Back to a Stained-Glass Future

Volume 50, Issue 2 :: By Kenneth von Roenn

The work of Scott Parsons at Our Lady of Loreto Church and Gothic stained glass.

The ‘Angels’ piece uses overlapping imagery.

The ‘Angels’ piece uses overlapping imagery. Photo: James W. Jones W. Roy Messmore

In March 2016 I visited Derix Glasstudios in Taunnusstein, Germany, and saw the fabrication of windows designed by Scott Parsons for Our Lady of Loreto Church in Foxfield, Colorado (which have won several Faith & Form/IFRAA awards). Having worked in stained glass for a long time I thought I had seen all that was possible in the medium, but was absolutely astounded at the uniqueness of Parsons’s designs, as well as with the meticulous execution by the artisans at Derix. I realized upon seeing the work that this was very fresh and contemporary in its vision, through imagery that was not from a stained-glass tradition. For some odd reason the work seemed to have something that reminded me of Gothic stained glass, even though it was of a completely very different style. But, I couldn’t understand what this quality was.

After returning home and reviewing the photos of the windows in fabrication, I slowly began to understand the connection between Parsons’s work at Our Lady of Loreto and Gothic stained glass. As differently as they are stylistically, I began to realize over a few months that they share several characteristics, with one very important commonality.

One of the most obvious commonalities between them is that both are narrative compositions, with imagery that is composed with the intent to inform the viewer, as well as moving them emotionally. Gothic windows were created with the purpose of instructing medieval worshippers in the teachings of Christianity, since there was no widespread religious education. Windows were depictions of figures and events with the intent of communicating a story, a “poor man’s Bible,” as we have all read far too many times.

Another commonality is that both Abbot Suger of St. Denis, the early formulator of Gothic architecture, and Monsignor Ed Buehl, the pastor of Our Lady of Loreto, developed the thematic narrative for the windows from which the designs were created. Abbot Suger’s themes were relatively direct figurative representations of stories. Msgr. Buehl’s themes are much more than this in that they present the worshipper with a message that is more intellectually and emotionally engaging. Msgr. Buehl’s themes go beyond literal to become poetic. But this is because Msgr. Buehl’s intent was different than that of Abbot Suger’s in what he aspired to express. As he explains, “I considered that the Loreto windows were to be a means through which the viewer, not so much was being taught something, but rather was being invited to enter into something, namely into the very mystery of the Trinity as the Trinity has revealed itself in Christ and in the Church and sustains and loves the Church…. From an architectural standpoint, the church was designed to symbolize the Church founded by the Trinity. The upper dome windows, north round window, and the 10 angel windows speak of what used to call the Church Triumphant, the Church of eschatological consummation. The abstract form of these windows doesn’t simply tell the story of the heavenly Jerusalem but invites the viewer into it, into the eschatological consummation of all things in Christ. And the lower Mysteries of the Rosary windows speak of what we used to call the Church Militant, the Church that is us still on the militant pilgrimage of life, of faith, hope, and love, led by and through the eyes of she who made it most perfectly and completely, that is, through the eyes of Mary (rosary). These 10 magnificent windows invite us to take up her journey of following her Son, and so to take up her Son’s journey from the Father back to the Father, inviting us to enter into that story and make it our own.”

‘Lamb on Throne’ combines abstraction and realism.

‘Lamb on Throne’ combines abstraction and realism. Photo: James W. Jones W. Roy Messmore

A window depicting the season ‘Fall’ revels in autumnal hues.

A window depicting the season ‘Fall’ revels in autumnal hues. Photo: James W. Jones W. Roy Messmore

The window ‘Thrones’ reveals an inventive use of color.

The window ‘Thrones’ reveals an inventive use of color. Photo: James W. Jones W. Roy Messmore

These different narrative approaches of Gothic stained glass and Parsons’s windows for Our Lady of Loreto were also similar in their recognition of the needs of the worshippers. The medieval worshipper relied on the stained-glass windows to learn about Christianity, while the contemporary viewers of the windows at Our Lady of Loretto are presented with a much more complex theological commentary that goes far beyond fundamental biblical representations. Each is right for their time. Just as the themes of Our Lady of Loreto would have been lost on the medieval worshippers, so too would the simple portrayal of biblical stories be of little pertinence to contemporary viewers. While this seems somewhat simplistic, it does call into question the authenticity of mimicking an historical style and design approach for a contemporary context.

