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Cathedral of the Epiphany — The Epiphany Stained Glass Window

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Symbols of the Four Evangelists decorate the video frame of the Cathedral of The Epiphany, Sioux City, Iowa, a place, in the words of the Rev. William J. Vit Jr., Rector of the Cathedral, "Where God speaks to us." The Cathedral is filled with beautiful stained glass, created by the world-renowned Mayer & Company of Munich, Germany.


 
The Adoration of the Shepherds, Cathedral of the Epiphany, Sioux City Iowa. (Mouseover the image to see the removed horizontal support bars. 
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To illustrate the beautiful stained glass windows of the Cathedral of the Epiphany, this page contains large images. Please allow all of them to draw before clicking "play" on the video screen to watch the video. And do make sure your audio is on — you won't want to miss the mystical accompanying Gregorian chant…


It's raining, and clouds fill the sky as I approach the Cathedral of the Epiphany in Sioux City, Iowa. Its twin tall spires pierce the sky, and large Gothic windows its red-brick walls. Will I find a depiction of The Nativity in this historic Cathedral, which, since 1904, has been spiritual home to Catholics at the corner of 10th and Douglas Streets?

What I find, when I open the wooden front door, is a brightly-lit Cathedral full of young people attending mass.

I wait in the vestibule, and admire the beautiful narrow stained glass Gothic windows. They're framed by a garland of blue, gold, yellow, and rose flowers and petals, and taper into a foil decorated with a cross in hues of red and gold.

Each window has in inset surrounded by a gold border: an angel, a winged lion, an ox, an eagle — symbols of the four Evangelists — and an open Gospel with the words "Matthew," "Mark," "Luke," and "John."

These windows are at eye level, so I can really see and appreciate their beauty. What wonders will the larger Cathedral windows reveal?

But I have to wait just a bit longer for the mass to find out. In the vestibule, behind the glass partition that separates it from the nave, I'm lost in memories of growing up in Sioux City, thinking of the old rivalry between my alma mater, Central High, and Heelan Catholic High School next door, whose students now fill the Cathedral.

Lost in thought, I suddenly find myself surrounded by young people on their way to class. And just as suddenly I'm all alone in the Cathedral, whose slender columns support tapering Gothic arches, softly-painted and brightly lit by white octagonal lamps hanging high above.

Then the Cathedral is plunged into darkness. A student that I see leaving must have just turned off the lights, not aware that a visitor is about.

In the dark Cathedral, the stained glass windows shine bright, even on this cloudy day, casting on other-wordly glow on the carved Crucifix hanging high above the altar, a three-dimensional depiction of Cimabue's ruined Santa Croce masterpiece (see video, top of page).

When I look to the left of the crucifix, I see it: a stained glass window of The Nativity, taking up almost the whole wall of the left short arm of the Greek cross that is the plan of Cathedral, a brilliant rose window set above The Adoration of the Shepherds (the subject of a future blog).

I turn around, and can't believe my eyes: there's another window on the opposite side: The Adoration of the Magi! I take out my camera and start clicking. That's when a priest approaches and asks, "Would you like the lights on?" And the Cathedral once again fills with light.

 
"The Cathedral stained glass windows are homilies in glass," says Rev. William J. Vit Jr., Rector of the Cathedral of the Epiphany. 
Homilies in Art

"I have spent a lot of time looking at the stained glass windows," says the Rev. William J. Vit Jr., Rector of the Cathedral of the Epiphany. "They're homilies in glass, really. I'm sure you — everyone — see things in them in a much deeper sense than I even have. That's the beauty of it, the breadth of the ways that God speaks to us.

"The first foundation, the foremost aspect of art, is the idea that everything in the Cathedral can be — and is — used to evangelize. There's no dead spot, no useless part in the architecture of the Cathedral.

"The whole building, in and of itself, should teach, and the Cathedral stained glass windows are a good example. A window, in its basic function, is to merely let in light. Why not take that basic function and use that light — changing its color, its form — so that a functional window can be re-created to teach?

"I was in Italy recently, and during Sunday mass there was a child on his father's shoulder, staring out of a colorful window. To the child it might have been nothing more than a sparkling light, but that child was learning about God.

"Because the light that shines into the world is the light of God, the light that also comes through the windows of the Cathedral, including the beautiful windows that depict the saints, who manifest the light of Christ."

The Epiphany
"The Nativity is the birth of salvation, Christ's incarnation. But the Adoration of the Magi also represents the Epiphany. As you know, Epiphany in Greek is a realization, a recognition — a recognition of who Christ is, a manifestation of his purpose, his role.

"Epiphany is also the recognition of the Gentiles, because the Magi represent humanity, the ends of the earth recognizing that Christ is the King. In the most profound sense of Epiphany, the whole world recognizes and falls at the knees of Jesus, as you see the Magi doing, Kings of the East worshipping the King of All.

"And the other wonderful thing about art is that, as I like to say, 'It meets the person where he or she is at.' For example, in Western art, Christ is white. In Africa, Christ is black. In Latin America, Hispanic. In Byzantine iconography, we see a cave. In European art, we find a stable, a manger, as in these windows that were made in Munich. There was a connection with the German immigrant parishioners who helped built this Cathedral Community."

What about the Cathedral's newest parishioners, the latest crop of Heelan, Central's old competitor?

