Although its earliest history is murky, stained glass appeared in church at least as early as the 7th Century AD. The Stained Glass Association of America says that the oldest examples of “multiple pieces of colored glass used in a window” were unearthed at St. Paul’s Monastery in Jarrow, England, founded in 686.
Since then, the art form has been employed for a number of different uses and reasons. Few things symbolize traditional practice more clearly than stained glass, and the windows filled with it carry the benefit and baggage of that association. One pastor said, “I like stained glass, but much of what I’ve seen in church is ugly: the glass, the fights over it, and the cost.” For those who are considering stained glass, there are at least five strains of more theological thought I’ve encountered on its appropriateness; some in favor, some against.
- Evidence of God’s Glory: In the ancient cathedrals where the use of stained glass reached its zenith, the rupturing of light into rainbows gave a hint of God’s majesty. It stood in brilliant contrast to the dark stone and dull lives around it.
- Corruption of God’s Perfection: It is inappropriate to use what man has made (colored glass and pattern) to distort what God has made (natural light).
- Glass is Too Fragile: Images that matter should not be placed on materials that can easily be torn or broken, like canvas or glass.
- Non-Verbal Truth: For pre-literate and post-literate audiences, stained glass provides a way of revealing God’s story. Jesus was himself an icon of God.
- Graven Image: Stained glass that depicts Jesus is a violation of the Second Commandment (First Commandment in Catholicism). The only image we should have of Christ is what we find in the Bible.
Admittedly, windows are just “stuff, ” and at the end of the day, “stuff ” doesn’t matter much. But most folks use “stuff ” to accomplish things that do matter, and it helps to understand why.