What I found of particular interest, however, were the stylistic approaches of both Gothic stained glass and Parsons’s designs for Loreto, and how each were stylistic embodiments of their respective time period. Gothic stained glass developed from a Byzantine style common to the Romanesque period, which is recognized for its flat, two-dimensional portrayal of figures and forms. This stylistic approach was common to other art forms of the era, such as frescoes and manuscript illustrations, while independent paintings did not begin to emerge until after the advent of Gothic architecture. This was a style that developed from symbolic representation of figures as opposed to the movement toward pictorial realism associated with the Renaissance.

Like early Gothic stained glass, Parsons does not strive to express a visual reality, but rather a dimension beyond our perceived reality. He refers to this as a “sacramental imagination,” or as Alexander Schmemann writes in his book For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, “Our entrance into the presence of Christ is an entrance into a fourth dimension which allows us to see more deeply into the reality of the world.” Parsons’s response to this statement is “how one connects to the world as sacrament, how one tries to see it all as a gift.” How similar this is to the medieval aesthetic sensibility as described by Umberto Eco in Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages: “Medieval taste, we may conclude, was concerned neither with the autonomy of art nor the autonomy of nature. It involved rather an apprehension of all of the relations, imaginative and supernatural, subsisting between the contemplated object and a cosmos, which opened on to the transcendent. It meant discerning in the concrete object an ontological reflection of, and participation in, the being and the power of God.”

Glass artist Scott Parsons designed all the stained glass for Our Lady of Loreto Church.

Glass artist Scott Parsons designed all the stained glass for Our Lady of Loreto Church. Photo: Steve Maylone

However, especially important is Parsons’s personal stylistic approach and its sympathetic affinity with the visual vernacular of contemporary graphic arts. It is this visual association that gives his work its contemporary sensitivity, for it is a visual language that is common to our time. This type of a graphic style populates our visual world through print, broadcast, and digital media today, and has become a visual lexicon of our time. An apt example of this stylistic approach is the illustrator/artist Dave McKean, whose work has influenced Parsons. In looking at Parsons’s work it is easy to see the use of atmospheric backgrounds and graphically stylized figures, which are common components of McKean’s work. Also of influence to Parsons’s work are Robert Rauschenberg’s collages, in which we can see similarities with Parsons’s compositional construction of layered imagery. This collage approach to composition is a fundamental component of Parsons’s creative process, which involves drawing, painting, and digital manipulation, from which his layered imagery is created. The effects that can be achieved digitally are particularly important in understanding Parsons’s aesthetic. As he writes, “With a computer I am able to work in many layers at once with many different ideas and images….. In The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, Eco discusses Aquinas’s use “of ‘compositio’ and ‘visio,’ where compositio is the combining operation”—which is part of judgment—and perhaps as an extension of that, deciding what to put on which layer in Photoshop. Visio is “an ‘apprehension’ of the structural harmony which compositio has brought to life. It is the interrelationship of form that matters, the in-between spaces, the silent spaces in music that determine the aesthetics, the relationship of form, and ultimately the success of the work.”

In addition to these commonalities, they share one characteristic that is more important than style. It transcends style and goes to the essence of an architectural art. By its nature, architectural art is fundamentally about relationships: relationship to the architecture, of which the art is of but part and parcel; relationship to the culture as a visual commentary; relationship to the viewers whose perception of the architectural experience can be elevated with the integration of art. An architectural art, very simply, is authentic when it is in tune with the architecture, the viewers, the culture, its time, and when it speaks to its era.

An authentic art survives stylistic evolutions over time to become a benchmark of art history. In this regard, I believe historians will judge Scott Parsons’s work as being authentic, original, and (most importantly) a contribution to the historical trajectory of stained glass in architecture.

The author is an architectural glass artist, architect, owned a large glass studio, has developed a public and architectural art program for Florida State University, and has designed and executed more than a thousand projects nationally and internationally over his 45-year career. He is currently the design director of Kaiser/von Roenn Studio and president of von Roenn Design, Consultation, & Collaboration.