling us so that it is hard to even discern the huge stone that has been rolled away from the entrance of the tomb. Jesus stands in front of the crypt, arrayed in white splendor, shining even brighter than the sun, completely transformed from the battered body that had been put in the tomb on Friday afternoon. His face is fresh and bright, the beard and hair clean and brushed, but close examination reveals the wounds in his hands and feet, assuring us that this is indeed the same person hanging on the cross in the neighboring window.
One of the Roman soldiers is shielding his eyes, but is it the brilliance of the sun that is causing him to do so? Or is it the astonishing sight of the resurrected Jesus that has caused him to avert his gaze? It’s interesting that the other guard has no trouble staring at Jesus, even with the sun in his field of vision. Is there a message for us there in those differing reactions of the two witnesses? How ironic, that the chief priests and Pharisees had lobbied for soldiers to be put in place, to seal and guard the tomb, and yet these very guards become the first witnesses of the Resurrection. They are the ones to behold His glory as the dawn breaks, while Jesus’ followers later in the day (as shown in the “Supper at Emmaus” window to the right) take an inordinate amount of time before they even recognize their friend walking and talking with them.
"Supper at Emmaus"
Location: Left wall 3rd from front
Two disciples of Jesus are trudging along the dusty road from Jerusalem to the outlying town of Emmaus. It’s a seven-mile trip, so they have a long time to chat. And they have a lot to talk about, because these two are very sad, very confused, disillusioned, and dejected. Their friend and teacher Jesus has died a violent death, and just today it’s been discovered that his body is missing from its tomb. Luke tells us the name of one of them: Cleopas. Some scholars speculate that it was his wife, Mary, who was among those witnesses at the crucifixion. If so, then it stands to reason that the image they hold of Jesus at this moment is the wife’s eyewitness account: a bloody, broken and bruised body, pierced by thorns and nails and a spear. This would help to explain why, when their risen Lord joins the pair in mid-journey, they are “kept from recognizing him.”
When Jesus asks them what they’ve been discussing, they are convinced this stranger is not from the area around Jerusalem, or else he’d know the big news about the trial and execution of Jesus of Nazareth. Even as Jesus explains to them (again!) why these things had to happen according to
the Scriptures, they still don’t recognize him. When they get to their destination in Emmaus, Jesus indicates he’s going to travel on, but they urge him to stay and have supper with them. This is the scene we see depicted in the stained glass window. It shows the moment when Jesus, assuming
the role normally reserved for a host, takes the bread and gives thanks, breaks it and gives it to his two disciples. It is the moment when “their eyes were opened and they recognized him.” After that, Jesus vanishes from their sight, and the two of them recognize how their hearts burned within them while he taught them from the Scriptures along the road to Emmaus.
As you study the window, see how the faces of the two disciples display that spark of recognition. Notice the sandals that have been kicked off, and the basin of water used for washing their dusty and aching feet before the meal. They had to have been tired after that seven mile trek from Jerusalem. But in their excitement, they rushed back to Jerusalem -- another dusty seven miles -- to tell the other disciples of their encounter with their risen Lord; of how he was recognized in the breaking of the bread.
At the peak of the window, the shaft of wheat and the cluster of grapes remind us how Jesus appears to us in the bread and wine -- the Blessed Body and Blood of Our Lord -- when the celebrant breaks and elevates the consecrated Host, saying, “Alleluia. Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” And remembering the excitement of the disciples at supper on that first Day of Resurrection, we reply enthusiastically, “Therefore let us keep the feast. Alleluia.”
"Ascension and Pentacost"
Location: Left wall 2nd and 1st from front, respectively
These two windows mark the last two events, chronologically, among the 12 significant events in the life of Jesus Christ shown in the large windows of the nave. They are the two large peaked windows farthest forward on the left side of the nave. The Church marks Ascension Day forty days after Easter (and ten days before Pentecost), because that’s precisely what the Bible tells us in Acts 1:3 about the timing of the event. As a result, this feast day always occurs on a Thursday, so it does not get the attention of many other important events in the life of Jesus that the Church celebrates on Sundays. I encourage you to read the account of the Ascension, in the first chapter of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. Study the window’s detail, and see how many tiny things you may have previously overlooked. For instance, notice the chariot at the peak of the window, then read the passage in 2 Kings 2:1-12. Christ’s ascent into heaven was foreshadowed by the taking up into heaven of the prophet Elijah. How many of Jesus’ disciples do you see depicted in the window? What is the meaning of the two footprints shown in the window?
The Pentecost window illustrates the event written about in Acts 2:1-4 -- the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to his disciples to send the Holy Spirit to comfort them. Beginning in the Middle Ages, stained glass windows in the great cathedrals and churches of Europe served three purposes: as beautiful adornment that reflects our great love for God; to bring light (“the light of God”) into the dark corners of the church; and to serve as a Biblical textbook for the illiterate masses. While we are no longer the illiterate masses, we still benefit from these visual reminders of the wonderful stories from the Bible.