The brilliance of modern stained glass windows

Window of the 'Creation' at the Church of the Holy Spirit, Lake Forest, Illinois

Fig. 1. Window of the ‘Creation’ at the Church of the Holy Spirit, Lake Forest, Illinois, USA.

Little did I know that after my essay on the meaning of symmetry on the cathedral rose windows, I will be writing another brief posting soon thereafter on a related theme.  However, it just so happened that on Friday, April 11, 2014 there was a lecture in one of the churches of my hometown, Lake Forest, IL, entitled ‘The Brilliance of Stained Glass Windows in Lake Forest’. After my introduction to the theme by the work of Painton Cowen and my own interest, as related in the previous essay, I just couldn’t resist attending.

The lecture was offered by the Lake Forest Preservation Foundation (LFPF), an organization devoted to maintain and preserve the historical and visual character of Lake Forest, a small community on the Northern shores of Lake Michigan, about thirty miles north of Chicago. The lecture was presented within the temple of the First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forest by Paul Bergmann and Jan Gibson. Just by coincidence, Ms. Gibson is a person that I had known for a few years now as a fellow commuter to the city.

The church itself has a good collection of windows from the modern artists of the stained glass craft including works by Louis C. Tiffany (1848-1933), Charles J. Connick (1875-1945) and others, and the lecture was illustrated with examples illuminated in the Sanctuary of the church on that beautiful Spring morning. During the course of the lecture, I learned that other churches in Lake Forest, for example Church of The Holy Spirit, St. Mary, St. Patrick and St. James Lutheran Church, among others also had noteworthy examples of stained glass windows.

The speakers reviewed some of the technical details of the new windows and the different styles of the modern glaziers from Tiffany to Connick and the Gothic revivalist Henry Wynd Young.  They allowed the attendees to see, touch and appreciate for themselves the different windows to fully recognize the masterpieces that were in front of them. From the images and content of these windows it was clear that I was not looking at abstract, geometric, symbols of reality (although some of the modern windows are abstract in nature). They represented religious scenes, allegories and metaphors well documented in the Gospels or the New Testament.  As I strolled around the various windows, I could not leave aside the concluding paragraph of my previous essay (italics my emphasis for this note):

‘These reflections illustrate how various symmetrical figures and entities that are part of our world, and which can be described by the rigorous framework of group theory in mathematics, have been used throughout history to convey different thoughts, insights and perceptions of the artist (or the scientist) as a draughtsman and executor of the cosmological view of the times. Both artists and scientists will continue to create and unveil novel symbols of their times to illuminate and enrich the world in which we all live. Further research efforts and artistic ingenuity will carry the torch of our predecessors. ‘

Among the examples included in the booklet provided by the lecturers there was one window from the church of The Holy Spirit representing the Creation that immediately caught my attention (Fig. 1). The window represents the Creation as related by the Song of Creation and it was completed by the Willet Stained Glass Studios of Philadelphia and installed in 1996 within the secluded space of the columbarium within the Sanctuary itself. The precise detail of the representation of the different events of creation caught my attention: the Sun and the planets, the animals of the land, the birds, the creatures of the sea; and then, the surprise. I was amazed and pleased to see a pristine and accurate representation of ice and snow crystals within the circle corresponding to the creation of water. I said to myself: I am delighted that what we now know about water, ice and crystals is represented in this new ‘updated’ version of the ‘Creation’.  The content is all well presented within a balanced mirror symmetric framework including a swirling leave or branch that reminded me of ‘single stranded DNA’, although I doubt that it was the intention of the artist to include such a reference in the window. The lecture was an excellent introduction to the marvels of modern glass windows in modern churches in America and in other parts of the world, something that Mr. Painton Cowen (my colleague from the previous essay) had already emphasized and that I had failed to fully appreciate in our previous conversations: the art form of stained glass has been and still is quite alive all over the world.

But the ‘single stranded DNA’ from the previous window set into motion a recollection of another representation of that theme in another window that I had seen a few years earlier in the chapel of King’s College in London. To connect the two, it is necessary now to remember that in the early 1950’s Maurice H.F. Wilkins and colleagues had started to examine and study with X-rays a biological material of the outmost importance: deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the atomic carrier of biological inheritance. It was not crystalline per se but the material aggregated readyly in sheaves of fibers that were amenable to be analyzed using long X-rays exposures. And that it was at this laboratory where Rosalind E. Franklin came to work soon thereafter to continue the research. Rosalind Franklin, the diminished and derided ‘Rosy’ in J.D. Watson’s book The Double Helix soon produced very significant and insightful experimental results that provided most of the building parameters for the DNA model proposed by Watson and Crick in the 1953 publication in Nature, which opened the door to structural and molecular biology; a scientific breakthrough of enormous consequences.

To commemorate this achievement, there is a stained glass window in the chapel of King’s College in London representing Jesus communicating the ‘wonders of creation’ to the people and among the listeners there is representation of Maurice H. F. Wilkins and Rosalind E. Franklin kind of  arguing about the structure of DNA. It is well known through the several accounts of that momentous discovery that Wilkins and Franklin did not get along very well, and soon Dr. Franklin left the laboratory to work with another luminary of structural biology John Desmond Bernal (i.e. ‘Sage’). But the window representing these events is amazing (Fig. 2a). It is a rectangular lancet-shaped window with Christ at the top speaking (possibly teaching or preaching), with a model of the atom behind him, to the people and at the very bottom we see Wilkins and Franklin consulting (or reading) a book containing the double-coiled

Fig.2a. Image of the window at the Chapel of King's College, London, UK.

Fig.2a. Image of the ‘teaching’ window in the Chapel of King’s College, London, UK.

(double helical) structure of DNA (Fig.2b). There is no need to present an abstract representation: it is all there. The window also contains a poem where in addition to the work of Wilkins and Franklin, homage is paid

Fig.2b.  Detail of the window at the Chapel of King's College, London, portraying M.H.F. Wilkins and Rosalind E. Franklin, possibly discussing the structure of the DNA molecule that was unveiled thanks for the superb experimental data obtained by Dr. Franklin while at King's College in the early 1950s.

Fig.2b. Detail of the window at the Chapel of King’s College, London, portraying M.H.F. Wilkins and Rosalind E. Franklin, possibly discussing the structure of the DNA molecule that was unveiled thanks for the superb experimental data obtained by Dr. Franklin while at King’s College in the early 1950s.

to one of the premier theoretical physicists of all times, James C. Maxwell who also worked in that laboratory.

I do hope that this brief and informal account of my intellectual wanderings after the earlier essay about the symmetry of rose windows has reinforced the comment made in the last paragraph reproduced earlier. The stained glass windows continue to be used to convey, revise, actualize and refresh, our views (personal and societal) of the world and the significant events that reshape it.   I will only add a final wish: possibly in the future, I would like to see the image of Charles R. Darwin included in some of the new renditions of the Creation events.  This certainly will be a sign of the change of values and attitudes in society. I do hope that it is not too far into the future.