A Catechism In Glass

Jesus' Baptism Stained glass, the art of which originated with the French Abbot Suger in the 12th century, has become increasingly more refined and less expensive over the years, making it readily available to almost anyone who wants it. Churches of many denominations have stained glass windows, so they are not uncommon; but stained glass windows are of widely varying quality, both in craftsmanship and in content. Many church windows are little more than pretty pictures, holy cards depicted in glass.

The new windows of the east nave at St James Cathedral are of the highest quality, created by a stained glass artist of world renown. And these windows are more than beautiful; they are, as Abbot Suger intended stained glass windows to be, illustrations of the Word. They are instructions in the way of Christ.

In medieval times, when illiteracy was the rule rather than the exception, stained glass windows were the catechism for children. They provided religious instruction, helping the children to learn Bible studies as if they were picture books. Father Michael Ryan, pastor of St. James confirms, "Our windows are in that tradition."

When stained glass was first introduced into St. James Cathedral in the 1920s, the east windows were only half stained glass. The bottom parts of the window wells were filled up with plaster. Outside the building, there appeared to be three, long 24-foot lancet windows (column windows with an arch at the top), but inside the church, only three small windows were visible high in the east wall. At the time of the renovation of the Cathedral, Father Ryan invited stained glass artist Hans Gottfried von Stockhausen to come to Seattle from his native Germany to address the problem of completing the windows. Von Stockhausen's creative response has not only beautified the interior of the Cathedral, but enriched the church's devotional life.

The original small windows held a crucifixion scene in the center with an image of the Sorrowful Mother to one side and of St. John to the other. Von Stockhausen removed those existing panels and blended the three into one piece of glass. The resulting triptych of the crucifixion, constructed in the Mayer Studios of Munich, now fills the arch above the gates to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel within the Cathedral.

During his first visit to Seattle in 1993, von Stockhausen came to know St. James and its people. He saw the people of the Cathedral parish responding to the poor, the hungry, the sick, the elderly, the homeless, and the imprisoned, and he was inspired by what he observed. Accordingly, the new east windows are a catechism of the "works of mercy" from the Parable of the Last Judgment (Mathew 25:31-46). They are a catechism which the artist made powerful by showing Christ himself in need.

There are nine scenes depicted in the panels, or roundels, that von Stockhausen created. The top left roundel shows Jesus at the table with the two disciples at Emmaus, after his Resurrection; the face of Jesus is rendered in green, a strange color until you remember that the disciples did not recognize him! Above the panel are the words from Mathew 25:35: "I was hungry and you gave me food." Below the panel is verse 42: "I was hungry and you did not give me food."

East Stained Glass The next panel depicts Jesus on the cross, with a soldier holding to His lips the sponge soaked with sour wine. Included on this scene are more words from Mathew: "I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink." It was important to von Stockhausen to have both texts, the positive and the negative, framing each scene. After all, could Christ really drink the vinegar offered him?

The remaining panels on the right and left windows continue to present the positive and negative dichotomy of important biblical scenes: Jesus struggling with the Cross while two women, wanting to help, offer Him their sympathy; the soldiers mocking Jesus by robing him in "royal" purple; an almost colorless scene of imprisonment and torture where Jesus is scourged by one of Christianity's timeless symbols of evil, the faceless helmeted tormentor; and finally, Judas' betrayal of Jesus with a kiss.

These right and left windows are visible now at St. James Cathedral. A pamphlet, "The Way of Mercy," is available on a tray table nearby to guide devotions there, with prayers and meditations by Mother Teresa. Von Stockhausen's use of Christ himself in these scenes from the Passion - hungry, thirsty, sick, imprisoned - intensifies and illuminates Christ's words-. "As long as you did it to one of these, the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me." The artist felt that seeing Jesus' own face in the face of those in need makes the call to works of mercy immediate and personal.

Unfortunately, the central window of the east nave at St. James is not visible now; the view of it is blocked by the case of the Casavant organ. This instrument, in need of renovation and rebuilding, will be redesigned, and when installed in mid-1999, positioned to reveal the entire window Father Ryan says, "It is the grace of baptism that gives us eyes to see where Christ is to be found." And von Stockhausen has given St. James Cathedral, in the central window, the Biblical stories that illustrate the Sacrament of Baptism. (Note: The Thomas J. Murphy Millennium Organ was installed in 1999 and the central East Apse window is now fully revealed.)

In the bottom panel of the central window, we see Noah reaching up from the ark to receive the olive branch from a dove on the wing. Above him, Moses is leading the chosen people through the waters of the Red Sea. Both these scenes are viewed as foreshadowing of baptism. In the top roundel of the window, Jesus is being baptized in the Jordan by John the Baptist with an angel by his side. Above him hovers the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove. Water flows down from this supper scene all the way to the bottom, where the "seed corn," as von Stockhausen calls it, is germinating and sending its branches growing up around the sides of the window, symbolizing the flowering of faith that is nourished by the waters of baptism.

When all three windows are fully visible as a result of the organ project, the symmetry and full impact of their message will be breathtaking. They are far more than pretty pictures - they are indeed a catechism in stained glass, calling the people of St. James to worship and to works of mercy.

Louise Marley is an instructor at Cornish School of Fine Arts and a well-known author. She is a St. James parishioner and has been a member of the choir since 1982.

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