Windows on the World

In his 2008 book Ritualizing Nature, H. Paul Santmire makes a remark about churches and windows.  He writes:

Many American church buildings, surely those designed in a neogothic style but others as well, have self-consciously or unconsciously been constructed to block out the world around them, much as the historic cathedrals’ towering walls and elegant stained-glass windows had been designed, in part, to create a world apart.  In American settings, however, the wonderful imagery of the created world that so enhanced the interiors of many medieval cathedrals is mostly missing.  Hence, the architectural break between the created world and the realm of the church’s worship is all the more pronounced.*

I came across this passage while doing research on a project investigating liturgy and the eco-spirituality of children.  The next time I went to Mass at my local parish, I paid closer attention to the church building.  Indeed, there is no view at all of the world outside.  There are a number of stained glass windows featuring saints, but by their very nature these windows prevent those gathered for worship from seeing their surroundings.  The same applies to Corr Chapel and the St. Thomas of Villanova Church on the campus of Villanova University, where I teach.  (A chapel in the Augustinian Friary on campus, however, has two walls of floor to ceiling clear windows.)  The archdiocesan cathedral of Ss. Peter and Paul has no ground floor windows; the reason, rumor has it, was to protect the building (completed in 1864) from future rioters given the anti-Catholic violence in Philadelphia in the 1840s.

With many scholars, I recognize that there is an important sense in which worship requires a time and space set apart.  Yet Louis-Marie Chauvet also points out that such “set apartness” can cross a limit of what he calls “maximal heterotopy.”

There is a threshold of maximal hetero-topy beyond which rite cannot function.  In insufficient contact with the expressed or latent cultural values of the group, desymbolized, rite tends to regress to the point where all it can do is appeal to each person’s imagination.**

Chauvet is writing in particular on the question of liturgical inculturation but I think that his point applies to the concern raised by Santmire: How often is Christian worship celebrated and experience as apart from instead of a part of creation?  How does this experience shape worshipers’ understanding of the relationship between liturgical practice and care for the Earth or even the understanding of God as Creator and Redeemer?

No doubt parish leaders have many financial questions to address.  I do not want to come across as suggesting that churches across the land must engage in a wide ranging replacement of some / all stained-glass windows.  I want only to raise the question of how our worship spaces inform our sense of creation.

[The picture accompanying this reflection on the Pray Tell home page is an image of St. Gabriel’s Passionist Parish in North York, Ontario, Canada.  When the church building was renovated, parish leaders sought to make the world visible during worship.  More pictures of St. Gabriel are available at the architect’s website and at the parish site.]


*H. Paul Santmire, Ritualizing Nature: Renewing Christian Liturgy in a Time of Crisis (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress,. 2008), 100.

** Louis-Marie Chauvet, Symbol and Sacrament: A Sacramental Reinterpretation of Christian Existence, trans. Patrick Madigan and Madeleine Beaumont (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1995), 332.

12 thoughts on “Windows on the World

  1. No windows on the world might also be the pragmatism of a medieval culture that lacked modern engineering skills and materials. Walls needed to be stone floor to ceiling to support a high roof over a large space. Today, of course, minimal to no windows can be a decision made by the almighty budget.

    Unlike saints in niches, saints and scenes on window strike me possibly as more decoration than real devotional/liturgical art. People don’t light candles, or usually pause to pray at windows. Windows tot he world are a reminder of where the pilgrimage is heading after the last note of praise.

    1. Hi Todd,
      Santmire’s analysis is indeed more nuanced than I could reproduce here. For him, I think it is a matter of engineering limitations reinforcing an already emerging mindset.

    1. Jeff’s Redwoods Monastery photo exemplifies an issue that will be found across the world, from St Joseph’s Catholic Church, Redhill, Surrey, to St Edward the Confessor, San Clemente, California and in many other churches. It was particularly prevalent in Ireland in the 1980s. The issue is that of placing a large window or expanse of glass directly behind the sanctuary area, in some cases looking out onto a large stone cross planted in the garden outside.

      While this undoubtedly connects the assembly with creation, it also has the result of obscuring the face of the presider and any other ministers on the far side of the altar, who can only be seen in silhouette unless there is a high level of front lighting. People who suffer from glare are also disadvantaged.

      Some have also criticised the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption in San Francisco, which has very large plate glass windows at ground level in all four corners of the building. A frequent comment is that being able to see the city outside is a distraction from what is taking place inside. (In the past, these windows were frequently broken by local hooligans, and proved very expensive to replace.)

      I would says there is rather more to this topic than a simple criitique of a Church apparently trying to separate itself from the world. Anthropological issues also need to be taken into account.

