Tag: Stained Glass

Lost Sheep

dscn3170-2-e1520018971281.jpgHave you ever wondered why there is a lamb-themed window in the stairwell to the St. Francis de Sales Church choir loft?

Nothing in our church design is there by chance, but sometimes the symbolism is confused by history – as when, in 1965, a doorway between the foyer, or vestibule, and the Baptistery was blocked off to create space for a shrine honouring our patron Saint Francis de Sales.

What does that have to do with the lamb window?

The Baptistery (today’s Adoration Chapel – open 24/7 to anyone with a key from the rectory), in the east tower of the church, was originally designed for administering the sacrament of baptism. It contained the John-the-Baptist-themed baptismal font by sculptor Adolfo de Nesti (located in the rear of the church today) and a stained glass window, probably by Niccola D’Ascenzo.

john 001 (3)The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art describes how John the Baptist “retired to the desert, living on wild honey and locusts and wearing a garment of camel hair with a leather girdle...” In Western art, “he usually holds a reed cross, which sometimes has a scroll attached reading Ecce Agnus Dei (Behold the Lamb of God) which is what he said to John and Andrew (John 1:35-36)…” when he baptized Jesus. Such depictions generally also include the symbol of the lamb.

Our Saint John the Baptist window – inspired by works such as Francisco Ribalta’s  17th century Spanish painting — shows him in a heroic pose, wearing a hairy garment over a cloth tunic. Pointing towards the heavens with his right hand, he carries the Ecce Agnus Dei staff-and-scroll in his left, and, just as in that painting,  there is a baptizing pool behind him. The one thing missing from our window is the lamb itself.

st. john the baptist ribalta
San Juan Bautista by Francisco Ribalta (1565-1628)

Before the 1965 renovation, Saint John, with his “Behold the Lamb of God” banner, would have looked straight out through the Baptistery doorway, across the vestibule, to the Lamb of God window on the other side of the church.

How do we know that the two are intentionally related? The round tops and borders of both windows share the same cross-and-scallop-shell design. The scallop shell is generally recognized as  a symbol of pilgrimage, but it is also used as a symbol of baptism, since shells were sometimes used to pour the water and baptism marks the beginning of a spiritual pilgrimage.

That which was lost has been found – and today, our Adoration Chapel and heavenly choir music both provide avenues to connect with faith and experience spiritual “rebirth.”


St. John the Omnipresent

harpies (2)Have you ever noticed how many times St. John the Apostle and Evangelist is represented in our church?

Saint John is the left-hand figure in Nicola D’Ascenzo’s Saint Cecilia window in the choir loft based on an altarpiece by Raphael. He is also the right-hand figure in the round stained glass window on the Mary side of the church, inspired by Andrea del Sarto’s “Madonna of the Harpies.” He kneels beside Jesus in the middle long window on that side of the church, as Jesus names Peter; and he hides in the bushes in the Agony in the Garden window. He is next to Jesus at the Last Supper on the freestanding altar from MBS and he kneels with Mary at the foot of the crucifixion mosaic.

johnEmblematically, Saint John’s apostolic symbol is near the 47th Street door; his Gospel is quoted above a former confessional; and he appears as one of the four Gospel-writing Evangelists, on the pillars supporting our dome. His sculptured eagle symbol also appears below the lectern on the old high pulpit, where the Bible would rest, since his gospel begins “In the beginning was the word…”

Why is St. John all over our church?

t007Beardless John is said to have been the youngest apostle and brother of James. As one of the original twelve, he was present at all the big moments in the adult life of Jesus. He also thought to have written one of the four Gospels, describing those events. According to his own account, he was the first to believe that Christ had risen from the dead. He is said to have written several Epistles, later,  from Ephesus (Turkey today). And his contributions have been studied and commemorated by scholars and artists through history.

Based on his identity as gospel-writer, various groups have adopted St. John as their patron over the centuries: he is invoked by writers, theologians, and those in the book trade. But all the attributions are based on traditions about him: we know very little about the real man. Scholars are not even  entirely sure that the Apostle and the Evangelist are the same person!  And debate continues over whether he also wrote the book of Revelations.

