Windows and Worldviews

In my childhood, when it was my
turn to do the dishes, one of my diversions
was to use a tall glass as
an upside-down periscope. You know,
you poke the empty glass down through
the suds and you can see into the water
and examine the stuff at the bottom of
the sink. The cool thing was how the
water made the forks and knives look
bigger and closer.

I offer this as a metaphor for how
the great windows functioned in the
cathedrals of the late Middle Ages. The
medieval Christians regarded their lofty
internal spaces as poking up into heaven,
and the windows let them see into
heaven. They certainly regarded heaven
as high and lofty, but yet not far away–it was all around them. Heaven started
right above the ground and it was heaven
all the way up. (I wonder if they kept
raising the height of their vaults partly
from the desire to get more and more of
heaven.) The cathedral windows made
heaven available to the senses. They
were media; they allowed the worshipers
to see into heaven.

They also let heaven in. I witnessed
this at the great cathedral in Chartres.
The only light inside the nave was what
came through those great windows,
and it was like no other light that I had
seen. Of course it was dimmer than
the light outside, but my eyes adjusted
quickly. The light was somehow restful
and exciting at the same time. (Is this
what the word “ethereal” means?) I noticed
the heightened color in the light
and the way the colors softly played off
all the surfaces. The very air was enlivened
by those matchless windows.

If you gaze up at the windows of Chartres,
it’s hard to make out who the figures
are. You could spend your day with
a guidebook, or with Henry Adams’s Mont
Saint Michel and Chartres
, and I suppose
the good people of medieval Chartres
knew the population of their windows.
But the purpose of the windows is not for
looking at them but for looking through
them. They are transparent in a special
way. They are designed so that when you
look through them what you see is not the
sky around the building but the heaven
around our lives.

The windows are like the icons of
Eastern Orthodox churches. An icon is
not so much for looking at as for looking
through. The icon is a devotional
medium for transcendent sight, leading
us from sight to faith.
 
Medieval cathedral windows are screens
for looking into heaven, into the greater
reality that is all around us but otherwise
invisible. We see the saints there, as the
windows bring heaven into the nave.
 

The icon screen in an Orthodox church is a screen in
both senses of the word. It is a screen
to separate the realm of heaven (around
the altar) from the realm of earth (the
nave). But it is also a screen like a television
screen. We stare at a television
screen not for the screen itself but for
what comes through it. The television
shows are in the air around us but are
invisible without the screen. Just so,
heaven is all around us but we can’t
see into it unless we look through the
icon by faith and in prayer.

The cathedral windows are screens
for looking into heaven, into the greater
reality that is all around us but otherwise invisible. The reason the saints
are in the windows is because those
saints are in heaven. The windows
make it possible to see them. The windows
allow us to see the “communion of
saints” and powerfully to feel “the Holy
Catholic Church.”

Even more, the windows serve to
bring heaven into the nave. The Virgin
of Chartres is in her window not just for
remembrance and contemplation but
because the Virgin is actually present
at the Mass. The whole host of heaven
is present at the Mass. When the Sanctus
is lifted up, the words are sung by
angels and people together. When the
Benedictus is repeated, “the one who
comes” is not so much coming down as
coming into sight within the forms of
bread and wine. To worship in the cathedral
is to worship in the forecourt of
heaven. The light in the space is alive
with spirituality. It reminds you that
the Kingdom of Heaven is all around
you all the time, and that the local petty
prince is in power on behalf of the
King of Heaven, the Lord Christ, whose
very own window is right over there!

Modern people typically judge the
figures in the windows as not being “realistic.”
This is, of course, a worldview
mistake. What could be more real than
heaven? (The reality of heaven is explored
in one of C. S. Lewis’s best and
least known books, The Discarded Image.)
And if you’re looking into heaven,
how could you expect to observe our
earthly patterns of perspective and proportion?
It did not serve the purpose of
the windows to show their characters
in physical proportion or perspective.
We can’t be certain that the medieval
builders could not have done so had
they wanted to; the technical brilliance
of their architecture proves they were
not primitives. In any case they did not
want to. The windows weren’t intended
to be looked at. They were not objects
but media.

Stained-glass windows began to
change in the Renaissance. Along with
the change in the mentality of Europe
and the powerful influence of new styles
of art, windows began to imitate paintings
and were designed for looking at.
The figures in them became more realistic
in the modern sense. The windows
were becoming less like television
screens and more like back-lit paintings.
But even with the light that filled
them they could not compete with real
paintings for power and affect.

