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The Glory of Stained Glass: Church Art

By A. C. Slaughter

When you walk into Marvin Methodist Church in downtown Tyler you can’t help but be amazed at the awesomeness surrounding you. The light from the walls, which are darned with stained glass windows, is unlike any other. As you stand in the sanctuary you find yourself amazed at the grand glory each stained glass window produces. Maybe it’s the luminosity of each pane that transcends your immediate surroundings, other worldly, spiritual in its mere essence or perhaps it is the scale and color that evokes the most pure of heart. Whatever you wish to call it, you are amazed, taken aback and humbled before the glory that is, stained glass.

The history of stained glass dates back one thousand years and while the definite details of whose was the first and which region produced the finest is not set in stone, what we do know is how miraculous it is to think that at a time before running water, before electricity and any modern convenience, some of the world’s grandest buildings were being built and some of the world’s greatest art was produced with nothing more than man’s hands and the earth, both what the good Lord gave us. Glass making has been around since the 1st century BC. That’s a long, long time ago and since then new techniques have been introduced and perfected but the original methods still remain today. Stained glass and/or painted glass, was originally made by adding metallic salts during the glass manufacturing. Painted glass which is also referred to as stained glass is slightly different in that the colors are mixed and painted on after the glass pieces have been produced. Pure stained glass includes the colored salts in the glass making process. Cobalt, manganese, nickel, and cadmium are just a few of the minerals that make up the traditional green, blue, red, yellow, purple and white colors found in stained glass. Panels of stained glass are held together by strips of lead which you can see running through many pieces. The lead held the smaller pieces together which were fused into larger pieces eventually reaching heights of 20 feet or more. The lead started out as utilitarian but over the years has become part of the design. Bars of lead are also found running horizontally through the panels to further support the weight of the glass. (Some manufacturers still use this traditional method today although there are developments in the production of stained glass that allows for these bars to be removed.) Each stained panel is braced by a frame usually made of wood which is usually carved, sometimes very ornate to accentuate the colored glass.

The Egyptians and Romans started making small stained glass ornaments and vessels in the 1st century BC. Next we see churches in Britain start to use it in the 7th century followed by the Middle East and Southwest Asia in the 8th century. A resurgence of stained glass appears in the 10th-16th century BC. During this time period we see it used mostly in churches. Traditionally, panels told a story depicting scenes from the bible or other stories passed down through the generations. Stained glass in churches reached its height of popularity in the middles ages, and is sometimes referred to as Medieval Glass. This time period, otherwise known as the Renaissance, is when churches all over the world embraced this art and used it liberally. Made popular during the Renaissance is the circular window known as a Rose Window. The Chartres Cathedral in France is known to house the finest Rose Window ever made dating back to the 13th century.

Because of the popularity of stained glass, manufacturing companies popped up in different countries which made it even more accessible and affordable and in turn supported the popularity of the product even more so. Germany and France were two of the leading manufacturers of stained glass during this time.

19th century Britain and the revival of the Catholic Church brought about a resurgence of the art. Having fallen out of use, the rebuilding of churches in Britain spurred a new interest in the glass. The French Revolution of the late 18th century destroyed many public buildings including churches and after the rebuilding of Britain, France followed suit and rebuilt many churches mimicking a majority of their original stained glass designs. Germany was next with its rebuilding of churches in the medieval style. That brings us into the late 19th century where we find stained glass has made its way to America and into the gifted hands of artisan Louis Comfort Tiffany who is the founder of Tiffany Glass Incorporated and yes, the son of Charles Lewis Tiffany, founder of Tiffany and Company.

Stained glass has a brilliant history spanning decades, making its way back and forth across the globe and although not all of us own a Tiffany lamp, the beauty of stained glass is at each and everyone’s fingertips, you just need to know where to look.

In East Texas there are churches all over that house some sort of colored glass but few challenge the grandness of the older churches found right here, in downtown Tyler.

Christ Episcopal Church, located on Bois D’Arc, has a one of a kind collection of 16 painted glass panels made by the famous St. Louis House of Jacoby. The sanctuary walls are adorned with the story of Jesus from Annunciation to Resurrection. Founded in 1866 the Christ Church began meeting in the old Federal Court Room but later completed work on the new building, the current location, in 1918. As April is the month of Easter, what could be more beautiful than taking time to view these remarkable images celebrating the life of Jesus Christ. Designed by German glass makers, the windows are made in the old traditional style with lead ribbons running through the glass. When you are in front of the Last Supper, the large window spanning the back wall, you can’t help but be amazed. It is a true and blessed work of art.

Across the street is Marvin Methodist. As mentioned earlier, their windows are mighty and luminous. The imagery on these panels is symbolic, rather than narrative, ever reminding us of God’s presence. The Anchor is a symbol of hope and steadfastness; Cross and Crown are a reward for those who are faithful until death; Fleur-de-lis is the Trinity; Wheat and Sickle is a symbol of the harvest; and the Lamp is the word of God showing us where to go. As the story goes, a trunk with all the old papers and history of the church was stolen way back in the early 1900s and since no copies had been made there are no definite dates for when the stained glass was added, who made it or what was paid for it. The sanctuary was built in the late 1800s and a remodel in 2001 added new stained glass across the bottom back of the church where the original entrance doors once stood – and that, my friends, is about all we know.

Another fun, historic story comes from First Baptist Church which is located down the street a bit on Ferguson. Built in 1913, the church went through an extensive remodel in the early 70’s. Apparently, during this remodel, the church was divided; half the members wanted to keep the original stained glass windows and the other half wanted to install new ones. Legend has it that the two men heading the charge on each side were good friends and in the end a compromise was made. The sanctuary would receive new windows but the church would keep a hallway on the second floor behind the baptistery containing the original stained glass. And the old windows made it into the hands and home of one of these gentlemen whose name will not be mentioned. The original windows were quite impressive in that they were two paned allowing them to be raised which allowed for a block of ice to sit in the window during the lovely East Texas summers. And the story is that Dr. Bailes, who was pastor of the church from 1929-1956, told his congregation that they were lucky to have the only air conditioned church in town.

The history of stained glass is thick much like the panels themselves and rich with life like the colors of the glass which just like us, come from the earth. Easter is a special time for many churches and here in Tyler, Texas we have plenty to choose from. Take time to reflect and give yourself a dose of history by visiting one of these significant churches. Whether you like the old world style of stained glass adorning your service or you prefer a newer more modern approach to worship, may your Easter be special for you and yours, ever reminding us to live a life of gratitude.

The next time you are in front of a stained glass window may you have a newfound respect and admiration for something so beautiful and that so many of us take for granted. And that, my friend, is the reason for the season.

Happy Easter East Texas.

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