This mysterious “facelessness” allows John, known traditionally as the “Beloved Disciple,”  to be our symbolic representative.  When he participates in the Last Supper or kneels before the cross, we put ourselves in his place and share his experience. It’s a useful spiritual exercise, although  too much of a backward focus can also lead us away from the message that we need to act in the spirit of Christ today!

The Art of the Kneel

david (2)

Who are these four people and what has brought them to their knees in the middle window on the St. Mary side of St. Francis de Sales Church?

Crafted around 1910, the long stained glass windows at the back of the church were one of Philadelphia stained glass artist Nicola D’Ascenzo’s first big commissions. Episodes from the life of St. Francis de Sales in the lower part of each window, were carefully synchronized to the life of Christ above them, and with an Old Testament prophecy at the top. But only a few of the Jesus windows have captions so we have to use other clues to find their meanings.

david (3)The prophecy above the middle window, from the psalms of David, translates: “The Lord hath sworn…thou art a priest…He shall judge among nations.” And the bottom part of the window shows St. Francis de Sales establishing the cloistered Sisters of the Visitation: “giving  St. Jeanne de Chantal and her first two companions the rules of visitation” (D’Ascenzo conveniently copyrighted that design with its description). The associated Jesus scene should, therefore, relate to religious life.

The four kneeling figures in the Jesus window have halos, so they are saints — and they are men, so probably apostles — and the picture represents a significant event between the Sermon on the Mount and the Agony in the garden. Why do they kneel? Wikipedia helpfully observes that  “Kneeling, similar to bowing, is associated with reverence,  submission and  obeisance, particularly if one kneels before a person who is standing or sitting: the kneeling position renders a person defenseless and unable to flee. For this reason, in some religions, in particular by  Christians and Muslims, kneeling is used as a position for prayer.

When Jesus lays his hand on the head of one of the respectful  men — like a monarch bestowing a knighthood – the meaning becomes clear: he is saying “Thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church….” (Mt 16:18)

The early 1900s, when our church was built, were troubled times of local religious intolerance and rising European hostility to Pope Pius X – part of the simmering global unrest that led up to World War I. Our window reassured parishioners of their faith’s deep roots and enduring history. Further, it offered a social example. The 1909 Catholic Encyclopedia, current when our church was built,  suggested that kneeling and standing were both acceptable prayer postures, but the ancient gesture of bending the knee had a more profound significance as an expression of reverence, humility, and trust.


Snake in the Glass


_MG_2611The third long window on the St. Mary side of our church is an Easter theme with a Christmas puzzle.

At the top, Jeremiah prophesies “Then I took the cup at the hand of the Lord...” The sections below show Jesus comforted by an angel during the Agony in the Garden, and the Death of St. Francis de Sales – two stories about the end of life. So how does the Star of David at the bottom – a symbol of Jesus’ family lineage and of his birth at Bethlehem — fit this theme?

The answer is simple: it doesn’t.

Long ago, someone restored several panels and put them back incorrectly. A photo at the Athenaeum shows the windows just after they were installed in 1910. At that time, the bottom part of the Agony in the Garden window featured the wreath-with-a-passion-flower-and-snakes currently under the middle window.

That makes more sense! The passion flower is said to represent “faith and suffering.” The laurel wreath surrounding it is a traditional symbol of victory, creating  an Easter message of triumph over death. According to Heilmeyer’s Language of Flowers, the passion flower can also represent “a hankering for a long-lost paradise.” Two snakes nibbling at crosses represent original sin and expulsion from the Garden of Eden – the reason we need a Savior.

Worries about lost paradise form a subtle undercurrent in the Agony in the Garden window. Stained Glass Historian Jean Farnsworth notes that “D’Ascenzo’s composition …appears to have been derived from an etching of the Agony in the Garden by Rembrandt. But D’Ascenzo has changed Rembrandt’s composition with the introduction of an olive tree, which forms a tapestry-like background that recalls the designs of William Morris…” William Morris was an English artist in the late 1800s, who promoted a nostalgic, medieval, hand-crafted, nature-inspired worldview. His ideas were popular when our church was built and D’Ascenzo admired him. The world in 1910 was experiencing rapid change – our church had modern electricity, a state-of-the-art Guastavino dome, and fireproof tiles made for skyscrapers  — new “fruit from the tree of knowledge” that was both exciting and unnerving. D’Ascenzo, like Morris, looked backwards to a simpler, more natural age.

