Birth of Christ depicted in colored glass

Out of a collection of more than 1,000 stained glass windows comprising one of the finest collections in North America, the "Light and Hope Exhibition" at Forest Lawn Museum in Glendale features five exquisite windows depicting the birth of Jesus Christ and two of his early childhood.

Backlighting brings the windows to life, achieving the desired effect of inspiration and spiritual alertness, by retelling the story with visual and emotive impact. The story begins with a window depicting the "Betrothal of Mary and Joseph", followed by the "Visitation between Mary and Elizabeth," "No Room in the Inn," "The Shepherds in the Stable" and the "Flight Into Egypt." The two childhood renderings are scenes of young Jesus in the temple at age 12 and as a young carpenter in Joseph's shop.

The early church understood the inspirational effect that beautiful radiant stained glass had on a culture in which literacy was rare, want and despair was abundant and hope through a relationship to God was paramount. Pilgrimages to cathedrals were rewarded by unimagined splendor and promise. Didactic windows communicated universally, transcending illiteracy and language, to teach Christian theology. Soaring cathedral ceilings, supported by walls punctuated with brilliant stained glass windows, became a conduit to God, and a source for the hope promised by the stories depicted. Pilgrimages to seek God became a way of life, a way to survive life.

The exact origin of stained glass is lost to history, but examples from the 10th century survive to teach us a little about its genesis. Like all art forms, stained glass evolved into styles, born in different regions. The Light and Hope windows were created by the Franz Mayer and Company of Munich, Germany and date back to 1903. They were once part of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Buffalo, N.Y., and were purchased by Forest Lawn when the church was remodeled in the 1970s.

The German craftsmen were influenced by Renaissance masters, particularly Raphael and Michelangelo, as part of a revival of religious paintings on windows. They are stylistically romantic pictorial style, and are recognized for their elaborate and finely executed painting on relatively large glass panes of irregular shape. The glass pictures are fired and held together with a leaded framework. This "Munich" style is known for religious subject matter, brilliant jewel tones, elaborate patterns on fabrics and borders with floral motifs, scrolling leaves and scallops. The romantic style was based on a belief that nature could be a source for spiritual experience.

The window that depicts Jesus as a young carpenter is an excellent example of the natural border and classical iconography, or symbolism, which serves as a visual vocabulary to teach viewers the stained glass story. The holy family, Mary, Joseph and Jesus, are crowned with halos, each with symbols to indicate their unique position in the holy hierarchy. Joseph's halo is less elaborate indicating that he is a sacred person. Mary's is ornate, signifying her holiness and Jesus' is decorated with three crosses, foreshadowing his destiny, the number three representing his place in the trinity; father, son and holy spirit. Jesus is fabricating a cross, indicating his obedience to God, and acceptance of his fate on earth.

The narrative of the holy family is threaded throughout the seven Hope and Light windows. The story told, and characters identified, through symbols, which are consistent throughout. Look for Mary in blue, lilies symbolizing purity, doves representing the holy spirit and the variations in halos indicating rank in the holy hierarchy. These are only a few visual words in the symbolic vocabulary that make the narrative. It is worth the pilgrimage to Forest Lawn Museum, to be inspired and reminded of what we celebrate this time of year.

Terri Martin is an artist, art historian, and art critic.

Infobox:

What: Light and Hope: The Forest Lawn Christmas Windows

Where: Forest Lawn Museum, 1712 S. Glendale Ave., Glendale

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday until Feb. 7

Contact: (323) 340-4921 or http://www.forestlawn.com

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