Father Vit, a young man himself, remembers what it felt like seeing, for the first time, a Cathedral full of young people. "I look at them," he says, "the way a father looks at his children. In their life, they're going to encounter many churches, many priests; their faith will unfold in a million ways. I'm grateful for being just a very small part of that faith, and I would like to say, 'Thanks for letting me be a part of your life.'

"They — and I — are so fortunate to worship in such a beautiful Cathedral. I was assigned here a year ago, and I walked in with an overwhelming sense of responsibility. My first thought — and this connects with my priestly life — is making sure the Cathedral is here to facilitate the encounter between humanity and divinity, to have the individual meet God."

 
Designed and created by Mayer & Company, Munich, the Cathedral of the Epiphany eponymous window also includes a brilliant rose window. (Note that the horizontal bars across the Adoration of the Magi have been removed to better appreciate the art.) 
Window of The Epiphany
Father Vit says goodbye to hear confessions, and as I look at the magnificence of the Cathedral stained glass I am dazzled by the glowing colors, the key figures in the story, its calming influence.

No one, after all, would have difficulty identifying the Holy Family or the Wise Men. We know the story, the interactions of the characters, we recognize that the scene is one of great portent.

Because this simple story — "And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn" — is at the core of the Christian faith. And just as a story becomes elaborated as it is repeated, these windows can tell us some stories about the traditions of art through which this scene has been kept alive.

First of all, the shape within which the image is exhibited (see photo at left), is an architectural element which we have come to call a Gothic Arch. The term Gothic was not, originally, anything other than a pejorative. Architectural purists of the Renaissance disliked this style — an intermediary between the Romanesque and the Classical Revival style of the Renaissance — possibly because the first architectural thinkers despised the buttresses that were needed for large Gothic buildings.

Still, Gothic survived, and was popular in the countries of northern Europe for a variety of reasons, not least of which was that the arch reminded people of clasped hands during prayer. Later, the Gothic style became popular simply because of its period look, a style that harkened back to the building of the great cathedrals of France, Germany, and England.

In the middle of the Eighteenth Century, a great Gothic revival began in Britain, spreading quickly throughout the Nineteenth Century into the rest of Europe. With this great romanticizing effort, an equally prominent devotion to what was seen as the glory of Medievalism also began to spread.

This glorifying of a mythic Medieval style can be seen very clearly in The Epiphany Window, with its main component the Rose, or Catherine Window. These elaborate round windows, seeming to take their original inspiration from the oculus (or roof opening) of the Pantheon in Rome, often have at their center a depiction of Mary as the Mother of Jesus — the name of the window deriving from St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s naming of the Blessed Virgin Mary as The Mystic Rose. Rose Windows that do not contain a portrait of Mary, as this one does not, are sometimes called Catherine Windows, commemorating St. Catherine of Alexandria.

There are two other touches in the Epiphany Window that point to the Gothic Revival. These can be seen in the two dome shapes above the panels containing the Holy Family and the Magi. These domed shapes, filled with the leaves and seeds of the oak tree on the Magi panel, are emblematic of a much older Northern European tradition. The Nativity dome, on the other hand, is filled with wheat, symbolizing the Great Plains and Jesus as the Bread of Life.

Gaspar offers gold — detail of the Window of The Epiphany. (Roll your mouse on and off the image above to see its horizontal iron support bars.)
The Epiphany Window was designed and made sometime in the early 1900s by Mayer & Company, Munich. Mayer & Company's renowned stained glass graces churches and buildings around the world. Their hallmark was painting exquisite artwork on large pieces of glass, then fusing the paint to the glass with heat.

This technique created stained glass largely free of the necessary lead framing. Whatever leading there is, it is masterfully concealed within the outlines of the design.

Still, there's no escaping gravity. All that heavy — albeit beautifully stained — glass needs to be supported, hence the horizontal bars. No matter how gifted an artist, how strategically planned the placement of the figures may be, there's bound to be a horizontal support bar cutting into a head here, a halo there.

In The Epiphany Window, there are a total of five horizontal bars, of various widths. An iron bar is found across the star-and-precious-stones studded halo of the Blessed Mother; the beards of Joseph and Gaspar; and the turban of Balthasar. Another bar dips, then rises ever so gracefully into an arc, to avoid visually cutting off the neck of Jesus or the head of kneeling Melchior.

Wishing to see The Epiphany Window in all its glory — just as the master artists and craftsmen at Mayer & Company had before the installation of the necessary horizontal supports — I knew those horizontal bars had to go. Did I climb a ladder while Father Vit was in Rome, and cut away these horizontal visual encumbrances with an iron file? Perish the thought! I did so virtually, on my computer screen. (By running your mouse on and off the images of The Epiphany Window (above, left), you can see it with and without its support bars.)

For the frame for the Cathedral video I also tried my hand at the stained glass maker's art. Using Photoshop, and elements of the Cathedral vestibule windows, and featuring the symbols of the Four Evangelists (see top of page).

I'll have to remember to ask Father Vit, who was just in the Vatican, about another Mayer & Company creation: the Holy Spirit window, high above the altar of St. Peter's Basilica. And I look forward to talking to him again soon, about the Cathedral of the Epiphany Adoration of the Shepherds window that I plan to blog about in the near future.

Before then, I'm hoping Matthew Geerlings, Director of Music and Liturgy, will share some Cathedral music with me to accompany the Adoration of the Shepherds video.

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