Curiously, the accident of the mixed-up windows has changed their mood from melancholy reflection on change, to a reassuring meditation on continuity: moving clockwise around the church, the Star of David — the symbol of Jesus’ family lineage — below the Agony in the Garden heralds the next window in the eternal cycle — the Annunciation across the aisle, followed by Jesus’ Birth.

The Cross in the Dome

The careful arrangement of the symbols in the twenty-four windows of our church’s Guastavino dome generally goes unnoticed.

Imagine a cross, drawn through the centre of our dome. One line would connect the Keys in the dome window on the St. Joseph side of the church, with the Triple Crown on the St. Mary side. The other would go from the Descending Dove window in front of the altar, across the dome to its opposite, the Ascending Dove. The two lines would cross in the  triangle-in-a-trefoil window in the middle.

The meaning of the first part of the cross is easy to understand. The Keys are the emblem of Saint Peter, based on Matthew 16: “And I will give to thee the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven...” and the Tiara, or Triple Crown, across from it, is a symbol of the Pope. (The 1940 Anniversary Book explains that “the first circlet symbolizes the Pope’s universal episcopate, the second his supremacy of jurisdiction, and the third his temporal power”).

The other part gets complicated.

The dove pointing down, designed to be seen by people in the pews,  represents God’s presence and favour. The 1940 Anniversary Book reports that as “a symbol of the Holy Spirit it is specially connected with Baptism…

Across from it, the dove in flight was designed to be viewed by the priest and, in 1911, was thought to be “indicative of the graces which lift man up to God through the priesthood.” By 1940, it was re-interpreted as “the Ascension of Christ, or the entrance of Saints into glory.” But Henry Dagit’s original 1908 plan  suggested that half of the dome panels would relate to the  Old Testament, and half to the New, so it could also have a third meaning – recalling the story of Noah in the Old Testament, who looked for a sign of God’s presence, in the form of a dove at the window.

Imagine an invisible line through the dome, connecting prayers offered up in the sacrifice of the Mass, to the grace of the Holy Spirit descending on the parishioners. Now visualize a cross linking  Biblical promises of the Old Testament and New; intersected by the line of authority from Saint Peter to the Pope; with the “Eye of God”  at the centre of everything. That’s a neat description of Catholicism. (And the mystery remains: who imagined and put together all of the careful symbolism in our church: Henry Dagit; one of Dagit’s designers; or Reverend Crane himself?)_mg_2409




The Menorah in the Church Window


It seemed like a simple question: “Why is there a menorah on one of our  dome windows?”

The 1940 St. Francis de Sales Parish Anniversary Book called it “the seven-branched candlestick of the Old Testament Tabernacle, a prophetic emblem of the sevenfold sacramental grace which would issue from the Church of Christ,” but that seemed vague and didn’t explain why the symbol was chosen.

The number seven – emblem of perfection — turns out to have many meanings in Catholicism, but its association with candlesticks is hazy. The 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia noted that seven candles carried by seven acolytes were used at Papal Masses. A Bishop could have seven candles on the altar if he were presiding at home; six if he were visiting outside his diocese. The kinds of candles to be used were strictly regulated (pure beeswax, except in Oceania, where sperm-whale candles were permitted), but little explanation was offered for the significance of the candle number.

Some have suggested that for Christians, a seven-branched candlestick could represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge, Counsel, Fortitude, Piety, Fear of the Lord). It could also invoke a vision of “heavenly worship” from Revelations, in which “Seven flaming torches burned in front of the throne, which are the seven spirits of God”  This is offered as a possible explanation for the Papal candles. Or our candlestick could reference Judaism in the Old Testament.

According to the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia – current when our church was built – the original seven-branched Jewish candlestick was made for the Temple in the time of Moses: “symbolically the menorah represented the creation of the universe in seven days, the center light symbolizing the Sabbath. The seven branches are the seven continents of the earth and the seven heavens, guided by the light of God. The Zohar (Jewish mystical Kabbalah) says: ‘These lamps, like the planets above, receive their light from the sun.’”

