Stained Glass Windows

Francis J. Greene, Ph.D.
Professor of Fine Arts, St. Francis College
Brooklyn Heights, New York

Production and Installation

The stained glass windows of St. Charles Borromeo Church are of exceptional quality in their artistic execution and in their spiritual content and impact upon the viewer. The windows were not all created and installed at one time. Rather, as was often the case in the mid to late nineteenth century, the windows were commissioned, created, and put in place, several at a time, over a span of  almost thirty years, beginning in the late 1870’s and continuing well into the early twentieth century. When a church was constructed it was not uncommon for simple, but suitable, colored glass to be put in place at the time of construction, with the understanding that individual stained glass windows would later be commissioned as donors asked for a window to be fashioned in memory of a loved one or an admired parish priest. This was certainly the case at St. Charles.

German Style

All the windows are in the German style and two have the markings of the companies which produced them.  One is identified as by Meyer and Sons, with offices in Munich, Germany, and New York City. Another bears the insignia of the Tyrolese Art Glass Company which was based in Innsbruck, Austria, with offices also in New York City. Meyer and Sons, Munich, and the Tyrolese Art Glass Company, Innsbruck, Austria were among the most outstanding producers of religious stained glass in the mid- to late-19th century and well into the 20th century, creating windows for some of the great  cathedrals and  parish churches of Europe. The demand for their art became so great in the United States that they soon opened New York offices to represent their interests. The windows, however, were all made in Germany and Austria and then shipped here. The fact that their emblems are found on only one window each at St. Charles is not surprising. It was often the case that, even if a company produced all the stained glass windows for a church at the same time, only one window would bear their signature and that was usually placed discretely at the bottom corner of one window where it might escape the attention of all but the most observant viewers. This is the case at St. Charles.

What does it mean to say that all the windows in the church are in the German style?  Put quite simply, stained glass windows in the German style were marked by the following characteristics: (1) very high artistic quality and workmanship (2) a pictorial style based on Renaissance painting techniques, including use of perspective (3) rich visual details, including nature scenes in the background, lavish and richly patterned garments on the figures, lush plants and flowers, and elaborate architectural ornamentation creating a visual frame around the scene. All of these characteristics are found in the St. Charles parish windows.

Walking Tour

This self-guided walking tour of the stained glass will begin with the great window over the main altar at the center of the church. The tour will then proceed to the viewer’s right, going past St. Joseph’s altar and starting with the adjacent window depicting the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Once at the back of the church, the viewer will cross to the back of the opposite wall and work one’s way forward toward Mary’s altar on the left of the church.

Parish Patron: St. Charles Borromeo

We begin at the central stained glass window over the altar area or the sanctuary, specifically over the reredos at the center of the sanctuary. The fact that the wall in back of the reredos is flat, rather than a semi-circular arched apse, identifies the architectural style of Saint Charles Church as English Gothic, as do other architectural elements. This flat wall contains a great stained glass window consisting of five panels or lights, as they are called.  Depicted is the parish patron, St. Charles Borromeo (1538-1584) distributing Holy Communion to a man, reclining on a stretcher. He is a victim of the plague, as evidenced by a sore on his face. An angel assists St. Charles by holding the Communion plate under the host. St. Charles is remembered for his courage in visiting the homes of plague victims in his diocese and for his total attention to the physical and spiritual needs of his congregation, even when many were infected with the plague. St. Charles is depicted in his Cardinal’s robes, with the large red hat, then worn by Cardinals, attached to his back, just below his neck. He holds the staff or crozier, another indication of his role as Archbishop of Milan. Gathered around him are many of the people to whom he ministered, including, on the far left, members of some of the religious orders which he had supported and  to whom he had introduced spiritual reform. Every level of society seems represented in the crowd, as are a number of women and men from Switzerland, one of the regions that stood under St. Charles’s protection and to which he paid many pastoral visits over the years.  This window is the only one in the church depicting the parish patron. It is appropriate that St. Charles is shown distributing Holy Communion  since, at the altar just below this window, every day  the bread and wine have been consecrated at Mass into the Body and Blood of Christ, and countless thousands have, over the years, come to the altar, in full view of this window, to receive Holy Communion. It should be pointed out that the likeness of St. Charles’ face in this window is exactly as he is depicted in many portraits painted of him during his lifetime. It is an exact likeness.

