For centuries – some evidence points to as early as the 7th century A.D. – Christians have gazed upward during times of worship and seen their savior.
Pastors, moments before delivering what they hope will be words of comfort and salvation, pause to reflect for a few seconds, eyes cast toward the heavens.
Brides-to-be – fixated on the perfect atmosphere for their march down the aisle – stake out a church a year in advance to select the precise time when sunlight streams through its windows, color exploding throughout the sanctuary.
Few iconic elements of a church building inspire such a universal connection as stained-glass windows.
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Inspiring. Peaceful. Glorious. Uplifting. Humbling.
Some among the faithful insist they can see God – in whatever form he chooses to present himself – in the combination of colors, angles and imagery.
The images depicted in stained-glass windows in sanctuaries around the world are as diverse as the people who worship in them.
Simple block formations might include a rough cross; more intricate, artisan-crafted works of art often show Jesus at various times during his earthly life; colors and shapes can coalesce for their own sake.
Across York, Chester and Lancaster counties, that same diversity is reflected in small, country churches, historic 250-year-old sanctuaries and mega-churches with their dynamic audio-visual productions and dramatic staging.
Whether in a church or elsewhere, stained-glass windows have been regarded as works of art, says Bette Williams, owner of The Looking Glass in Rock Hill. With more than 30 years of experience, Williams has had the chance to see much of that art in Rock Hill – and help restore it.
“Stained glass has always been interesting to everybody, to religion, to people who love antiques,” she said. “The unique thing about stained glass is, you’ll find churches that have fallen down, and the stained glass will still be intact.”
Williams is especially intrigued by Grace Lutheran Church’s main stained-glass image. The Looking Glass completed restoration work on the piece about a year ago.
“I didn’t find any identifying marks, but it’s definitely one of the more European-type,” she said. “It would not have been made locally.
“It’s beautiful, and I love it all.”
About stained glass
Stained glass seems to last forever because it’s designed to sustain weather, local stained glass expert Bette Williams says.
It is formed in several different ways.
One of the newest methods involves painting the pieces of glass and putting them together in an attractive manner.
Older methods call for “slumping” or rippling the glass and “plating it” – laying two different pieces of colored glass over each other.
What do the colors mean?
Blue – Long symbolized heaven and heavenly love
Red – Symbolic of both love and hate, associated with the martyrdom of the saints.
Yellow – Can be an emblem of the sun and divinity, associated with sacredness.
Green – Represents the triumph of spring over winter, of life over death.
Violet – Symbol of love and truth, as well as passion and suffering.
Purple – Represents royalty, often the symbol of God the Father.
White – Always associated with purity, innocence and the holy life.
Black – The symbol of death and mourning.
Gray – Symbolizes both humility and mourning.
Brown – Represents spiritual death and renunciation of worldly things.
Rainbows – Symbolic of union, representing God’s covenant with humanity.
A LOOK AT LOCAL CHURCHES
Chestnut Grove A.M.E. Zion Church
1664 Stringfellow Road, Chester
The window: Joseph and Mary admire the baby Jesus, who has a halo around his head. A star shines down on the scene.
A little history: The hand-painted, hand-crafted windows were imported from South America and installed about two years ago, thanks to the pastor’s brother’s travels.
The pastor says: “It was a job getting them here,” the Rev. Ina Harris said. “They went into Charleston, and then we had to get them through customs, but it was worth it.”
Church members wanted it to look like a “place of Heaven” and “a place of beauty” representing the “glory of Heaven,” she said.
“When you sit in there, it’s a place of peace and serenity,” Harris said. “God is beautiful. Heaven is a beautiful place. We should be beautiful people, regardless of the color.”
A member says: Marshall Harris said the windows tell the story of Jesus’ life.
“Everybody loves them,” he said. “You’re going to a service and you get to see what the service is about.”
Bowling Green Presbyterian Church 250 Ridge Road, Clover
The window: The three-paned window shows Jesus healing the sick and asking questions in the temple as a boy, with the center and largest image depicting him taking care of the lost sheep.
A little history: The window, installed more than 50 years ago, was made possible through donations by some of the church’s founding families.
The pastor says: The image of Jesus as the good shepherd is an inspiring one for Pastor Aaron White, because he feels it’s the role he’s called to take on.
