On seeing Stonehenge for the first time in 1987 I must confess the landscape was not inspiring. One must really study the history of Stonehenge and other megalithic sites throughout Great Britain first. Then you stand in awe of how a population, so small, with hardly any tools or a written language could erect these massive structures of primitive worship, over 4000 years ago. When we visited Delphi, a few years later, and looked down from its height toward the Gulf of Corinth, I could understand why the Greeks believed this to be the center of the universe. At a special moment, when the sun sets over Assisi, some people feel the golden glow seems to link the Basilica of St. Francis with the sky, clouds, and the rolling hills of Umbria.. At this instant, when this place on earth seems to become “one with Heaven”, the hope wells up inside that humankind might, someday, stop violence and listen to the messages of people like St. Frances.
Right now, in Holmes chapel, we are experiencing a sacred moment, a Link with the Cosmos that occurs each day at sundown, thanks to the artistic genius of Henry Lee Willet, designer of this beautiful Rose window. As I continue taking, in this darkened space, please observe the changes in window color. They were meant to be, in Dr. Butzer’s words, “a glorious composition in color harmonies, changing subtly from hour to hour with variations of light from dawn to eventide,” Slowly, the greens, yellows and reds disappear until all that remains is an aura of deep blue, surrounding the figure of Christ in a halo of four light panes. Dr. Butzer described this color as a “mysterious” blue. I feel it resonates with my deepest feelings about the mystery of life.
We can experience moments like this because Westminster Church is linked artistically and spiritually with cathedrals built during the “AGE OF FAITH”; that time when 80 cathedrals and hundreds of churches were built throughout Western Europe, from about 1100 until the devastating plague began in 1350. Kenneth Clark said this was only one of three times when the world “warmed to” to the civilization movement, the other two being around 3000 B.C. and the 6th century B.C, in Greece and India[ii]
The world had not ended in year 1000 as many feared. Favorable economic conditions and lack of wars were good omens. Feelings toward the Christian church were at their peak. During the previous 700 years, brutal times of barbaric devastation, the church had remained the only civilizing force. Time after time, it brought back the hope of Cosmos from the Chaos of violence. One by one, the pagans who destroyed the old order embraced the Church for both spiritual power and temporal guidance. The church knew how to help people hit by disaster.
To be sure, this was not a ”golden” age. The rich exploited the poor, towns competed and justice, as we know it, was long into the future. Still, it was better than the previous millennium and the many centuries of turmoil that have followed.
The great cathedrals were built by people having deep convictions, so with Westminster. It is hard for people in our competitive culture to understand the humility and reverence for God that was in medieval minds. They wanted to create Cathedrals, sacred places dedicated only to the Glory of God, not to art for art’s sake. The entire community built them over many lifetimes. Ordinary citizens of Chartes hitched themselves to wagons that transported large stones from quarries. The cathedral was the center of life, civic affairs were conducted inside, mystery and miracle plays were performed in the square outside, fairs and markets drew large crowds.
As one approaches the rural town of Chartes, the cathedral rises majestically; it’s verticality of towers and supports expressing the dream to bring earth closer to Heaven. Architects, with practically no experience to draw upon, discovered ways to lighten and support the vaults to produce greater height inside. Gregorian chants, like the hymn we just sang, filled this enormous space as if the sound was coming from Heaven. A few weeks ago we were fortunate to host two members of the Heidelberg choir who told us of their experience singing at the National Cathedral, in Washington. They said “It was like our voices surrounded us and they were coming from very high up.”
During the AGE OF FAITH lives of Saints were important to pilgrims. They traveled great distances to worship relics of these men who, by the courage of their own faith, created the ideal model for human behavior. Sculptors produced beautiful likenesses that greeted pilgrims at the entrance of the great cathedrals. At Westminster church, we can honor their sacrifices because, in 1903, when we redecorated the Sanctuary, symbols of martyrdom of the Apostles were stenciled around the chancel arch. Inside are the monogram of Jesus, the four Gospel writers, ancient symbols of Trinity, Baptism and Eternity, and Vines and Branches overhead. The chancel arch, covered in 1954 during redecoration for our 100th Anniversary, was restored in 1992. The headline for the NEWS article by Carl Herko on December 9 said” An ethereal look for Westminster worshippers.” Today, the beauty and spirituality of the chancel area is further enhanced by needlepoint cushions of Bible stories in the Windows done by members of our congregation. Bas-relief woodcarvings on the pulpit, depicting five Parables, recall ancient skills of woodcarvers.
