A half-moon-shaped window above the middle doors at the back of the church is a simple architectural detail packed with meaning.
The round medallion in the center recreates Mary and Baby Jesus from an oil painting called “Holy Night” by Antonio da Correggio around 1530 (about 37 years before our patron St. Francis de Sales was born).
In the original painting, Mother and Child were shown in a pool of light, with St. Joseph and a group of shepherds in the shadows just beyond. Light plays an important symbolic role in many Nativity depictions: the Glencairn Museum notes that in Byzantine artistic tradition, “the cave of the Nativity represents the darkness into which Christ, the Light of the World, was born” and “according to the well-known mystical vision of St. Bridget of Sweden (1303–1373), when the Christ Child was born, the cave where the birth took place was filled with an ineffable divine light—a light that completely outshone the earthly light of Joseph’s candle…” Artists have tried to capture the effect ever since. The original Correggio painting was considered a masterpiece of the chiaroscuro technique, which uses strong contrasts of light and dark to tell its story. We get a slightly different variation with our window: Mother and Child are best seen illuminated from behind.
We don’t know who painted our Holy Night window or what shop put together the glass around 1910. Amy Valuck, President of the American Glass Guild, suggests that the round painted medallion was likely to have been made in one place, and the surrounding half-moon glass in another, and the two then pieced together. She observes that the glass in the lunette windows is mostly rolled glasswith black ladder-like borders that were stencilled on using a vitreous paint made with powdered ground glass and metal oxides, fired in a kiln to stabilize it, with silver nitrate then applied between the lines and fired again to get the yellow coloring – still crisp after a century of wear. “The narrow circular border around the painted medallion is rolled opalescent glass.” That could be a small origin clue: milky opalescent glass, made by mixing different metal oxides into the actual glass — was a technique pioneered in the late nineteenth century by several American studios – and most of the other handwork in our church is local.
The round medallion — which may have come from a company that supplied such ready-made work to other studios — was hand-painted with vitreous paint, mixed at the glass workshop. Our expert points out that “if the proportions of ground glass, oxide, and flux were not carefully measured, paint would be more likely to fail over time” and the white lines at the edges of Mary’s clothing and some flaking paint suggest that its glass was slightly under-fired – a very human touch, adding weight to the idea that the medallion and the surrounding window were by different artists, possibly from different studios, and reminding us that our magnificent church was built with the collective efforts of many individuals.
There’s one further curious note about the Correggio painting that inspired our medallion: commissioned for a church in northern Italy, it was treasured there until 1640, when the work was “carried off by night” by the Duke Francisco d’Este, for his private gallery – a common “disruptive phenomenon” in an age when devotional artwork in churches was especially meaningful to those whose homes were bare, but rich people felt entitled to hoard pretty things. Correggio’s picture was meant to be accessible. Today, on display in a museum in Dresden, Germany, with reproductions spread around the world, its inspirational light shines again for everyone.
Back in our church, the origin story of our own little window is still a mystery (clues welcome!), but, when daylight shines through the image as the doors swing open at the end of Mass, it offers a small reminder that faith is active, and we are called to carry the light of the Christ child with us, in our hearts, as we go back out into the world.
One thought on “Half-Moon Holy Night”
That was delightful. How very very interesting and very appropriate for the season.