Through Stained Glass Dimly Lit

From the beginning till now the entire creation, as we know it, has been groaning in one great act of giving birth; and not only creation, but all of us who possess the first fruits of the Spirit, we too groan inwardly as we wait for our bodies to be set free. (1)

In 2000, arguably the world’s largest themed stained glass installation was installed in St Monica’s Catholic Cathedral in Cairns, Queensland, Australia.(2) Depicting the cycle of creation, each of the twenty four windows is six metres high and 1.7 metres wide, totaling 320 square metres of stained glass. In telling the story of creation, they traverse the history of the universe – from an exploded supernova to the formation of the earth, from the development of Queensland landmarks and the arrival of humans to a crystal-pattern symbolising perfection. One of the windows includes a reproduction of an image of the Eagle Nebula – the so-called Pillars of Creation – taken by the Hubble space telescope.

Stained-glass artists, Gerry Cummins and Jill Stehn, spent two years designing the windows and four years building them. Gerry Cummins (b.1945) and Jill Stehn (b. 1952) specialise in creating original contemporary stained glass panels for churches and other buildings as well as restoring historic stained glass. Their partnership as stained glass makers began in 1994, though Gerry has been working in the industry since the mid 1970s.

The artists describe the windows this way:

The central philosophical tenet of the “Creation” windows is to bring together religion and science through art.

The twenty-four “Creation” windows are intended to be as comprehensible to a modern Christian viewer who wants to see everything that is in Genesis 1 depicted in the windows, as it is to, say, a non-English speaking atheist scientist. The windows are intended to include and welcome all visitors to the Cathedral.

The windows commence with images of deep space as captured by the Hubble space telescope, move with increasing intimacy into the geographical features of the diocese, depict in exquisite detail the marine life of the Great Barrier Reef, the vastness of the grasslands, and the splendour of the rainforests, before concluding metaphysically with images derived from Revelation.

There are three crystals strategically placed in the windows progressively symbolising Light, Life and Love. (3)

The stained glass windows at the beginning are purposefully dark at this stage and let in very little light.

Window 18 depicts the Creation of Man and moves through to the melting away of the physical into the metaphysical, concluding in a spiral which reciprocates the Milky Way in Windows 1 – 6. The idea of the end coalescing with the beginning finds an aesthetic culmination in the choice of the golden spiral and of the multitude of colours mirroring the lack of colour and light in the earliest windows. For more in depth explanation of each of the window, you may find the  audio commentary provided by the Cathedral of interest.

MankindThe aspect of these windows, other than the stated aim of combining religion with science (and presumably with art), that I find particularly interesting are the ways in which these windows are intrinsically tied to ‘place.’ They were created for this cathedral not only in terms of dimension and scale but also in terms of subject matter. Many small details mean that these windows would not connect with those that share their space if they were in a building anywhere else in Australia, let alone the world.

For example, mankind has very subtle but distinctive features of the early indigenous Australians with their weapons and shelter, and  the kangaroos amongst the animals also mark out the windows as being distinctly Australian.Kangaroos

While these two examples tie the windows to Australia, let me turn to two examples of how the windows work so well to define and celebrate local ‘place’, specifically the Cairns region. Windows 13-18 depict the Cairns diocese, starting with the Grasslands on the left and move through dry sclerophyll forest into rainforest with accompanying flora and fauna.

13-18

So, too, Windows 10-12 depict a wonder of the world located in this region. The coral of the Great Barrier Reef marked by its colourful hues identifies these windows as relating not only an abstract story of creation but also one in which those who call Cairns home can connect with.

CoralDetail1

Of course the larger narrative is completely independent of the location of the collection of windows, but the details are what makes these windows such an interesting example of a geographically specific depiction of the creation narrative.

Have you seen any other examples of geographically specific depictions of the biblical creation narrative?

What do you think of the aim of combining religion and science in such a large scale work of glass-art?

Authored by Anna Blanch. Australian by birth, and inclination, Anna grew up surrounded by the Australian bush, a large extended family, bush poetry, and sport. Anna is currently writing her PhD in Theology and Literature.

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(1) Romans 8:22-24

(2) “World’s largest themed stained glass windows unveiled in Cairns,” Catholic News: 18 Dec 2000.

(3) Quoted from Gerry Cummins and Jill Stehn sourced here: http://www.cumminsstehnstainedglass.com.au/GalleryCreationPeace.html

Images: Source are used for the purpose of review.

4 Comments

  • Sara Schumacher says:

    Hi Anna,

    Thanks for this – these windows remind me of Mark Cazalet’s ‘Tree of Life’ window at Chelmsford Cathedral. I think it is doing something similar to these Creation windows. Do you happen to know how they were funded?

    • Anna Blanch (@Goannatree) says:

      I suspect they were funded by the local diocese. I can’t find any information on the diocese website about their funding. There is a cathedral school attached (a girl’s school) and it is possible some of the funding came from that source too. Is Cazelet’s window similar in the science/religion aspect or the geographically specific nature of the window?

      • Sara Schumacher says:

        It seems that Cazalet is doing something similar geographically. It also makes me think paintings that do something similar such as Francesca’s Nativity – http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/piero-della-francesca-the-nativity – with Tuscany in the background.

  • David Taylor says:

    Anna, thanks for bringing this art to our attention and for drawing our gaze to the details that make the work “mean” in a certain way, with a certain potency.

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