Power Windows

By | January 7, 2015

A few years ago, while in England, I visited Canterbury Cathedral. (We were on a pilgrimage and we all told tales as we trekked southward, a doughy poet feverishly writing them all down in rhyming couplets; and as the Miller told his tale, our faces, at first just ghostly, turned a whiter shade of pale. We continue.) The first cathedral at Canterbury dates from A.D. 602, dedicated by St. Augustine. It was destroyed by fire in 1067 and over the next couple of centuries was rebuilt into the magnificent structure we can visit today.

DigNirv-010715-Stained GlassOne of the most notable features of the cathedral—aside from the shrine to Thomas Becket, who had rather a bad day there in 1170—is the stained glass. Indeed, Canterbury Cathedral contains more than 1,200 square meters of stained glass which, like the stained glass found in many a medieval church and cathedral, depicts stories from the Bible, as well as other related events, lives of the saints, and so on. Some of Canterbury’s windows also depict the life of St. Thomas (Becket). The stained glass was not just decorative, although it certainly is that; medieval stained glass is quite beautiful. Much of it did, however, serve a more practical purpose: back in the Middle Ages, prior to the invention of printing, the vast majority of the population was illiterate. Stained glass windows (not all of them, but most cathedrals had various picture series) were a communication medium, a form of visual storytelling. (The verbally related tales that Chaucer’s pilgrims told on the way to the shrine to Thomas Becket were also a dominant form of communication at the time.)

(Quick quiz: what’s the difference between a church and a cathedral? The latter contains the cathedra, or the seat where the bishop sits. It’s not true, though, that bishops can only move diagonally.)

Anyway, in the sixteenth century, there was a revolt against all things iconic, and many churches and cathedrals throughout Europe saw their stained glass and other iconography destroyed. (Whence the word iconoclast, “breaker or destroyer of images.”) Canterbury was spared much of this destruction, although the English Civil War brought damage to some of the windows. (The German bombing of England during World War II also took a bit of a toll.)

However, a recent Wall Street Journal story (via Gizmodo) identifies a new threat to stained glass or, more specifically, the stained glass industry—one with which our own industry is not unfamiliar. (And if you didn’t know that there even was a stained glass industry, you are not alone.)

[C]hurch architects and experts say modern churches rely more on video and photo slideshows, which they say connect with attendees more than the static imagery of stained glass. “They want to have it dark, so they can project PowerPoint onto a screen,” says Richard Gross, editor of Stained Glass Quarterly.

There is a Stained Glass Association of America, the industry trade group, which

has seen membership dwindle to around half of its peak size of 900 during the 1970s. The annual conference draws about half the number of attendees it once did, and SGAA officials say they have privately considered broadening the group’s name.

One can’t ignore the fact that stained glass is really expensive. That, combined with the inevitable force of modernization, the desire to appear modern to bring in the parishioners, and the fact that stained glass uses decidedly static imagery, have all led new churches to use LED screens or HD projectors to display dynamic content like text, video, images, and PowerPoints (and, perhaps St. Paul’s First Email to the Ephesians).

As a result, stained glass manufacturers are looking at potential secular installations to keep their businesses going, such as casinos, retail establishments, restaurants, hospitals, and private homes.

And, hey, the stained glass industry has a “Dr. Doom,” too:

Kenneth F. von Roenn saw this trend coming nearly four decades ago. At an industry conference inside a Nevada hotel, Mr. von Roenn says he tried to warn his fellow artisans, urging them to shift focus to nonreligious buildings, in a speech called “Time to Jump Ship.”

His advice won a lot of glassy-eyed stares and little applause…

You might even call him an iconoclast.

Here is a case of individuals and companies in a market that are seeking alternate, more technological alternatives, and as a result those individuals and companies are altering their production (such as adopting a cheaper, more efficient way of producing the stained glass) and actively seeking new markets beyond their traditional ones.

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