      1. The Ecumenical Monastery Church at Bose in Northern Italy where I frequently go to Mass has at its sanctuary end a shallow apse where the altar sits. Behind are three small arched windows, and it is amazing how exteriorly connected these make the interior, despite their small size, maybe even because of it.

        The inspiration for this lovely church is romanesque. However, it is not a pastiche romanesque but a thoroughly modern interpretation, designed of course for a monastic community but not denying visible accessibility to the people who sit in the nave.

        You enter from and exit into a lovely garden setting too, as the monastic buildings are not all grouped round a cloister but scattered over a large estate, having been originally a farm.

        It is an ideally ‘connected’ setting in my experience.


  2. The built environment where where most American Catholic churches seem to be built today is not necessarily congruent with where churches were long built – a clear view of parking lots, strip malls and suburbia is evocative of the prosaic but not much else.

    Medieval architectural skills (at a time when architects built, engineers destroyed) were far more sophisticated. A good example is that the Gothic stone vault of Notre Dame de Paris largely worked as it was built to work: to stay up enough beneath a roof fire to be able to keep the walls standing thereafter. It’s a good proof of concept.

    Gradually developing structural techniques to allow more of the upper part of the walls to be devoted to windows was not only a form of illuminated iconography, but an excellent way to disperse loads. In the late Middle Ages in France (Troyes, if memory serves) and England (in the Perpendicular period) came the shift from heavily leaded mosaic-like fitted pieces of glass (what most of us today think of as the great medieval stained glass window technique) to the use of enameled painted panels of thinner glass with less leading that allowed windows to be structurally lightened and also for glass to take on jewel-like tones and painterly qualities – a shift that prevailed until the recovery of high medieval mosaic-style techniques in the latter half of the 19th century.

    The light coming through those windows needed various degrees of modulation depending on climate and latitude*, but also came to be grasped theologically as a natural sign of the supranatural Uncreated Light of the Godhead (especially God the Father, an important artistic figure for which long was a beam of light).

    Nowadays, window design tends to be “about” energy efficiency, as we rely almost entirely on artificial illumination and lose almost all close connection with a more elemental sense of light/Light.

    * In Italy and Iberia, for example, more shade was typically desired than came to be the case in, say, England where the late Middle Ages saw the increased use of translucent glass to frame colored glass scenes, thereby admitting a greater level of lower-angled high-latitude sunlight into the interior. E.g., this detail from a window in Wells Cathedral:

  3. That huge plate glass window at Redwoods Monastery would have a completely different effect in an urban Church or Cloister. That monastery is very isolated and well off the only nearby narrow two lane road that is lightly trafficked. The ‘noisescape’ is really non-existent there. In urban settings, even a more closed in/off interior will have sirens and car horns and all the rest impinging upon its space. Add windows opening onto busy streets and the ‘world’ becomes a bit overwhelming.

    Speaking merely as a visitor, I like the window at Redwoods. the interior of the Chapel is very clean and austere. There are two long flat benches with no backs where the Nuns and visitors sit facing each other. There are no real decorative aspects. The very large and old Redwood just outside is quite powerful and humbling, in a way. Weather up there can be pretty wild. Witnessing that while in the very safe confines of the Chapel is special. I think the two pictures that folks can scroll down to in the following link give a better sense of how this window opens onto AND allows in the created world just steps from the altar. I’m not claiming that this is an architectural marvel, but perhaps it’s a good illustration of how Church/chapel space can “shape worshipers’ understanding of the relationship between liturgical practice and care for the Earth or even the understanding of God as Creator and Redeemer” as mentioned in the article.

  4. The post WW2 rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral incorporates at its liturgical West End (actually South facing?) a great engraved glass screen showing Angels and Archangels. The Cathedral, like its medieval predecessor, is dedicated to Saint Michael the Archangel.

    Through the angelic figures one looks out at the ruined shell of the 15th century St. Michael’s. This was a deliberate scheme to connect the two places of worship.

    Even after 60 years I find this quite stunningly beautiful, one of many features of this great building.


    1. Agree absolutely with this. But if the window had been at the other end of the building where the huge Sutherland tapestry of Christ hangs it would have been problematic. Where it is, you are lit by it from behind and see it in all its glory when you turn to leave the building.

      1. Agreed. For folks who are not familiar with the magnificent glazing, and the influential vertically louvered design of the windows of the side walls of that nave, here’s a link to a 360-degree scrollable panosphere from Google Maps (you can scroll to see the sanctuary):

    2. Another very effective use of etched glass is found in Onchan on the Isle of Man at the Catholic church of St Anthony. The window looks out over the open sea, and the etching shows Christ walking on the water, it is a powerful image. But it is positioned to one side of the sanctuary, and during liturgy I find it distracting rather than devotional. I can find no image to post, it may well not photograph easily (as Coventry does not).

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