The technique of the windows had
changed as well. Medieval windows
were constructed like
transparent mosaics: each
piece of glass was its own
color, of a single intensity
and hue. For all their color,
medieval windows let
through very much light,
but close detail was out of
the question. Renaissance
artisans began to add detail
and suggest perspective
by means of much greater use of
opaque shading and streaking, and by
using larger pieces of glass on which
they fired layers of transparent enamel.
They could now achieve, for example, a
recognizable face or a hand with fingers
in realistic detail and proportion.
But these techniques reduced translucence,
and what light came through
was less colorful. They were not meant
to be transparent in any sense.

People had come to see the world
differently, and they desired different
things of both reality and worship.
Life in general was less mystical and
more historical and rational. The communion
of saints was experienced more
ethically and aesthetically. Heaven was
more distant, and that was fine. Human
government was understood less heavenly,
and it was inspired by classical (i.e., pagan) Greece and Rome.

Our Calvinist ancestors desired
to smash the windows in, whether
medieval or Renaissance. When they
destroyed priceless windows of the
Blessed Virgin, I can imagine them
quoting Luke 11:27-28: “A woman in
the crowd raised her voice and said to
him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you
and the breasts that nursed you!’ But
he said, ‘Blessed rather are those who
hear the word of God and obey it!'” The
Calvinists wanted the light back–pure
light, pure clear light, for reading and
hearing the word of God.

What interested the
Calvinists was not the
mystical Kingdom of
Heaven but the dynamic
Sovereignty of God. The
public square outside the
church’s walls should be
the realm of our Lord’s
righteousness, and the
communion of saints
should be apparent in
the life of the republic.
There was a premium on
light for worship so that
the assembled saints
might read their psalms
and prayers and, I suspect,
also see each other
and be seen.

I love the light you
get in old churches with
great clear windows:
the clarity of vision, the
gleam on painted wood,
and the warmth of illuminated
brick. Their
special atmosphere is
celebrated by Dutch genre painters like
Pieter Jansz Saenredam. The favorite
light of painters is from the north, and
the Central Reformed Church of Grand
Rapids, Michigan, has a great northern window of
clear glass. I loved preaching in that
pulpit with that window to my right. It
gave an illumination both bright and
gentle to the faces of the saints in the
pews in front of me.

The Dutch Reformed tradition never
completely rejected stained glass. The
wonderful windows of the St. Janskerk
in Gouda sur vived the iconoclastic
beeldenstorm.
 
The absolute lack of windows in so
many new church buildings makes
their sanctuaries closed off, cut off,
under siege, and dead to transcendence.
How do such churches see the
world outside? How do the angels get
in? These buildings express the very
“secular humanism” that their
preachers warn against.
 

A few colonial Dutch Reformed
churches in New York and New
Jersey had stained-glass windows, but
these were non-figurative. By the late
nineteenth century, with the advent of
artificial illumination and with a growing
tolerance (if not an actual taste) for
sentiment and romanticism, churches
in my denomination started installing
stained-glass windows in their buildings
once again.

The church of my childhood in Bedford-Stuyvesant had been a German
congregation before it was African-American. Its ten tall gothic-arched
windows were of multi-colored glass in
a so-called “diaper” pattern, but two
windows on each side had large medallions
in them. I could recognize the face
of Jesus and the face of St. Peter. From
Lutheran school I knew the face of Martin
Luther. But who was that fourth
face? Years later I came back and recognized
that it was Elector Frederick
of Prussia who was looking down upon
this congregation every week. I can only imagine how the world (and Brooklyn)
was viewed by the Germans who built
that church, but it’s clear that they saw
themselves within some sort of historical
continuity of Bible, church, and
state.

Visits to my Dutch Calvinist relatives
in Paterson, New Jersey introduced
me to the great swaths of dun-colored
glass that filled the windows of Victorian-era churches. There were no faces
here (Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day
XXXV). The browns and beiges were relieved
by highlights of yellow and green
in non-figurative designs. Am I the only
one who found these windows somber
and even soporific? Why, for all their
conscious Calvinism, did these churches
not choose for clear glass? Were they
simply following the fashions of the
day, despite their antithetical spirit, or
was it also because those churches saw
themselves as gathered congregations,
somewhat separate from the world and
avoiding the distractions of the world
outside no less than the churchly traditions
that smacked of Rome?

My father’s second charge was a
suburban church in New Jersey, with a
1950s sanctuary. Its windows were off-the-rack stained glass. Each window had
a large medallion of a stock Christian
symbol, surrounded by combinations of
large pieces of colored glass. Such windows
were also in the Reformed Church
of my wife’s childhood in the Midwest.
If these were meant to make us feel like
we were in church, they did so, but I
doubt whether they had any real power
for either emotion or spirituality. They
represent the comfortable Protestantism
of modern America, where religion
is something familiar, close, and safe.

