When I was in Ethiopia a few years ago, I visited many Ethiopian Orthodox churches. I was fascinated by the liturgy, conducted in Ge’ez, an old church language that is no longer in everyday use. I did not understand a word but neither did most ordinary churchgoers. The priests would, of course, teach in the local language of the area, such as Amharic or Tigreyan, and literate churchgoers could always read the Bible themselves.
But even those who were illiterate had no difficulty learning the stories of the Bible because every church was decorated from floor to ceiling with vividly painted frescoes. I could easily follow the stories told on the walls and felt that I was entering a familiar environment. I realized that I was having an experience similar to a medieval churchgoer in Europe, where people saw the stories of their faith in the stained glass windows of churches and cathedrals.
The earliest complete stained glass windows date from around the 12th century. A few years ago, however, I was visiting St. Paul’s Church in Jarrow in the north of England which was once the monastery that was home in the 7th century to the famous monk and church historian known as the Venerable Bede (c. 672-735). In the Saxon chancel, there is a window made up of fragments believed to be the oldest existing stained glass window in the world. It dates to 674 when Benedict Biscop founded the monastery and brought stained glass workers from France to introduce the new technique of decorating a church with glass that was both beautiful and educational.
The oldest complete stained glass windows are found in cathedrals like Chartres in France and York Minister in England. Both have beautiful Tree of Jesse windows that depict the Biblical genealogy of Jesus. Looking at them, I have wondered how many pilgrims before me have studied those windows, pondering the figures and finding that the gospel stories came alive because of the vivid colors.
It saddens me to think of the countless stained glass windows that were destroyed in the 16th century when the excesses of the Reformation led people to smash them because they feared that the images amounted to idolatry. Glass is such a delicate medium that many beautiful windows have been lost, some to deliberate destruction, others (like Coventry Cathedral) as a consequence of war, and still others because of neglect.
So I was concerned when I learned from former parishioners of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Millis that they were unsure what the fate would be of the stained glass windows in the church building once it was deconsecrated and sold. I told them that I would be happy if some of the windows could find a home at St. Michael’s in Holliston especially since several former Millis parishioners were now valued members of our community.
With the support and assistance of the diocese, the stained glass windows were removed from the St. Paul’s building. Six windows that fit well together were selected for installation at St. Michael’s. We are now working with a firm experienced in stained glass installation to determine the best design for adding these windows to a building that is architecturally very different from St. Paul’s.
If all goes well, the windows will be installed this spring. It is good to think of future generations of children learning from these windows about Jesus’ fishing on the Sea of Galilee and later riding into Jerusalem on a donkey while all of us enjoy the opportunity to meditate quietly on the images in beautiful colors. As Milton said, the dim religious light of storied windows together with the full-voiced choir and pealing organ may indeed “bring all Heaven before mine eyes.”
Christine Whittaker is the priest at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Holliston.