Robert Sowers (1923-1990) created some of the most remarkable stained glass windows in the US during the twentieth century, including the 30,000 panel American Airlines wall at what is now called JFK Airport. His work in 1960 was the largest stained glass window in the world at the time. Terminal 8 stood for 48 years then was demolished for remodeling in 2007, and along with it, the enormous window. One source reports people referred to the airport terminal as ‘The Cathedral’, when in fact, Sowers was a pioneer stained glass artists creating major commissions outside the church. It was demolished less than five decades after its commissioning with suggestions to turn pieces of its glass into key chains for airline employees.
Stained glass reached its height of glory in the medieval period when the average person would not have much exposure to vibrant colors and use of light outside the church. Their experience in the church would have made a physical and spiritual impact. The actual light translated in illuminated visual images was analogous to the scriptural light of God overcoming the evil or chaos of darkness.
The transition from Romanesque to Gothic architecture is most evidenced in the Abbey of St. Denis from the late 12th century under Abbot Suger, who wrote on the theological significance of architectural decisions:
Thus, when – out of the delight in the beauty of the house of God – the loveliness of the many-coloured gems has called me away from external cares, and worthy meditation has induced me to reflect, transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial, on the diversity of the sacred virtues: then it seems to me that I see myself dwelling, as it were, in some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of the earth nor entirely in the purity of Heaven; and that, by the grace of God, I can be transported from this inferior to that higher world in an anagogical manner. [Thiessen, 2005, p116]
Sainte-Chapelle, Paris (photo by P M Medlock Johnson)
Gothic architecture achieved verticality and light by developing certain structural elements (pointed arch, rib vaulting, flying buttresses); this skeletal structure vastly opened up wall space for windows. Stained glass windows were designed to vertical extremes that translated light in color, altering worship atmosphere and illustrating biblical theology. The makers of stained glass knew the limits and possibilities of the material with which they worked in such a way that they could facilitate the optimal brilliance of the finished piece by means of the media. These craftsman knew not only color theory, but that of glass that permits, prohibits, translates, and radiates light. What would a red piece do next to blue rather than clear when sunlight burns through it? What piece would dominate, or recede, or pierce the air? What combination would confuse or enhance the image and the visual experience? Or the worship experience? What would affect the communication and reception of the image, which was generally a biblical message for the common person unable to read the Word. Stained glass of Gothic architecture either illustrated the entire bible, as Sainte-Chapelle has for eight centuries, or a main theme of sinful humanity with hope of salvation through Christ. Alternately, some windows center Christ within purposefully arranged references to other parts of scripture demonstrating rich theological cross-referencing and skilled thoughtful design.
Two factors led to a major shift in the stained glass profession from its height of glory in the Middle Ages to becoming a ‘lost art’ in the Renaissance and Reformation. First, art making became less material-inspired and more imitative of easel painting. Second, iconoclasm (‘image breaking’) of the Protestant Reformation and Dissolution of Monasteries questioned visual imagery as a scriptural violation rather than theological hermeneutic, and effectively removed stained glass from Christian architecture.
But it did not disappear forever. Sir Herbert Read writes, “In our own time, as part of a general return to aesthetic integrity, the art of stained glass has been reconsidered and, indeed, rediscovered. The guiding principle of translucency has been re-established, and, as in the Middle Ages, the greatest artists of our time have experimented in this medium.” [Sowers, 1954, p8] He could rightly foresee glass as an important element of architecture: hiding unsightly views and coloring space, honoring the integrity of art forms, and turning public spaces into inspiring places. In addition to modern artists such as Matisse and Chagall turning from paint to glass, stained glass of the Craft Movement (especially Morris in England, Mackintosh in Scotland, and Wright in America) restored the art from its medieval glory to a contemporary aesthetic, and positioned it as a major element of modern architecture.
Robert Sowers writes, “When art is working it heightens both the materiality and the fantasy of the image; the two are fused in exaltation. But when the material is excited to no purpose, or the image rooted in no material there can be no deep-rooted art.” [Sowers, 1954, p28] His own record-breaking Terminal 8 stained glass window was contracted to Olde Good Glass in New York City to be dismantled and reclaimed into new objects for public sale. Was he wrong?
Stained glass has been installed and removed from religious and secular institutions for seemingly different reasons: sacrilege and outdatedness; it means too much and it means not enough. Perhaps there is an underlying threat worth questioning that only the material can shed light on: glass is an antithetical mediatory material. Isobel Armstrong says we need to work through the paradoxes and contradictions inherent in glass, saying,
They are perceived at a purely formal or aesthetic level unless they generate a “restlessness”, which both reorders a problem and the mind that works on it. This mediation is, in Heidegger’s words, “the form of the very thinking which thinks itself”. It is “the conceiving of oneself—as the grasping of the not-I”.[Armstrong, 2008, p12]
The stained glass process (photo by P M Medlock Johnson)
Humans do not like to grasp the not-I, and if stained glass positions the viewer in such tension, even when crafted in awe-inspiring otherworldly visual ways, it will be removed only to be reinstalled elsewhere. The stained glass profession has thrived and dwindled, but what it professes will not be extinguished. The artistic profession of stained glass making not only revived, but returned its focus to the inherent qualities of the glass. Where stained glass orders chaos by assembling broken pieces into a structured design that illuminates a space with intentionality, it continues to embody the relevance of a timeless yet cutting-edge visual hermeneutic.
- Armstrong, Isobel. Victorian Glassworlds: Glass Culture and the Imagination 1830-1880. Oxford: 2008.
- Sowers, Robert. The Lost Art: A Survey of One Thousand Years of Stained Glass. NYC: 1954.
- Thiessen, Gesa Elsbeth. Ed. Theological Aesthetics: A Reader. Grand Rapids/Cambridge: 2005.