The church of which I’m pastor now
has several huge and notable stained-glass
windows, custom designed by
famous artists. The great triptych we
have by Otto Heinigke combines mosaic
glass (medieval) and figurative glass
(Renaissance) with “opalescent” glass, a
style developed by La Farge and Tiffany
in the late nineteenth century. Opalescent
glass uses the composition of the
glass and its surfaces and cross-sections
in order to manipulate
the light. It represents a return
to the medieval interest
in the vitality of light itself,
but opalescent-style windows
are still for looking at
instead of looking through.
That they are beautiful is
due in great measure to
their being consciously
“aesthetic.” The function of
their aesthetic was to reinforce
high moral and civic
values, as befit churches
that saw themselves as representing and celebrating
what is best in the world.
I have ambivalent feelings about
these windows for which I am now
partly responsible. They will cost about
three million dollars to repair and restore.
Is this what God is really calling
us to do? Shouldn’t I, as a Calvinist,
rejoice if they all fall in? But how can
I so arrogantly reject what our previous
generations have bequeathed to
us? I am not so confident as to tell my
congregation that I know what God
wants us to do with our windows.

I know that I am disturbed by the
absolute lack of windows in so many
new church buildings, and I find it difficult
to worship in them. Their sanctuaries
are controlled environments that
are dark except for artificial light. (The
deadness of their acoustics is another
matter.) Their video screens are not
media for heaven, like icon screens, but
for close-ups of their leaders, for song lyrics, and for pre-worship slide shows
of nature scenes plus announcements.
Their sanctuaries are closed off, cut
off, under siege, purposely inward, and
they are dead to transcendence. The
effect, over time, that such buildings
have upon their congregations is sad to
contemplate. How do such churches see
the world outside? How do the angels
get in? It seems to me these buildings
express the very “secular humanism”
that their preachers warn against.

The college I went to placed a great
premium on the development of a Christian
worldview. In class we talked about
reclaiming the Kingdom of God and how
“all of life is religion.”
 
My college’s worship with a worldview
had very little reference to heaven or
transcendence and no idea of angels.
We understood the Kingdom of God as
something to be built by means of our
Calvinistic institutions and organizations.
We didn’t know that it was already
given to us and that all we had to do was
receive it. We couldn’t even see it.
 

But then we went off to chapel
in a windowless auditorium.
At the time, my
alma mater’s peculiar notion
was that a truly “Reformed”
college should not
have a separate chapel precisely
because all of life is
religion. Worship was to be
completely integrated into
daily life. (One of our annual
litanies had us repeat
something like, “Worship
is work. Work is worship.”
Some of us completed the
syllogism and just stopped
going to chapel.) As I look back on it,
our worship had very little reference to
heaven or transcendence, and we had
no idea of angels. We understood the
Kingdom of God as something to be
built by means of our Calvinistic institutions
and organizations. We didn’t
know that it was already given to us
and that all we had to do was receive
it. We couldn’t even see it. We never saw
“the angels ascending and descending
upon the Son of Man” whom we wanted
to serve.

I wonder how we might have felt
about such things if at the center of our
campus was a chapel with a very high
ceiling and great lofty windows. And if
the chapel services climaxed with the
college congregation gathered round
the Table singing “Holy, Holy, Holy”
in fellowship with the seraphim and
cherubim and with “the glorious chorus of apostles and the noble number
of prophets and the white-robed army
of martyrs.” We roundly rejected the
soul/body dichotomy, and we meant it
when we prayed, “thy kingdom come,
t hy will be done, on earth as it is in
heaven,” but how did that lead us to
think about heaven rather less than
more? Not until years later, when I
read Jean-Jacques von Allmen’s great
book, Worship: Its Theology and Practice
(Lutterworth P ress, 1965) did I
have any sense of the importance of
angels in the weekly worship of the
ordinary Christian church.
My favorite window in the church
that I am serving is the rose window
high over the front doors of the church.
It is behind the backs of the congregation
in the pews, but it is fully in the
view of anyone sitting in the chancel.
In the center of this window is an angel,
and I have come to regard this
angel as an angel there for me. As I sit
and wait for the service to begin, I am
very glad to be in fellowship with this
angel. The angel gives me comfort, and
a connection with heaven. And even
though I know it’s a deadly mistake to
add anything to the Book of Revelation, I would add these words, “And to
the angel of the church in Brooklyn
write…” I imagine that my angel
is encouraging many other preachers,
around the world, along with me. It is
wonderful how heaven keeps coming
into our spaces no matter how opaque
our minds might be.

Daniel Meeter is pastor of the
Old First Reformed Church of
Brooklyn, New York.