Storied Catechism: What Medieval Stained Glass Could Mean for Today

Debby Topliff (image courtesy of the artist)

Recently, I concluded my dissertation for my MLitt here at St Andrews. My project focused on the Anglo-Norman medieval poet Chrétien de Troyes and his romance Perceval, suggesting that he intended to create a narrative that reworked catechetical approaches to the Eucharist into a story that the laity could enter into and more easily commit to memory. Around the time of Chrétien’s writing, this form of approach to lay instruction was becoming popularised, most notably in the use of stained glass.

In “Lights of Faith: Stained Glass Windows as Tools for Catechesis,” Carol Anne Jones has suggested that stained glass in the High Middle Ages was “a new type of catechesis [which] synthesized oral teaching with visual representations and became the standard for teaching, reinforcing, elucidating, and experiencing the Faith.”[1] Indeed, the preaching manuals from the time period became increasingly sensitive to the visual literacy of the congregation, catechumens in particular, and used the placement of stained glass in the church as the primary tool of instruction in the mysteries of the faith. Visual representation made it significantly easier for congregations to commit tenets of belief to heart.

What Chrétien’s Perceval and the growing catechetical use of stained glass share is the focus on developing lay instruction around a visual narrative, whether in the space created by beautiful words in the mind, or in the space created in the mind based on what is literally in front of someone.

Yet, this was the approach of the medieval church. As church spaces in the US and the UK are increasingly created in secular spaces–pubs, old grocery stores, theatres, cinemas–the question is raised as to whether or not such catechetical instruction through visual literacy is still possible, or even profitable, for the spiritual maturity of a local congregation. Indeed, with the emphasis on storied and narrative theology that has been popularised in recent years, coupled with the falling rates of literacy in the population— in the US particularly—the need to develop a modern visual literacy in an increasingly-illiterate laity seems pressing.[2]

One answer to this need has been the use of projected images and videography, which, like the immobile stained glass that anticipated them, similarly provide visual instruction by highlighting specific theological elements—for example, a candle flame that reaches up higher and higher into the darkness might serve the same function, to illustrate God’s presence, as did a burning bush peeking from the corner in a stained glass window of Moses. The disadvantage of such digital media, however, is the ill of mass reproduction, which can strip a created work from the context of its community and original purpose. Another problem is limited resources, which complicate the ability of some churches to reproduce technologically-created visual media.

Perhaps another answer, then, would be to consider a form that can remain unique to a community and still incorporate elements that are adaptable to most spaces, even where resources are limited. Debby Topliff, a former MLitt student of ITIA, provides a means that can respond to the limited resources of a community. Debby paints the narratives of the Bible, including sometimes its non-narrative passages, and creates simple icons that can be used as teaching tools, just as stained glass was used in the Middle Ages for lay instruction. Debby paints on canvas and then screen prints the images onto linen, which can be folded up and carried easily. This low-tech portability is a benefit to churches looking to bring visual iconography into their space both affordably and with a modern approach to the medium. In addition, as Debby is quick to note, anyone can attempt this approach to painting, which therefore does not require the talent of someone outside the church community. The point is not the quality of the work as visual aesthetic but the quality of the instruction of the work.

As literacy continues to fall in the laity, providing catechesis through visual form has become of increasing concern to the Church, and new and inventive answers which consider limited resources and secular spaces are essential.

Preston Yancey is a PhD candidate in Divinity at at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. He is currently writing his first book, a spiritual memoir of God’s silence, Tables in the Wilderness (Zondervan, 2014).

[1] “Lights of Faith: Stained Glass Windows as Tools for Catechesis”

[2] “1 in 7 Adults in the U.S. are Unable to Read this Story”


  • Preston Yancey earned his undergraduate degree in Great Texts of the Western Tradition with a focus in medieval monasticism, literature, and theology from Baylor University. He went on to complete his Master of Letters in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at the University of St. Andrews. His first book, Tables in the Wilderness:A Memoir of God Found, Lost, and Found Again, is due out with Zondervan September 2014.

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