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Our Lady of Grace, Dearborn Heights, Michigan

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Featured Windows, June 2010

Pilgrims of God: Dressed for the Spiritual Journey


First Presbyterian Church - Royal Oak, Michigan

Central Avenue Christian Reformed Church - Holland, Michigan

First Congregational United Church of Christ - Kalamazoo, Michigan

Although paintings were banned from the main body of churches during the Protestant Reform, the interiors were nevertheless enriched with ornate choir screens, pulpits, and tombs that had sayings from Holy Scripture or illustrations of Old Testament stories as a fund of moral exempla. In addition, costly stained glass windows that had not served a liturgical purpose were retained, provided they did not contain any overtly catholic motifs. Notwithstanding the objections of a few theologians, the stained glass windows in Calvinist churches, town halls, and other public buildings were seen as a perfect way of teaching standards and values. In America many Protestant churches of all denominations paid homage not only to the stained glass “portraits” of the moral leaders of the Reform, but also to the fundamental beliefs embodied in the spiritual journeys of faith represented by the Pilgrim Fathers and Mothers, who journeyed to the New World.

“Pilgrims,” a term denoting the Separatist group of Puritanism, whose members left the Church of England, derived their Protestant tradition from Calvinist ideology shaped by the prayerful reliance on the Bible, particularly the New Testament, emulating Jesus Christ as a guide for discipleship. The Puritan spiritual journey to heaven was a concept that Puritans inherited from medieval mystical writers and biblical prototypes. They found in the “pilgrim” metaphor a powerful instrument for interpreting their individual and communal lives geographically, as well as spiritually. Living their lives sanctioned by the Book of Hebrews as pilgrims on earth, they sought the heavenly city of God’s Kingdom.”

The flight from England to Leyden, Holland, and then to the New World was an obvious emblem of the biblical pattern of bondage and redemption, wilderness testing, and the reward of the promised land, through stages of spiritual death and resurrection.

Pilgrim’s Progress Central Ave. Christian Reformed Church, Holland, MI (MSGC 2000.0020)

The stained glass window Pilgrim’s Progress represents the spiritual journey of “Christian” written by John Bunyan, a vivid “genre” of spiritual biography that takes the reader on a journey of faith through episodes of Divine promise and the temptations of Satan’s lair. Written in the seventeenth century, it stands as a didactic allegory of the Puritan understanding of Christian personal responsibility for salvation. Fictional characters like “Christian” envisioned themselves like Moses and Saint Paul, who embodied the Judaic-Christian moral teachings of the law and its fulfillment through Jesus Christ, as they embarked on a pilgrimage of faith.

These spiritual “mentors” flank “Christian’s” expedition to the celestial city, symbolically protecting and guiding him toward eternal life. Wearing similar attire, “Christian” dons an unadorned tunic (a long shirt or undergarment) and paenula, (a cloak-like outer garment) both forerunners of ecclesiastical vestments, as he forges his way through the desert of testing. A “girdle” around his waist keeps the tunic in place, giving him the “strength” promised in Ephesians 6:-14 which states “so stand ready, with truth as a belt tight around your waist.”

It appears that the character of “Evangelist” in Bunyan’s narrative emerges as a specter, closely following behind “Christian” guiding him along the path. Evangelist’s body is an anthropomorphic faceless shadow attired in monastic dress of a tunic with hood. Upon close reading of the image, blossoming foliage sprouts from an invisible hand and uppermost crown, symbolic of God’s wisdom and knowledge, allegorically represented in the Tree of Life. Transforming his identity through costume, a simply attired character like “Christian” can march forward, embodying Christ’s life from vocation to service in the prospect of sharing in his glory.

In the right and left lower corners of the window, both Moses and Paul wear a variation of the same tunic with a pallium draped across their shoulders. A pallium was typically a rectangle three times as long as it was broad, wrapped around the body in a natural manner. Favored by the early Christians, Janet Mayo affirms that the pallium had been worn by Christ and his apostles as well as the philosophers and thinkers of the Greek and civilized world.

One of several references to costume in biblical literature is the paenula. Cited in 2 Timothy 4; 13, Saint Paul writes: “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.” His cloak was probably a paenula and, according to Mayo, it came in a variety of shapes, typically covering the shoulders and long-enough to reach below the knees with a hole in the center for the head. “Christian” is appropriately clothed walking toward the hillside crosses of Calvary which are repeated below him in the center of the window’s composition, “upholding” him as he marches toward salvation.

