75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories Behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film
February 2021 • Paperback • 978-0-8024-2087-9
Let Your Faith Be Moved by the Masterpieces
Art becomes a masterpiece when it stands the test of time and challenges its viewers to see the world from a new perspective. The vast legacy of human expression is therefore a rich resource of introspection and wisdom for Christians today. 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know anthologizes some of humanity’s most influential and renowned works of art. Terry Glaspey masterfully analyzes how each piece responds to the reality of the human condition and Christian truth. Glaspey examines architecture, plays, novels, paintings, films, and even albums, evoking how some probe the dark corners of human suffering, while others capture the mystery, beauty, and wonder of life. Each selection is universally revered for its craftsmanship and ubiquitously esteemed across both time and cultures. From Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison, every masterpiece reveals some truth that has both enriched the Christian faith and left an indelible mark on the legacy of artistic achievement. Through engaging these masterpieces, Christians today can enrich their own faith with the creativity of history’s brilliant artists.
This book serves as both historian and biographer, as devotional and art criticism. May this book be a modest doorway into a world of deeper appreciation, a guide to the treasures of our tradition that enriches both your faith and understanding of the human experience.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
TERRY GLASPEY is a writer, editor, creative mentor, and someone who finds various forms of art – painting, films, novels, poetry, and music — to be some of the places where he most deeply connects with God. He has a master’s degree in history from the University of Oregon, as well as undergraduate degrees emphasizing counseling and pastoral studies. He has written over a dozen books, including Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C.S. Lewis, The Prayers of Jane Austen, 25 Keys to Life-Changing Prayer, Bible Basics for Everyone, and others. He has two daughters and lives in Eugene, Oregon.
The Windows of Sainte-Chapelle
A medieval writer, on seeing the upper chapel of Sainte-Chapelle for the first time, exclaimed that it was “one of Heaven’s most beautiful rooms.” Perhaps that is an overstatement, but just barely. It is certainly one of the most splendid interiors in the world. Just a short walk from the more famous Notre Dame cathedral, the upper chapel of Sainte-Chapelle is one of the often-overlooked treasures of Paris. Though the chapel is tiny in comparison with the naves of the great cathedrals, its impact is immense. It dazzles like a monumental piece of jewelry, with light slanting through the fourteen stained glass windows that surround the perimeter and sparkling upon the golden stars that are painted against a deep blue in the vaults. Its walls seem weightless and almost nonexistent, surfaces of such translucence they create the illusion that the whole room is enveloped in glass, almost like a heavenly greenhouse built to grow and nurture faith. When night falls and the candelabras are lit, the effect is equally magical.
Sainte-Chapelle was originally commissioned by Louis IX to house his collection of holy relics, most especially the “authentic” crown of thorns and a fragment of the true cross, and was consecrated in April 1248. Although some might dismiss the historical claims of such relics, they were taken very seriously by medieval Christians and were treasured as objects in which the realm of the holy intersected with the earthly. These treasures, so highly valued, were kept out of general public view in an elaborate reliquary, but what the public could view—the magnificent stained glass windows of the chapel—was a treasure in itself.
The whole story of redemption, from creation to the end of time, unfolds on these windows. Particular emphasis was given to recounting the events of the passion of Christ and to the stories of the great kings of Old Testament history, those ancient Jewish rulers who were seen by the window’s designers as precursors to the kings of France. Therefore, the designs often make a nod to French royalty with their heraldic motifs, and one of the windows is particularly occupied with showing the rediscovery and relocation of the sacred relics. The large rose window in Sainte-Chapelle (to the visitor’s back as one faces the altar) takes the apocalypse as its theme, perhaps as a warning to those who stand outside this holy history.
Although the individual panes of stained glass in the overall design are not comparable to some of the finest individual panes found in places such as Chartres or Notre Dame, the overall effect created by being enveloped by soaring walls of glass is Sainte-Chapelle’s uniquely breathtaking achievement—it is filled with light. Light is a common metaphor for the experience of God’s power and glory, one used throughout the Scriptures (see Matt. 4:16; 5:16; John 8:12; 1 John 1:7; Rev. 21:23). It is not surprising, then, that the stained glass window became a common artistic way to express this glory and reveal the details of God’s story.
Stained glass windows are the work of artists and engineers who create them by taking small, shaped pieces of glass in a variety of colors, arranging them in an eye-pleasing design, and painting the finishing details onto their surfaces. These colored panes are held in place by an intricate web of leading that binds them together and incorporates them into the overall design of the window. This leading had to be both strong and pliable to hold the weight of the pieces of glass, yet give the artist freedom to be creative and innovative.
We find a mention of stained glass in churches as early as the fourth century, but the earliest examples were probably just colored glass installed in the windows for beautiful effect. It wasn’t until the twelfth century that painting details on the colored glass, and thus stained glass as we know it really came into its own. Around 1120 Theophilus wrote a book, The Various Arts, in which he included detailed instruction on how stained glass windows were made, and though there have been innovations, the central process is largely unchanged to this day.
Stained glass windows serve several major purposes in the context of a church or cathedral. First, they provide natural lighting for the interior of the building. Before the advent of electricity, the inside of these towering buildings would have been exceedingly dark and gloomy if it were not for the light streaming in through the many large windows. The technical innovations of cathedral construction in the transition from Romanesque to Gothic style allowed for much larger windows—and more of them. So they quickly became an important element in the overall impact of the cathedrals, which showcase the luminous windows as a major element in their design.
But the windows serve more than a practical purpose. They also heighten the aesthetic experience for worshipers by creating a mystical atmosphere of light. Shafts of light slanting down into the cathedral from the windows produce a play of light as dust motes dance in the shimmering illumination. These windows are a living metaphor for one of the goals of the Christian life—to allow God to shine through our lives and reflect His glory. We may never do so as well as these multicolored windows, but each of us can become a prism for radiating God’s light.