If architecture is “the mother of the arts” then stained glass is one of her most brilliant children. This unique Christian art form was able to develop because architects were able to transfer the vault’s weight via an arch called the flying buttress to a heavy pier, removed at a distance to keep shadows away from the cathedral’s wall. Thus began the Gothic cathedrals. Not having to support so large a load, the wall could now be filled with mosaics made from thousands of pieces of brilliantly colored glass, held together by strips of lead, teaching our Christian faith in colored glass. This must have had a profound effect on medieval worshippers, as if each was sensing God’s presence in the colors of these jewel-like windows that illuminated their hearts and minds with understanding of their faith. Each worshipper was now able to link directly with the power of the Creation.
The reasons for the demise of the Gothic style, were: the Black Death that swept through Europe in the mid-14th century, economic and social chaos brought about by the harsh weather, famine, and the costly war between the leading centers of the art. France and England. Those artists who survived the plague were not able to pass the secrets of their techniques to apprentices because towns could not afford to build cathedrals. The Gothic style became a “lost art” until its revival began in the early part of the 20th century. Then, artists studied and adhered to the design and construction found in the 12th and 13th century cathedrals of Europe
Westminster is fortunate to have seventeen masterpieces by four of the leading artists associated with the Gothic revival in America: Henry Willet of Philadelphia and Wilbur Burnham, Charles Connick, and Joseph Reynolds of Boston. Dr. Holmes initiated the overall plan in 1926 and dedicated the first window, Nativity, in 1931. Dr. Butzer implemented installation of the next fifteen from 1934 to 1952. In 1967 the "Praise" window was dedicated in a service led by Dr. Kiely.
The biblical and symbolic substance depicted in this art is very comprehensive. There are 216 unique items of interest throughout the Sanctuary, Delaware entrance and Holmes Chapel: 127 bible stories in the windows present the Bible from the Creation to Christ’s Ascension. Altogether, there are 56 Judeo-Christian symbols on walls or in window designs, and 33 items associated with the Work of the Church are portrayed in these windows.
It is our hope that Westminster will have more opportunities in the future to share the beauty and spirituality of these windows with the community. Since 1979 I have conducted tours of these windows and, almost always someone, member or visitor, approaches me quietly afterward to say how they marvel at the wonderful art treasure we have here.
Many people, today, want to escape the constant noise from our invasive, consumerist culture, and find the quiet of a church, like Westminster, for meditation. I hope we can help them do so.
Surrounded by the rich symbolism at Westminster, individuals can ponder, within their own hearts, what spiritual path they want; just as you can during these remaining moments before sunset, opening your hearts and souls to the “mysterious” blue of this window, reflecting on what the Faith of our Christian church has meant to those who went before, how it has been passed to us for centuries, as by Eunice to her son Timothy or by Monica to her son St. Augustine, by parents and inspired, loving teachers like N. Loring Danforth, who for years stood in this place as superintendent of our church school, deeply interested in children and young people, devoted to the work of this church, and who showed business associates in his daily life how blessed are those who follow the teachings of Christ.
The theme of this window, “Christ The teacher”, stories for children, reminds us of baptism and the love instilled in us by our parents, lets us recall our own dreams and goals of child hood and leaves us with the nagging question, must innocence be lost?
In stories of the windows above we sense the continuous, divine nudging, by God, on the intelligence of all human souls, from our beginnings in the Garden of Eden, raising the question, what does it mean to be born again of the Spirit and perhaps link our lives with something greater?
Does the image of the Trinity we no longer see transcend our senses at this moment- God’s hand on the head of Jesus and the Dove of the Holy Spirit at his foot?
Hopefully, some day, we will be able to join a universal voice that quietly says: Thy Will be Done
[i] Kenneth Clark Civilization Page 10
[ii][ii] Kenneth Clark Civilization Page 23