Coming to Terms with Stained Glass
Updated: Oct 14, 2020
By Robert Latsko, M.Div., M.Arch.
First Published in the "Sacred Art Journal" - Volume 10 Number 2 June 1989
Visitors to the Church of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople - that classic paradigm of Orthodox Byzantine architecture - are awestruck by the brilliance of the natural lighting. The light that streams in through the many windows of its dome contributes to an interior environment that observers of every epoch have called "heaven on earth." That this observation has been made so often is not so incredible when we understand that this is exactly the image that the architects of the Hagia Sophia sought to create. The design intention of all Orthodox church buildings is to be an image of the Kingdom of God, and the luminous environment created by both natural and artificial lighting in conjunction with various architectural forms and interior iconography is of paramount importance in creating that image.
Luminosity is also one of the three key elements - along with harmony and geometry -which the architects of Gothic churches used to create an image of "heaven on earth." The Abbot Suger, the 12th century "inventor of Gothic architecture," sought to bring into church buildings as much light as possible through an expanded use of stained glass windows. Walls of shimmering glass, held up by the smallest possible amount of structure (which led to a more popular use of "flying buttresses") were erected. Abbot Suger's understanding of the writings of Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite (A 5th century Eastern Christian mystic) led him to a fascination with the symbolism of light. The "natural" light received by stained glass windows, in Suger's understanding, was transformed into "new light" (Lux Nova in Latin) symbolic of Jesus Christ who is the "light of the world" (John 8:12) after it had been refracted through the colored glass. This expanded use of stained glass, however, did not create an interior environment that was always bright. "The thick, colored panes of the stained glass glowed only under direct sunlight, and even then it was muted, chromatic illumination they engendered." 1
While the use of stained glass in Western churches was a means of creating a church that was an image of heaven on earth - "the wall was built of jasper, while the city was pure gold, clear as glass" (Rev. 21:18) - its use never developed as a primary means of creating that image in the East. To be sure, stained glass was used there - as in the amber-colored windows found in the 5th century church of St. Demitrios in Thessalonica - but it never was used as a primary medium to manifest the presence of Christ and the saints; icons, mosaics, and frescos did this. Windows were understood to serve not a "worship function" but the "practical function" of illuminating the church for daytime worship and to contribute to the overall sense of the church building being an "image of the Kingdom".
It is interesting to note that the first period of stained glass in the West is called by art historians the "Byzantine period" because Byzantine icons were used as models by the Western glaziers. Note that they used Byzantine icons as their model - but did not use Byzantine stained glass! Stained glass "icons" have not, in general, been used in the East because they are not in the Orthodox iconographic Tradition (that which has been passed down through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as essential for our faith). In the churches of the West, which generally do not use iconography as a function of worship, the colored light that is refracted through the stained glass tends not to interfere with other interior features of the church, but to enhance the walls, columns, and stonework of the plain interior because of the spontaneous variation of lighting intensity on a particular day.
When there is a great deal of interior iconography, as is the case of Orthodox churches, however, darkly colored and multi-colored stained glass (with or without anyone's image depicted) should be used only with discretion - in the context of the whole architectural design and iconographic plan. If the decision to have stained glass windows is made, care must be taken so that the stained glass does not allow enough natural light to penetrate, is an obvious design flaw. It can also be noted that stained glass, in general, works better with mosaic than with fresco because the mosaic stone is polished and is a better reflector of light. The interrelationship between iconography (in terms of style, color and placement and the quality, intensity, and color of the refracted light) must be considered.
It must be made clear, however, that stained glass is not "necessary" for Orthodox churches to be an image of the Kingdom - thousands of Orthodox churches over the centuries have manifested this reality without it! Stained glass "icons", I believe, will never come to be universally accepted as icons (in the sense of wooden icons, frescos, and mosaics) because they cannot serve a worship function 24 hours a day. Stained glass "icons" are not illuminated at night - the place that was an "icon' is the daytime becomes a black "hole in the wall." We also cannot light a candle in front of a stained glass "Icon" as we can to illumine traditional icons, because the light passes through to the outside - and viewed from the outside the image is backwards!
Why is it that so many Orthodox churches in America incorporate stained glass windows into their design? There are, I believe, two reasons. The first is the inevitable result of living in a religiously pluralistic society. We see beautiful stained glass windows in Roman Catholic and Protestant churches and the natural inclination is to want to incorporate them (or at least an "Orthodox version") into our Orthodox church. The fact that stained glass windows are not a part of the Orthodox iconographic Tradition is not taken into consideration. The second reason, I believe, is an ignorance on the part of architects in understanding the design intention of an Orthodox church as an image of the Kingdom, and how to achieve this design intention through architectural forms.
One can find in almost any city in this country and Canada examples of Orthodox churches which cannot be distinguished from churches of "other" denominations apart from the existence of a three barred cross or an onion dome (cupola). Many of these "generic" church buildings incorporate stained glass windows - the purpose of which is to "decorate" an otherwise inferior design - in the same way that onion domes are often used to make an inferior design "Orthodox." The result is often a church building with beautiful - or not so beautiful - stained glass windows which call attention to themselves as "art for art's sake" and do little or nothing to contribute to the overall sense of the structure being an image of the Kingdom.
The argument that stained glass windows can have a "sacramental quality" is true, because all created things should be a means of communion with God - but any desire to use stained glass in a church design must be tempered by an understanding of the larger picture. A good Orthodox church design is one in which all the "parts" work together as a whole to communicate the design intention. There is no question that stained glass can be beautiful in and of itself - but there is no "art for art's sake" in the Orthodox liturgical arts - Orthodox Christian "art" is not an end in itself; it is there for a reason - to help us move forward toward our salvation in Jesus Christ.
1. Spiro K. Kostof, A History of Architecture, New York, Oxford University Press, 1985