If you’ve spent much time in church – of almost any Christian denomination, but not all – you’ve probably at some point marveled at the beauty of stained glass windows. These incredible works of art depict scenes from the Bible, from church history, from the lives of saints and martyrs.
Among the immediately recognizable figures there are symbols, icons and combinations of color and shade meant to convey meaning that goes deeper than the mere literal, surface presentation. This use of complex symbology goes back to a time when the majority of the population could not read. Churches and cathedrals used pictographs and iconography to relate Scripture and tradition to illiterate congregants.
Today, most people who regularly attend church can read. But, somewhere in the process of becoming more literate in the written word we as a culture have lost touch with our ability to communicate in symbolism.
I discovered the depth of this loss recently when my priest, Fr. John Toles, asked if I’d be willing to help put together a photo book detailing the meaning and history of the beautiful stained glass windows in our church, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Enid, Oklahoma.
I eagerly accepted the opportunity to help, and strolled into the church — a church in which I’d attended services for more than a year. Looking at the windows I quickly came to a realization: I had been sitting by these striking works of art for something like 60 hours, and I had no idea what they meant. They were beautiful combinations of color and artistic renderings, and there were some obvious representations. Christ on the cross is hard to miss. But, even in those more obvious panels there were numerous small symbols conveying deep meaning which I had yet to comprehend.
I’ve worked for several weeks in my (little) spare time to research and write brief accounts of the stories behind these windows. I am sharing them here to relate the stories of the windows, and to spark interest in this rich art form.
The St. Paul Window
The Arthur F. Blattler Family Window
Given to the Glory of God by Russell and June Blattler Emrick
Beginning at the rear of the nave, on the east wall, is the first of three historical windows, commemorating the Church Apostolic, the Church Medieval, and the Church Reformed. St. Paul, representing the Apostolic Church, is portrayed at his conversion on the road to Damascus.
Paul, then named Saul, was on his way to seek out and arrest followers of the Way (Christians). The scene is set in Acts of the Apostles 9:3-6:
Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
The power of that conversion is seen at the mighty hand of God, emanating in a beam of light that blinded Saul – soon to be renamed Paul. St. Paul went on to become the central figure of the Christian Apostolic age, and his epistles formed the foundation of post-Ascension Christian theology.
St. Paul’s motto, ‘Spiritus Gladius,’ meaning Sword of the Spirit, and an image of the sword are seen at the bottom of this unique window. The sword is a symbol of both the Sword of the Spirit – the Gospel – and the manner of St. Paul’s martyrdom, by beheading.
Notes: Christian churches and cathedrals traditionally are laid out in the shape of the cross. The foot of the cross typically includes a narthex, a vestibule-type entry to the church. The base of the cross, where the congregation typically sits in the pews, is known as the nave. The cross-bar of the cross is known as the transepts, one on each side of the vertical form of the cross. The organ and chapel(s) typically occupy the transepts. The top of the cross consists of the choir loft and the area occupied by the altar and tabernacle, known together as the sanctuary. St. Matthew’s is arranged with the base of the cross at the south end of the property, with the nave and sanctuary projecting to the north.
2 thoughts on “The road to Damascus”
I had a similar experience with the stained glass windows in my parish chapel (and wrote about it here:
I love your insight that “in the process of becoming more literate in the written word we as a culture have lost touch with our ability to communicate in symbolism.” Ritual and symbolism seem to have become suspect in our culture, which is such a loss.
Thanks for your comment. I agree it is a shame that we’ve come to treat ritual and symbolism as suspect.