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A Nativity in Stained Glass

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This close up of the Nativity reveals a tender moment of the Virgin and Child — stained-glass window, Chapel of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation, Atlanta. 
 
Holy Week (Orthodox Easter was a week late this year) found me traveling south, through Saint Louis, Nashville, and Atlanta. While the rest of my team flew, I'm covering the distance of over 1,150 miles by car. It's so much easier to pack all my camera gear in the van, and there are all those churches and beatutiful iconography on the way.

 
The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis in the homonymous city is filled will beautiful mosaics. 
 
You simply can't drive by St. Louis without a mandatory stop at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis. It's Monday morning, a light rain is falling, and the famous St. Louis Arch, a faint grey ribbon against a dark-grey sky, signals my detour. With 4431 Lindell Boulevard in my GPS, I've soon parked in the Basilica visitors lot.

I enter the Basilica from one of its side doors, and feel as though I have entered a different reality. The Basilica is dark — only faint light pierces the windows of its domes — and quiet. I seem to be the only one there. But am I, really? I'm surrounded by images that, even in the relative darkness, shine as if lit by an inner light. Every wall, column, arch, transept, pendentive, lunette, and dome is decorated in beautiful mosaics. The effect of millions of tiny tesserae, mosaic pieces, create an icons — the so called "Windows Into Heaven" — that transports you into a different realm.

Surely the experience may not be much different than that the emissaries of the Czar experienced upon entering Hagia Sophia, the Church of Holy Wisdom, in Constantinople. Sent to the four corners of the world to discover the one true faith, the returned to Russia saying that, upon entering Hagia Sophia, they did not know if there were in heaven or on earth.

Standing under the mosaic of the Pantocrator I know just how they must have felt. The Enthroned Christ is shown holding the orb of the earth on his left hand (He Who Holds All), and blessing the world with his right. The Byzantine tradition is evident in this beautiful mosaic, especially in the stylized first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, Alpha and Omega, that appear on Christ's left and right, symbolizing that He is, "The Beginning and the End."

Christ's halo encloses across, and is mirrored in the circle that encloses The Pantocrator. A background of flowers and curling vines, embodying the Eden the Lord created, and the glint of gold, create an almost translucent window into a spiritual world.

Only the faint sound of the wheels of my camera case is heard as I walk about the Basilica, looking — you guessed it — for a Nativity that surely must be there.

But I've almost reached the central dome, and there's no Nativity in sight. But, just around one of the massive columns that support the dome, there's Michelangelo's Pieta, a full-size replica, cast in bronze. The marble original is protected by lucite — after a madman's hammer attack — but it's humbling not only to be able to walk up to this this Pieta, but to be able to touch it.

But still no Nativity. Then my hopes are rekindled when, to the left of the Baldacchino altar, I reach Our Lady's Chapel. Tall triptychs that resemble arched windows supported by columns, depict scenes from the life of the Mother of God: there's the Presentation of Mary to the Temple, Annunciation, the Meeting with Elizabeth, Mary's Ascension — but no Nativity.

 
Christ Pantocrator (He Who Holds All) from the Narthex of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis. 
 


A few days and hundreds of miles later, on an early Sunday morning, I'm entering the Chapel of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation in Atlanta. The Holy Liturgy is already in progress, and my senses are filled with mystical Byzantine chant, the sound of twinkling censer bells, the sweet smell of incense that wafts, prayer-like, upwards, and dazzled by a wall of brightly lit, stained-glass windows, and glittering mosaics that fill the Iconostasion (Icon stand), the four pendentives, and the dome.

Once again those Russian emissaries come to mind, because, surely, this is the divine music that reached their ears — and touched their hearts.

While attentive of the service, I can't help looking everywhere for an icon of the Nativity. Orthodoxy surrounds me: icons of Archangels, Saints, Evangelists, St. John the Baptist, Christ and the Panagia (The All-Holy, the Virgin Mary), and, high above, in the curved surface of the dome, The Pantocrator. If you substituted the globe for the gospel, this beautiufl mosaic could easily be mistaken with that of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis.

But, no nativity.

 
Full-view of the Christoú Génnisis (Nativity of Christ). 
 
The service over, I hurry to the Cathedral next door for the 10:30 liturgy, and then I see it. To the right of the entrance, a stained glass window of the Nativity! How could I have missed it?

Set in a red rectangle dotted with gold stones, this stained glass nativity is a departure not just in the artistic medium — this is the first Nativity I have ever seen in stained glass — but also in the depiction of I Christoú Génnisis, The Birth of Christ.

Byzantine iconography of the Nativity includes angels, magi, shepherds and sheep, Joseph, and several other scenes, such a the washing of the Babe. But this stained glass window isolates the Virgin and Child in a tender moment, The Mother embracing tenderly embracing the swaddled Babe.

The cradle of Baby Jesus takes the form of a tomb — an allusion to Christ's Passion and burial, and the Mother of God is so signified by the Greek letters "M" "R" and "Theta" and "Ypsilon," (MeteR THeoY).

The Virgin, clad in royal colors of red-purple and blue, reclines on a gold cushion, and is surrounded by the sky blue that denotes the opening of the Natvity cave-manger. The ox, the ass, and the Bethlehem star are the only other elements of Byzantine iconography included in this bright, stained glass icon, truly a "Window into Heaven…"

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