Heart of stained glass: Boe Chapel windows tell stories

Boe Memorial Chapel is the physical and spiritual center of campus, as well as the site of many concerts, lectures and organ rehearsals.

Most members of the St. Olaf community can probably recall entering the chapel and noticing its stained glass windows, but many have not taken the time to truly examine them. The windows are so replete with stories that they may take some study before one can appreciate their beauty and meaning.

St. Olaf's original chapel, Hoyme Chapel, was destroyed by a fire in 1923. Boe, its replacement, was dedicated in 1954. However, by 1957, when retired religion professor Joseph Shaw came to St. Olaf, not all the stained glass windows had been installed. At first there were "simply clear windows. I remember worshipping in the chapel with stained glass only on one side," Shaw said. The Biblical west windows were installed in 1957. Installation of the east windows, which illustrate the history of the Christian church, was completed in 1961.

The windows were designed and finished by the Conrad Pickel Studio, Inc., of Waukesha, Wisc. The windows’ themes were chosen by religion professors, the college president, and the pastor.

Art Professor Nancy Thompson said that having clergy choose the “iconographic program” of windows and then allowing the studio to create the designs, which St. Olaf did, was a common medieval practice.

The stained glass itself was made by a centuries-old method that Pickel learned in his homeland, Germany. Metallic ingredients are added to color the molten glass, which is hand-blown. According to Thompson, hand blowing the glass makes it an uneven texture so that it can catch light in different ways.

"The quality of the workmanship is rather pictoral and not too figurative," said retired College Pastor Clifford Swanson. People familiar with popular Bible story and major events in western civilization should be able to recognize many figures in the windows, some of which are conveniently named.

Starting from the southwest corner of the chapel, the first two of the seven windows depict Old Testament stories. The next five are devoted to Jesus, from birth to crucifixion. The eight historical windows move from Paul and the Apostles to King Olav of Norway, "resulting historically in the founding of the college," said Swanson.

The chancel window depicts the resurrection, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, while the south window draws more from apocalyptic literature, portraying the transfiguration.

Swanson saw particular importance in the Lord’s Supper image. "It carries over right into the room itself," he said, and it used to flow into the altar, symbolizing the connection with the church at St. Olaf. However, the altar was moved to be closer to the congregation and therefore more inclusive.

Many of the Old Testament stories are easily recognizable: creation, Noah’s ark, Moses with the tablets of the Commandments. The third west window shows the usual amalgamation of Matthew’s and Luke's Christmas stories. The next four windows depict Jesus’ preparation, teaching, miracles, and crucifixion.

The stories and symbols of the historical windows may be less familiar. Moving from the early Christian church through the Reformation (featuring not only Martin Luther, but other reformers such as Huldreich Zwingli and John Calvin), there is even a window featuring missionaries in Africa, India and China. The east windows conclude with "Lutheranism in America." Jesus, in the middle, stating "I am the vine, you are the branches," literally branches out to the early Norwegian church and St. Olaf itself, with tiny glass versions of Old Main, Hoyme Chapel, and the windows’ home, Boe Chapel.

The windows convey the message of Christianity from Genesis to its context in the St. Olaf community. As Swanson said, "they’re not just colorful and letting light in."

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