Above this immense window are three smaller ones, all containing pairs of angels.  In the quatrefoil on the left the angels bear a scroll, referring in Latin to Saint Charles’ developing a catechism and catechetical programs for the parishes and Catholic schools of Milan. In the quatrefoil on the right angels bear a scroll referring to Saint Charles emphasis on the importance of the Sacrament of Penance.  In the central window two angels bear a crown, destined for St. Charles upon the completion of his life on earth—a symbolic way of denoting the holiness of his personal and priestly life. It should also be mentioned that his emblem was a crown framed by the Latin word Humilitas (Humility).

Sacred Heart of Jesus

The first window on the far right, adjacent to St. Joseph’s altar, depicts the apparition of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to Sister Margaret Mary Alacoque in France in the late 17th century. By the 19th century, when this window was created, devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus had become very strong throughout the Western Catholic Church. Almost every parish built or decorated at this time is decorated with a statue, painting, or stained glass window of the Sacred Heart. This devotion remains popular to this day because it expresses a basic truth, evidenced by the words and actions of Jesus in the Gospels—His total and unrelenting love for each individual. It is symbolically significant that Jesus is standing upon an altar at the place where the tabernacle, containing the Eucharist is usually located since Sister Margaret Mary Alacoque had a very strong devotion to the Eucharist. The viewer will also note the elaborate architectural framing along the borders of the window—a characteristic of all the stained glass windows in this church and a hallmark of the so-called German style. At the base of the scene is revealed the donor of this particular window—the league of the Sacred Heart.

Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan

The next window depicts the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan by Saint John the Baptist, accompanied by onlookers. Note the presence and role of the Holy Spirit, depicted as a dove in the upper left hand corner, as well as the purple robe which John the Baptist is wearing. This deep purple is the liturgical color of Advent, the season of waiting for and preparing for the coming of the Lord. The use of this color in the window reflects that, with His Baptism, the long waiting was over and that the Savior had indeed come and was beginning His public ministry. The water of the Jordan River flows down into a stone basin that becomes, symbolically, a Baptismal font. At the bottom the window is dedicated in memory of John Kelly who died on August 7, 1894.

The Holy Family

In the following window we see the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. The Christ Child works in his father’s carpentry shop and is shown, symbolically, making a small wooden cross, a foreshadowing of His death on the Cross. Christ’s cousin, Saint John the Baptist is also depicted, between Jesus and Mary, holding a wooden cross, one of his attributes, and clinging to a lamb, representing the innocent Jesus who will be sacrificed on the cross for the sins of the world. In the background, Saint Anne, Mary’s mother and Jesus’ grandmother is seen entering through a doorway. The dedication is in memory of William Nevins and son, dated January 1895.

The Last Supper

The next window is larger than the first three and has unusually elaborate and richly detailed architectural framing. It depicts the Last Supper. Interestingly Saint John, the youngest and beloved disciple, is depicted on Christ’s left side and is resting his head upon the Lord. Traditionally in art St. John is depicted on Christ’s right side, based on the description of the Gospels. Judas is seen clutching the bag with the thirty pieces of silver, the price for betraying his Master. This window is dedicated to Charles W. B and Ellen Kitchen. Across from this window is one equally large. You will notice, then, that there are seven windows in each side wall. The one larger window on each side separates the other three. These two larger windows mark a kind of transept space at the midpoint of the nave, thus each of them is larger than the others and has a more richly detailed architectural frame.