“It constantly reminds me that I’ve been entrusted a precious gift, the gift to care for God’s folks,” White said. “I find as I meditate prior to the sermon, I look up there and think about what it means to be a shepherd.”
A member says: Johnny Dulin is an elder in the church. The triple-window has a plaque underneath with his family’s name, and he grew up in the church. With six generations of his family attending Bowling Green, he feels it’s a place to put down roots.
Singing in the choir, Dulin has a great view of the window, which is especially moving during evening services.
“There’s a light outside the church, and when you’re sitting in the choir and it’s pitch-black in the church and that’s the only light you see, it directly lights up Jesus’ face,” he said. “It’s an eerie feeling.”
Philadelphia United Methodist Church
2260 Chester Highway, York
The window: Jesus, holding a staff and illuminated by a halo behind his head, knocks at a wooden door. The door has no knob. The window is behind the pulpit.
A little history: Though the church has been in existence since 1837, this window was among 15 installed in the church’s sanctuary building when it was finished in June 1965. Money for the windows was donated by families of the church.
The pastor says: The window is a strong message from the congregation, the Rev. Josh McClendon said, that they chose this image to be front and center as well as a welcoming image for all.
“You don’t have to be able to read to get the picture,” he said. “It’s a great reminder that says whatever you’re doing, put it down, look around and notice what’s going on.”
A member says: Mary Miskelly has been a member since 1982 and sees a deep meaning in the image.
First Presbyterian Church
234 E. Main St., Rock Hill
The window: Circular with petal shapes around the edge, the window features a crown at the very center, lifted up.
A little history: The current sanctuary was built in 1894, with the windows added just after World War II. In the 1990s, the church placed protective Plexiglas over the outside of the windows to prevent damage. The church also updated the backlighting to enhance the view.
The pastor says: The circular windows have often been referred to as “rose windows” because of their shape, said the Rev. John Todd, who sees them each time he delivers a sermon.
“I get to view those in all their beauty, especially on Sundays, when they’re very sparkling and inspiring,” he said. “They speak of the radiance of God’s love and all of its color and its beauty. That’s the essential message of the church.”
A member says: Cynthia Johnson, a member for about 25 years, thinks the windows are simply beautiful and complement the message of Todd’s sermons each Sunday.
“It’s an old, old church,” she said. “There is a lot of history to it. You wonder when previous members were here and what they thought of the windows. It does really add to it when you see the sun pouring in.”
Sisk Memorial Baptist Church
115 Massey St., Fort Mill
The window: The centerpiece of the window depicts Jesus looking upward, with the light of heaven beaming down on him.
A little history: The church’s many stained-glass windows, in the old stone building that served as the church’s sanctuary until the 1980s, were installed around the mid-1940s.
The pastor says: The Rev. Roland Dry, who retired in 1999, was the last pastor to preach in the old stone building, where the stained glass windows overlooked the congregation. The windows added to the worship experience, he said.
“They enhance the atmosphere,” Dry, 72, said. “If people aren’t listening to what the preacher’s saying, they at least have something to see to help them. People remember what they see more than what they hear.”
A member says: Sylvia Stallings has been a member of Sisk Memorial since she was 5. Now the church’s historian, she is still blown away by the “subtle” beauty of the blues and yellows and greens and browns that make up her favorite image.
“It’s like he’s looking up toward heaven,” she said. “It’s one of the most beautiful sights we’ve ever seen.”
Hillcrest Baptist Church
2020 Hillcrest Road, York
The window: A red cross stands in the center of the window, with rays of brilliant light shooting out from behind it.
A little history: The church’s current sanctuary was built in 1989, and it included a series of stained glass windows. This image was the final window, resting front and center of the church.
The pastor says: The windows depict Jesus’ life, from his birth to his crucifixion and resurrection, Pastor Brad Vassey said. The red cross signifies the blood of Christ. The window is lit up at night, which Vassey called a centerpiece of beauty.
“I hope everything points to Jesus,” he said. “That’s our hope, that when they’re sitting in the pews, they see Jesus; that whenever they pass in the road, they see Jesus.”
A member says: Barry Ramsaur has been a Hillcrest member for about 20 years and is in awe of the window.
“I really do like it,” he said, “especially when the light comes through it and all these different colors come out.”