No one lingered after the 12:10 Mass. The breezes that spun through the open stained glass windows whispered of an August day too wondrously crisp and cool to be inside.
“What can I do to help you get out sooner?” I asked the sacristan.
“Could you close the windows?”
I found the pole and started down the south aisle. The light streamed through the canted stained glass, and I paused for a minute to read the names inscribed along the bottom of each century-old pane. “William and Margaret White” under St. Patrick and St. Bridget; the Ancient Order of Hibernians made a gift of St. Rita and St. Nicholas of Tolentine.
Each window gently puffed as I swung it closed. “Peace be with you” they seemed to say, blessing me over and over again as I worked my way around the periphery of the sanctuary.
I am reminded of a line from “Sainte-Chappelle” by Eric Whitacre, a choral composer famous for his intricate a cappella works: Et angeli in vitro molliter cantaverunt. “And the angels in the glass softly sang.” Whitacre’s piece tells the story of a young girl visiting Sainte Chappelle, a medieval gothic church in Paris renowned for its striking stained glass windows.
The girl hears the angels in the windows softly singing “Sanctus, sanctus.” Her voice and theirs twine until the light itself sings, “Lord God of Hosts, heaven and earth are full of your glory.” The score is crystalline, I can hear the dust motes dance in the light that streams through the windows, the stone walls of the church itself sing.
Even a silent chapel has something to say to us. The design of a church is meant to both speak to us of God’s saving work and to encourage us to speak to God in return. Images, whether frescos or stained glass windows, facilitate these conversations.
St. John Damascene, an eighth century Syrian monk, wrote that holy images move him “to contemplation, as a meadow delights the eyes and subtly infuses the soul with the glory of God.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that light and darkness speak to us of God .
Stained glass windows sing to us of the company of faith to which we belong: the angels, the saints, the artists who take light and darkness and bend them into a shape that moves us closer to God, the people who supported these artists financially and in prayer as they worked.
Next time you find yourself in a quiet church, see if you can hear the soft voices of the angels and saints in the glass singing, then join your voice with theirs in hymns of praise, thanksgiving and supplication. Et lumen canit. For the Light sings.
Read the story of the angels in glass (as sung in the Latin or the English translation) here.
Listen to an excerpt of Eric Whitacre’s luminous Alleluia and hear him talk about the composition of Sainte-Chappelle (along with some snippets of the music).
Take a virtual tour of the Sainte Chappelle sanctuary.
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish, Bryn Mawr.
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