The Children Come to Jesus

The next window depicts the children coming to Jesus. On the left we see several of the Apostles, amazed that Jesus is calling the children to Himself. On the other side of Christ, onlookers seem equally interested and surprised. One will notice the grape vines above the scene, with abundant grapes, a clear reference to the Eucharist and the Precious Blood. One of the older children seems to be offering a piece of bread to Jesus, furthering the Eucharistic theme of the window. On the bottom left is seen a basket filled with fruit. The dedication of this window is to Michael and Emanuel Kelly 1896.

The Resurrection

The Resurrection is the theme of the next window. Jesus is depicted as Risen, carrying the banner, iconographically associated with His Resurrection. Balancing the image of Christ on the left is, on the right, a soldier, one of the guards of the tomb, fallen asleep, and an Angel; both are near the stone that has been rolled back from the entrance to the tomb. The dedication is to the Reverend James Bobier December 18, 1918.

The Agony in the Garden

The last window on this side of the church depicts the Agony in the Garden. On the left side we see Jesus in agony in the garden of Gethsemane. Near Him, asleep, is the Apostle James. On the right side, we see Peter and John also asleep. John is depicted, as he was in the window of the Last Supper, as quite young and beardless. It is striking how he rests his head on Saint Peter, who will be Christ’s successor to lead the Church, just as John  had rested his head on Jesus in the scene of the Last Supper. Above this group is an Angel who offers Christ the cup of suffering, referring to Jesus’ prayer to His Father in the garden that He might be spared the cup of suffering, but asking, also, that His Father’s will be done.  The window is dated January 1901. Unlike the other windows along this wall, this window bears, at its base, a quotation from the scripture, related to the scene depicted: “And there appeared to Him strengthening Him an Angel, and being in agony, he prayed the longer.” Luke Chapter XXII, verses 42-44.

The Adoration of the Magi

The window across from this one, at the back of the church on the other wall, also bears a scripture inscription, again indicating that windows were commissioned and installed in pairs across from each other. Thus we now cross the church to other wall, on Mary’s side of the church, so to speak. This first window at the back depicts the Adoration of the Magi. From the point of view of symbolism used, it is very rich indeed. On the right we see the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. One king is kneeling before Jesus and his crown has been taken off and laid upon the ground, in the corner, almost unnoticed. This little detail adds a real sense of the homage which is being paid by these “kings” to the new King whom they have found. The other two kings, on the left, await their turn to offer their gifts. Around the neck of the first of the two is a pendant with a radiant star, a reference to the star which they followed in search for Jesus. Behind them stands a camel, equally regal with its dignified posture and pose, quite befitting this scene devoted to human and Divine Royalty. In the roof of the humble abode of the Holy Family there seems to be thatching, but upon closer inspection it is clear that we are looking at small bundles of wheat, a clear Eucharist reference to the Bread of Life. It is in this window that we see the name of the creators of the window: Mayer and Company, Munich and New York. Finally, at the base, is found the appropriate scriptural reference: “For we have seen His star in the East and have come to adore Him.” Matthew Chapter II, verse 2.

The Sermon on the Mount

The Sermon on the Mount is depicted in the next window which is dedicated to Reverend Thomas F. Ward. The viewer’s eyes are drawn to Jesus on the right side since He is depicted in a vibrant, red robe. Gathered around Him are some of the crowd, listening intently and visibly amazed at His teaching. A sense of Jesus being up on a mount is suggested by depicting, on the left, a town much lower in a valley. One observes also the wide range of listeners from youth to seniors in age.

The Good Shepherd

The next window depicts Jesus the Good Shepherd, holding two sheep in His arms. On the left side stands an Angel draped in a richly decorated garment. There are a total of six sheep in the window; the most interesting one is on the far right, caught in the brambles and clearly in need of rescue by the Good Shepherd. The inscription reads:  Presented by the Holy Name Society.

