Tricentennial Thursday: Stained-glass sleuths rewarded at St. Alphonsus

By Beth Donze, Clarion Herald

Although they are difficult to make out from the ground floor of St. Alphonsus Church in New Orleans, the unpretentious stained-glass emblems located along the church’s balcony level hint at a much larger story.

Each of these lofty images has a thematic connection to the main stained-glass scene directly below it.

  • For example, stained-glass renderings of a priest’s chalice and the Ten Commandments loom above the ground-floor window depicting the teenage Jesus preaching in the temple.
  • Three lilies and a dove holding an olive branch in its mouth adorn the upper reaches of the main church window portraying the Annunciation – reminders, respectively, of the Blessed Mother’s virginity and the Holy Spirit within her.
  • An ark carrying a church sails above the window that chronicles the Three Kings’ visit to Bethlehem – connecting our earthly pilgrimage as “church” to that of the royal trio.

Artistic storytelling

“When church artists lay out their designs, they lay them out to tell a story, so the images along the balcony were deliberately laid out to correspond to the window scenes down below,” said Armand Bertin, a tour guide at St. Alphonsus Church, built in 1856 by the city’s Irish Catholic immigrants and now managed as a center of Catholic culture by the eponymous “Friends of St. Alphonsus” group.

Bertin said the riveting connections between St. Alphonsus’ upper and lower stained-glass panels, installed in 1890, were lost in translation after second-floor balconies were added to accommodate the church’s growing congregation. The balconies blocked sight lines, preventing observers from appreciating the full story the windows were designed to tell. Because modern-day visitors to the Irish Channel church rarely are permitted to climb the long and winding stairways to the second level, inspection of the windows’ upper panels is next to impossible.

“But back when the church was full – it was built for 2,000 congregants – the balconies were used, so the images would be seen,” Bertin said.

Reading stained glass in ornate churches such as St. Alphonsus provides hours of educational and spiritual fun. It is gratifying, for example, when even a child can understand why the stained-glass artist decided to place the Alpha and the Omega atop the main church window depicting the Nativity.

Some of the symbols require a bit more legwork to decipher.

For example, the stained-glass rose on the balcony level of a church window seems purely decorative until the observer walks downstairs to see the flower within its larger context – as part of the magnificent window depicting the marriage of Mary and Joseph.

Next to this rose, a stained-glass monogram uniting the initials “A” and “M” remains a mystery until research reveals it to be shorthand for “Ave Maria” (Hail Mary) – a 19th-century “shout-out” from the stained-glass artist to the bride pictured below.

Symbolism is particularly rich in the window that illustrates “The Agony in the Garden.” As the Apostles sleep, the friendless Jesus is visited by the Angel of Death (artistically identifiable, says Bertin, through his multi-colored wings).

The foreshadowing of Christ’s Passion continues in the window’s upper reaches: a rooster alerts viewers of yet another apostolic betrayal – St. Peter’s three-time denial of Christ; a scourging whip and cluster of thorny reeds foretell the instruments of torture to be used against Jesus; and a crown of thorns, spiked by a cattail, are parodies of royalty used by the crowd to mock Jesus (the crown of thorns mimics a Roman emperor’s crown of roses, while the cattail suggests a king’s scepter).

Biographies in stained glass

In addition to the “vertical stories” that play out between St. Alphonsus’ upper and lower stained-glass panels are two epic narratives that unfold horizontally, on flanking sides of the church.

On the left, the story of the Blessed Mother rolls out chronologically, beginning with Mary’s presentation in the temple, accompanied by her parents St. Anne and St. Joachim, and ending with her crowning in heaven (Mary and Christ are seated together on a rainbow).

Beneath this jubilant scene of “Mary, Queen of Heaven” is a much more somber event not specifically referred to in Scripture: “The Death of St. Joseph.” The adult Jesus is pictured blessing St. Joseph at his bedside and the soon-to-be-widowed Mary is in prayer, her eyes in a daze.

This death scene is known for an oddity that would have been lost to history had it not been passed down by generations of St. Alphonsus parishioners: a self-portrait of the stained-glass artist himself – F.X. Zettler of Munich – peeks through St. Joseph’s bedroom door.

 

Jesus’ story unfurls

Opposite from this Marian side of the church, along the church’s right-hand walls, are windows that retrace Jesus’ story, from his birth in Bethlehem to his Ascension.

The window portraying the Nativity, a rare depiction of Jesus being born at night, bathes its subjects in varying degrees of light, from the fully illuminated Baby Jesus, to the slightly less luminous faces of his parents, to the more dimly lit shepherds.

The stained-glass window showing Jesus being crowned with thorns was intentionally designed to reflect the many cultural groups that were present in the surrounding neighborhood at the time of the church’s construction. Faces of Irish, German, African, Native American and Asian men are part of the crowd taunting Jesus as he is crowned “King of the Jews.”

“The depiction reminds us that we all crowned Jesus with thorns,” Bertin said.

At the top of this somber window, a much happier scene tells the faithful the rest of the story – the part that even death cannot touch: Christ stands triumphantly outside the walls of his tomb. He is risen.

What stories do your church’s stained-glass windows tell? Write to Beth Donze at bdonze@clarionherald.org.

Click here to view the Clarion Herald flipbook, “River of Faith: 300 Years as a New Orleans Catholic Community – 1718-2018”

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