Friday, November 09, 2007

A Light Unto the Soul - Painting with Light

A Light

Unto the Soul

Painting with Light

Stained Glass Windows

The King James Version of the Bible in John 8:12 says "Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life." Jesus was the inspiration for and his life, gruesome death and subsequent resurrection were the subject of the majority of stained glass windows created in history. Light is truly the inspiration for stained glass in both the physical and literal senses. During the Gothic Era from about 1150 - 1500 A.D. there was no electricity so alternate ways of lighting Cathedrals was necessary. Immense and exquisite stained glass windows were created and intended to provide physical light by allowing in much needed sunlight, but they were also intended to provide spiritual light.

In some Cathedrals, stained glass panels covered entire walls and the supporting pillars go almost entirely unnoticed. The pillars alone could not have supported the weight of the structure, which is the purpose of the flying buttresses (they braced the structure from the outside). Grand and magnificent cathedrals carved up gigantic stones and supported by immense pillars and flying buttresses reaching up towards the Heavens in worship of God and His son were crowned with beautiful jewels known as stained glass.

The art of making stained glass has been poetically referred to as "painting with light" taking the analogy even further. This term was coined due to the fact that rather than reflecting light off of it, a stained glass window allows light to be transmitted through it. It is a unique partnership, as neither the light nor the window is as magnificent without the other.

Abbot Suger of the Cathedral at St. Denis in France was among the first to employ the Gothic form of architecture in an attempt to glorify God and Jesus Christ. The following quote is taken from a writing of Suger, included as a part of a transcription on the doors to the Cathedral. That gives insight into his motivations for using large amounts of stained glass and the relationship of the physical light to the spiritual, "...The noble work is bright, but, being nobly bright, the work should brighten the minds, allowing them to travel through the lights to the true light, where Christ is the true door."

He later gave a detailed explanation as to what the purpose of the exemplary works of stained glass window art were in the church; "Thus sometimes when, because of my delight in the beauty of the house of God, the multicolor loveliness of the gems has called me away from external cares, and worthy meditation, transporting me from material to immaterial things, has persuaded me to examine the diversity of holy virtues, then I seem to see myself existing on some level, as it were, beyond our earthly one, neither completely in the slime of earth nor completely in the purity of heaven.

By the gift of God I can be transported in an anagogical manner from this inferior level to that superior one." Walking into a mighty cathedral such as St. Denis, even today, one can feel the influence this passion for light had on the development of the art of stained glass making and the worship of God during the Gothic Era.

Next time, When you see the stained glass artwork, remember the Light of the World. The light which unto the soul. 

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