St. Vincent de Paul

We now come to the center window which has three panels of glass, or three lights, matching the central window on the opposite side, also of three lights. Saint Vincent de Paul is depicted, holding a baby and giving bread to those in need. He is surrounded by people who reach out to him for assistance. At the base is a basket of food which will be distributed. At he base is found a prayer: Saint Vincent de Paul, Apostle of Charity, pray for us. It is appropriate that the window opposite this depicts the Last Supper (the Eucharist) which should always lead to action on behalf of those in need. Thus, the Last Supper window is completed, in a sense, by this one across the church with its emphasis on Christian charity, expressed through the example of Saint Vincent de Paul.

St. Thomas Aquinas

The next window depicts Saint Thomas Aquinas, in his Dominican habit, kneeling before a female figure seated upon a throne. This figure is allegorical. She represents wisdom but could also represent the Church. In either case St. Thomas is submitting himself in service, it could be said, to both wisdom and the Church. The rays of the Holy Spirit pour down at the center of the scene. St. Thomas was known as the Angelic Doctor and on the left an Angel holds a type of monstrance with the sacred host, the Holy Eucharist. St. Thomas wrote extensively on the Eucharist and is credited with creating that quintessential Eucharistic hymn, Tantum Ergo. There are many books and scrolls about, testimony to Saint Thomas’ great erudition and his massive corpus of writings. On the ground, to the left, is a volume of Aristotle, with the title in Ancient Greek. St. Thomas drew heavily upon Aristotle for much of his writing and used the Aristotelian concepts of substance and matter to elucidate the concept of Transubstantiation (for the Eucharist). On the texts, held by angels we read, in Latin, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  Another Latin text says” “And the Word became flesh…He humbled Himself even unto death.” The window is dedicated to the memory of Reverend Thomas Ward, LL.D., one of the early Pastor’s of St. Charles parish. Father Ward was, himself, a great scholar, holding the Doctor of Laws degree and he taught for many years in the seminary. Undoubtedly such a priestly scholar and seminary professor would be steeped in Thomistic philosophy and theology. In addition, at about the time of the creation of this window, there had been, from Rome, a call for renewed attention and primacy for the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, particularly in seminary education. All of these currents and trends are reflected in the iconography of this extraordinary window. Finally, it must be pointed out that Father Ward, for whom this window was dedicated, bore as his first name that of the Saint—Thomas. Of further interest is the fact that this window bears the mark of the other stained glass makers who contributed to the stained glass of this church—the Tyrolese Glass Company, located in Innsbruck, Austria.

Young Jesus in the Temple

The next window depicts Jesus, as a youth, in the temple, teaching the Hebrew scripture scholars. We see in their faces both inquisitiveness and also amazement at the knowledge and wisdom coming from this child. The red garment, worn by one of the figures, occupies a major part of the window space and helps direct the eye over to the figure of the young Jesus.  The window is dedicated: In the Memory of Margaret Ward 6th January 1870.

The Annunciation

As we now approach Mary’s altar we come upon the window dedicated to the Annunciation. On the left the Angel Gabriel brings to Mary the glad tidings that she will bear the Christ Child. The immediacy of the Angel’s arrival (and thus his interruption of Mary’s daily routine) is suggested by the fluttering of his garments. On the right side Mary is depicted as in prayer until the Angel interrupted her with his visitation. She is robed in a beautiful and deeply rich blue garment with white and gold details. The cushion upon which she kneels is a lighter, almost sky-blue.  Above, the Holy Spirit is visible in the traditional form of a dove. Fittingly this window was presented by: The Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The exquisite quality of these stained glass windows is impressive. Installed between 1894 and 1918 or slightly later, they represent superb examples of German and Austrian stained glass artistry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Impressive and imaginative Gothic architectural details frame the scenes wherein we find beautifully executed figures, drapery, natural forms, such as plants, trees, sky and clouds, as well as illusionistic space, much in the Renaissance tradition, and all these elements are further enhanced by the deep, rich, and vibrant colors.  Completing the impact is the highly developed symbolism, or iconography, contributing to a spiritual intensity that fulfills the purpose of any religious stained glass of any era—to raise the heart and mind to God.