Stained glass windows often tell stories. In houses of worship, you’ll find depictions of the seven sacraments, the crucifixion and other events in the life of Jesus, parables of the Bible, and mysteries of the rosary.
Perhaps the most recognizable and beloved among Christians is the Nativity — the story of the birth of Christ told in depictions of Baby Jesus in a manger surrounded by Mary and Joseph, the three wise men, shepherds, angels and stable animals.
For Christians, it may be the greatest story ever told in the windows of churches throughout the world.
“These are stories that last for generations. They tell and will keep telling the story of Jesus’ birth, as well as many other biblical stories, for centuries,” said Mark Lambrecht, owner of Lambrecht Glass Studio Inc. in Omaha, who has created and restored stained glass windows throughout the world.
While storytelling with stained glass dates to early Egypt, the art didn’t become visibly and spiritually significant in Christian churches until the fourth and fifth centuries.
Early Romanesque-style churches had heavy, barrel-vaulted ceilings supported by fortress-like walls, leaving little room or need for windows.
As architecture evolved, Gothic structures became the norm, and because of their pointed arches, they required less support from beneath. This left room and opportunity for larger, more expressive windows that would not only let in more light but also tell stories.
Those early windows were filled with ornate patterns of thin alabaster set in wooden frames — giving a stained-glass effect.
In the making of stained glass stories, glass varying in color and purpose is arranged to form patterns or pictures connected by strips of lead and supported by a rigid frame. The windows are then fit securely and snugly into the window spaces to withstand and resist wind and rain, and also, especially in the larger windows, to support their own weight.
Over time, processes and materials changed and improved, and churches began using glass colored by adding metallic salts in the manufacturing process – copper oxides produce green or bluish green, cobalt makes deep blue and gold produces wine red and violet glass.
In the early years – when the church was regarded as the center of learning and many people were unable to read – stained glass windows became a method to teach the stories of the Bible.
“The message varied in elaboration and detail, but the basic story was the same no matter the church or location,” said Brother William Woeger, a liturgical design consultant who has influenced the construction or renovation of dozens of churches in the Archdiocese of Omaha and across the country. “Remembering most people couldn’t read in the Middle Ages, church windows became an effective, beautiful way to tell the stories of Jesus.”
A traditional narrative window – like the Nativity – has panels and illustrations. Scriptural texts or mottoes are sometimes included and perhaps the name of the patron or the person to whose memory the window is dedicated.
Details of faces, hair and hands can be painted onto the inner surface of the glass using a special glass paint. The art of painting details became increasingly elaborate and reached its height in the early 20th century.
“In the early days, the stained glass was made by craftsmen throughout Europe, but by the end of the 19th century, Germany – with artisans like Franz Mayer & Co. and LambertsGlas – became the go-to location for finely-crafted glass on a grand scale,” Lambrecht said.
“In the United States, it was Connick Studio in Boston or Emil Frei & Associates in St. Louis that provided stained glass for decades, including churches throughout Omaha, Nebraska and the Midwest. Connick is no longer in business, but Frei is still run by his heirs.”
Stained glass offers interpretations of messages of the Bible. “Some are elaborate and very colorful while others are simple yet still impactful,” Woeger said. “The need may be different today, but the messages are unchanged and just as important as they’ve always been, especially the Nativity story.”