Monday, November 14, 2022

Seeing Layers of Meaning in Duke Chapel’s Windows

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Visitors to Duke Chapel this holiday season may notice that two of the windows in the side chapel, the Memorial Chapel, are boarded up. That’s because the glass pieces for those windows have been removed for offsite cleaning as part of a five-year plan to finish a decades-long process of refurbishing all seventy-seven of the Chapel’s stained-glass windows.

The giant undertaking of cleaning a million individual pieces of glass highlights the significance the windows have in the overall architecture and symbolism of the Chapel building. It’s a topic studied by Dr. Jonathan Anderson, a postdoctoral associate at Duke Divinity School and the Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts, who researches modern art in relation to religion.

The most obvious effect of the windows is a general sense of awe that often causes visitors who step into the main sanctuary to look up, maybe snap a photo, and then pause to take in the majestic view of the vibrant and intricately designed windows.

That reaction points to one of the theological meanings of the windows, according to Dr. Anderson. He explains that there is a long Christian tradition of understanding church buildings as earthly outposts of heaven or the New Jerusalem.

“The church building is supposed to function as an embassy of the New Jerusalem,” he says about the biblical vision for a divinely restored earth. “The beauty of the space and the practices that happen here are meant to represent, anticipate, and instantiate eschatological life in the present.”

The Chapel’s stained-glass windows comprise about a million pieces of glass. The large windows in the main sanctuary (the “nave”) depict biblical scenes from the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) and New Testament, as well as saints and figures from the early church, using individual pieces of glass that are each one of seven colors— ruby red, blue, yellow, brown, white, purple, or green. (Yes, there is a “blue devil” tucked into a window behind the altar on the left.)

To delve deeper into the meaning of the windows, Dr. Anderson offers a simple approach.

“A church gets built from the ground up, but it gets interpreted from the top down,” he says. “The Old Testament images appear on top, and then the New Testament images closer to the floor, and then the living congregation is on the floor, so the timeline goes from top to bottom.”

In addition to reading top to bottom, the windows are meant to be read from left to right, starting with the windows immediately to the left upon entering the main sanctuary.

“The narratives of both the Old Testament and the New Testament start on the left and go in order up to the chancel area where the altar is, and then they come back toward the entrances,” he says. “So, there’s a vertical timeline, but there’s also a horizontal timeline.”

Another lens for understanding the Chapel’s windows is how they combine the ancient and modern. On one hand, the largest windows are consciously created in the long-running style of Gothic cathedrals, using ancient symbol patterns such as halos, the color white to represent purity, and St. Peter holding the keys to God’s kingdom. On the other hand, windows in other parts of the building draw upon different artistic traditions. The side-entrance windows are designed in a fifteenth-century German style with white glass while the side chapel (Memorial Chapel) uses a grisaille style of primarily gray glass in varying shades. The result is traditional artistry presented in a modern juxtaposition.

Dr. Anderson points out that the old style of stained-glass windows also finds a modern analog in our digital age.

“In some ways they work like digital images in that they consist of small individual pieces [of glass in windows, like pixels on a screen] that assemble into a whole that has a deeper intelligibility than the sum of these pieces, so they’re kind of digital in a way,” he says. “But unlike the digital technologies we are now familiar with, there’s a stability to them; they don’t change…. The images in the windows stay there while the generations pass by.”

A final aspect of the symbolism of the windows has to do with the properties of their colored glass.

“By the images being in the windows rather than painted on the wall, they have to be illumined by a light beyond themselves shining through them,” Dr. Anderson says. “In the traditions of Christian architecture, this speaks to an idea of special revelation—that these biblical narratives are truly perceived only as they are illumined by the light of God.”

“To see the windows is to be—symbolically or poetically—experiencing the loving grace of God,” he says. “They are not just illuminated, they are illuminating us.”