The windows in our dome are thematically arranged, in pairs and opposites. The pair for the Menorah (the light of the Old Testament), is the Chalice and Eucharist (“Jesus Christ, the light of the world”), to its right, skip one. Opposite the Menorah, on the other side of the dome,  is the Alpha, the first letter of the Greek alphabet, signifying beginnings; the Omega, the last letter, is across from the Chalice. Thus, Alpha and Omega, a name for God, encompasses Creation and Redemption; Old Testament and New: a catechism in stained glass.

Church Animals

On a Sunday near the feast of St. Francis of Assisi every year, neighbourhood pets of all faiths are welcomed to our parish (with their humans) for the Blessing of the Animals. But have you ever noticed how many animals are in our church already, incorporated in the decorations?!

Our church has a flock of Holy Spirit doves in its artwork: look for a dove in the mosaic lunette above the Mary Altar and another in the Trinity window behind the altarpiece. The dome windows feature descending and ascending doves (“the Holy Spirit among us” and “the graces that lift (humans) up to God through the religious life”). Yet another can be found representing the Annunciation in the first long window on the St. Joseph side.

Perched on the pulpit, halfway up the wall on the Mary side of the church, is a sculpted eagle representing Saint John – the author of the Gospel that begins “In the beginning, was the Word…” The eagle image is repeated on one of the pillars supporting the dome, along with the symbols for the other three Gospel writers: winged ox (Luke), winged lion (Mark), and the more human looking angel, representing Matthew.

Fish appear on one of the windows in the dome. ICTHUS, Latin for fish,  is also an acronym for the Greek phrase “Jesus Christ Son of God Savior.” Three fishes represent the Holy Trinity. A pelican is shown in another dome window. The pelican was said to pierce its breast with its beak, to feed its young from its own blood when other food was unavailable, and represents the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Yet another dome window features the phoenix: a mythological bird said to burst into flames and regenerate — a symbol of the Resurrection.

The window in the stairway to the choir loft in the back of the church shows the Lamb of God reclining on a book with seven seals — an image from the Book of Revelations, referencing the Second Coming!

At the tops of several of the columns in the church, you can just about identify carved limestone creatures that appear to be two-headed birds. The two-headed eagle was an emblem of Byzantium – fitting the design style of the church.

Live animals should feel at home here! This year’s Blessing of the Animals is Sunday, September 25 at 12:00 Noon.

Talking Heads


        Isaiah, Micah, Zachariah, Malachi, David, and Jeremiah. If you had to pick your favorite Old-Testament characters, would these guys be on the list? So why do their faces appear at the tops of our stained glass windows?

        The answer lies in the Latin above their heads. Each one made a prophecy about the coming of Jesus, which relates loosely  to the scene in the window below.

        Starting from the left, above the Annunciation window on the St. Joseph side of the church, and using the Douay-Rheims translation of the Bible that would have been prevalent at the time, Isaias (Isaiah 7:14) announces “Behold, a virgin shall conceive…and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” The Adoration of the Shepherds window has Michaeas (Micah 5:2) quoting “And Thou, Bethlehem…out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be the ruler” while above the scene of life at Nazareth, Zacharaias (Zecharia 2:11-12) proclaims “Behold, I come and I will dwell in the midst of thee….in the sanctified land.”

        On the Mary side of the church, starting near the Vatican flag, above the scene of the Sermon on the Mount, Malachias (Malachi 3:1) says “I send my angel and he will prepare the way…Behold, he cometh.” As Jesus performs his healing ministry, David (Psalms 109) intones “The Lord hath sworn…thou art a priest…He shall judge among nations.” And finally, above the Agony in the Garden, Jeremias (Jeremiah 25:17) quotes “Then I took the cup at the hand of the Lord…”

        Many prophecies in the Old Testament relate to Jesus. The challenge for D’Ascenzo, Studios, creating the windows back in 1910, would have been to find six different quotes by six different people, which could be related to a series of specific scenes from the Life of Christ. Most of the quotes had to be shortened to fit in the space, and they remain in ceremonial Latin. Note that in one of the windows (see if you can find it!), a piece of a quote is upside down. This could be a simple error – or it could be part of a very old tradition, in which a deliberate mistake was introduced into a piece of art as an acknowledgement that God alone is perfect.

        We do live in an imperfect world. This Christmas season, let us all pray for light and peace!