Stained glass artisan Nicola D’Ascenzo’s windows, crafted in 1910, remind us of our faith’s roots in the natural world.
The long windows on the St. Joseph side of our church show indoor formative scenes from the early life of Christ with hints of outdoors: the Annunciation, with symbolic lilies; the Nativity in a stable; and young Jesus building a cross (wood of a tree!) in his father Joseph’s workshop. Across the aisle, episodes from the ministry of Christ show him as an adult, moving into the world outside to give his Sermon on the Mount; name Peter and establish the church; and endure his Agony in the Garden.
Have you ever noticed that all three of these scenes include olive trees in the design! Olives are ancient plants, common in the Holy Land, with deep symbolic associations, heavily referenced in both the Old and New Testament of the Bible. The dove in Genesis brought an olive branch to Noah to signal a new beginning after the flood. Bible Places notes that “The oil was used to anoint kings, prophets, priests, and Temple articles. Messiah, in fact, means ‘anointed one…’ ” Olive trees are known to have deep roots and live to a great age: the olive trees at Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed at the foot of the Mount of Olives, are said to be among the oldest on earth and D’Ascenzo’s windows remind us that trees are central to our religion.
The olive tree is especially prominent in D’Ascenzo’s final scene from the Life of Christ, which shows him in the Garden at Gethsemane, before he was crucified. Stained Glass Historian Jean Farnsworth observes that the window is arranged so that the “olive tree…forms a tapestry-like background that recalls the designs of William Morris…” Morris was an English artist in the late 1800s, who promoted a nostalgic, hand-crafted, close-to-nature worldview. D’Ascenzo admired his work. The world in 1910 was experiencing industrialization’s rapid change and D’Ascenzo, like Morris, worried about the dangers of becoming disconnected from the environment. Nature references in D’Ascenzo’s windows are thoughtful and deliberate: below the Agony in the Garden, is a scene showing the death of wise patron St. Francis de Sales – peacefully, in a gardener’s house, with a plant on the mantel. Below that, the original vent window (now below the middle window) showed a leafy wreath and snakes invoking the Tree of Knowledge and the lost Garden of Eden.
Today, a century-and-a-decade after our church was built, coronavirus has forced the dizzying pace of world development to slow down. Waiting in quarantine, people are noticing local wildlife and the budding trees (and their pollen). Scientists are encouraging us to be more mindful of our surroundings and a number of recent news articles have suggested that “Pandemics such as coronavirus are the result of humanity’s destruction of nature, according to leaders at the UN, WHO and WWF International.” Pope Francis this year celebrates the fifth anniversary of his Laudato Si’ Encyclical “On Care for our Common Home” and encourages the faithful to participate in The Season of Creation, an annual ecumenical celebration of prayer and action to protect our common home (September 1 to October 4). It’s time to go outside, appreciate our parish flowering trees — won in Fairmount Park contests years ago by SFDS School children and planted along 47th Street — and plant more enduring good works in the neighborhood!