Stained-glass windows -- and a few other distractions

Stained-glass windows in the Basilica of the Assumption, I would like to paraphrase Groucho Marx and say: "Be gone, and never darken my church again." I'm voting for transparency.

Let there be light, radical light! God be praised, light!
Maybe, once they remove the nine arched stained-glass windows, the cathedral won't be so funereal - even when there's a funeral. And brides are going to like the new luminescence.

In case you've been stressing about more important things and haven't heard, there's a typically Smalltimore debate raging, this time over windows in - stand by for overwrought official title - the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, designed by Latrobe and dedicated in 1821.

Some people support a return to historically accurate clear windows. Others want to keep the stained-glass windows that were installed in the 1940s, during the tenure of Archbishop Michael J. Curley.

Nobody asked me, therefore I'm going to jump in and say let's go back to what the famous designer imagined when he scratched up the nation's first Roman Catholic cathedral - clear glass with lots of panes.

Keep it simple.

Keep it natural.

Let there be light.

Of course, I wouldn't have always felt this way.

As a kid, I liked stained glass, couldn't get enough of it. I was chromatically deprived - we didn't get color TV until 1968 - and stained-glass windows filled an aesthetic gap. I relished a good stained-glass depiction of, say, St. Patrick with serpents at his feet or St. Lucy with eyeballs in her palm.

Let's face it: Latrobe might have wanted "mystical light" in his basilica in Baltimore, but back in the 19th century his design had practical implications. His archdiocesan clients probably understood the serious drawbacks of stained glass, in terms of the spiritual experience of children and others with short attention spans - they constituted gaudy distractions during Mass.

Don't act like you don't know what I'm talking about.

All you Catholic kids lucky enough to have attended a church with stained-glass windows - rich parishioners, if there were any, usually paid for them - can remember being transfixed by them during all those ho-hum homilies back in the day. Father would be up there, going on and on about "Holy Mother of the Church" and "Sacred Heart of Jesus," and you'd be daydreaming and staring up at the stained glass, lost in the intricate, colorful mosaic, the mind drifting into reveries.

Yeah, kids liked stained glass.

But it took your mind off Mass. That's why the only thing I can remember from Father's homilies is "Holy Mother of the Church, Sacred Heart of Jesus."


Right away, I can see that "causes distractions and mindless musings during Father's homily" is not much of an argument against stained-glass windows, so I'll go back to my original point.

If they're going to spend all these millions restoring the basilica to its historic best, then do it right - restore the clear glass.

Latrobe didn't think stained glass belonged in a place where people are trying to get in touch with their souls and see the light. So honor the original concept. (I know: Guy's dead, but he might be watching from some high corridor of almighty power and wrath.)

And I'd find another place, besides a new church in Howard County, to display the basilica's stained-glass windows - a museum, or chapel, or school, or the high walls of some grand hall in Baltimore. Those windows are beautiful; they deserve preservation and significant display.

Thus endeth the sermon.

600450 Stained-glass windows -- and a few other distractions
Date: 17 January 2004

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