The Relief at Leyden, First Presbyterian Church, Royal Oak, MI (MSGC 1996.0051)

The Relief at Leyden is a pictorial narrative of a group of English Calvinist dissenters known as Separatists, who fled persecution under Queen Elizabeth I and her successor King James in order to take up residence in Leyden, Holland in 1609. The window depicts a journey fraught with many of the same travails (betrayal, imprisonment, loss, and humiliation) that besieged Bunyan’s “Christian” on his expedition. Four men peer over tower ledges observing the four people in the sea anxious to board the sailing vessel. Dressed in “papal vestments,” their monk like robes are similar to a dalmatic (an ungirdled tunic with hood) symbolizing the Church of England the Separatists abhorred and are “swimming” past.

On the left of the window panel, safety is within arms length as the Pilgrim leaders, who have found “sanctuary” on board, offer rest to those who have crossed the dangerous waters. The sailing vessel’s protruding canons fuse with the “feet” of the pilgrim’s legs, embodying the weapons given to “Christian” in Bunyan’s tale. The ship, a telling metaphor for a new spiritual community, will carry this fleet to a new land similar to Bunyan’s narrative. Leyden’s metaphorical “celestial city” is noted in the white glass of the delineated temple –like framed arch surrounding and sanctioning the Puritan exiles as they arrive “on deck.”

Dressed in seventeenth century clothing, three men perhaps representing William Brewster, William Bradford, and John Robinson, leaders of the Separatist expedition, stand at ship’s edge in readiness to receive the refugees. In the forefront of the ship one of the gentlemen, possibly John Robinson who was publicly ordained as the minister to the Leyden congregation, extends his hand as if in a blessing. Puritan divines typically forfeited ecclesiastical vestments, ministering to their people in simple everyday dress. Fashionable seventeenth century suits from England were made from plainer silk materials usually embellished with embroidery and interlined with wool. The artist has chosen to represent this ship-faring minister wearing a suit comprised of a cut and pinked yellow peasecod –fronted doublet, which originally was used as an outer garment (jacket). It was worn with full petticoat type -breeches and long trunk hose. The suit was usually of one material although the doublet was of a richer material while the cape and the breeches matched.

Interestingly, the rendering of this gentleman’s “cape” can be traced from an archetypal spiritual garment resembling the “paenula” type cloak; similar to the one “Christian” sports on his spiritual journey. This similarity is made more sound by the lack of collar around his neck. The “paenula” is fastened about a bare neck, a conspicuous deficiency in the portrayal of seventeenth century male dress, further identifying this gentleman (Robinson perhaps) with Bunyan’s pilgrim “Christian.”

John Robinson (1576-1625) First Congregational Church, Kalamazoo, MI (MSGC 1997.0030)

John Robinson was pastor of the Separatist group of English Pilgrims at Leyden, Holland where he preached and wrote on the Separatists’ position. He encouraged their emigration to America in 1620, but his “geographic” pilgrimage ended in Leyden with most of his congregation. As the quintessential pilgrim he believed in the necessity of an enlightened, scholarly ministry and an educated laity. In Leyden he lived out his beliefs that the people were the church, an independent community apart from kings and bishops.

We find John Robinson ‘imagining” a journey he was never able to make. He glances upward toward a ship that appears to already be on the open seas. Robinson is “grounded” in the Word of God symbolized by the Bible juxtaposed between his feet, emblematic of his own spiritual journey. A parchment type scroll rests alongside his right shoe demonstrating his redemption and assurance of salvation similar to the “parchment roll” which afforded “Christian” salvation.

John Robinson is “dressed” in seventeenth-century attire similar to the first edition frontispiece of John Bunyan’s narrative that dreams about “Christian’s” spiritual pilgrimage to the celestial city (fig.4 Pilgrim’s Progress frontispiece).And while his longing and contemplative glance toward the Mayflower betrays the notion that he has reached his destination, Robinson’s glance is not a dream but only a momentary “glimpse” away from his writing about the pilgrimage he has already taken. As an ordained Reform minister he renounced traditional ecclesiastical dress such as the surplice, known as “popish rags.” He wears a conservative knee length coat, which mimics the Anglican cassock. This long single -buttoned coat (typically worn over a waistcoat) was worn with black knee breeches, buckled shoes and white fallen band collars (typical of Congregational, Presbyterian and Reform churches), and was usually made from linen. This three piece suit was worn under a long “preaching” or Geneva gown typically featuring double bell sleeves which arose out of the Reformation.

Like Bunyan, Robinson’s reverie depicts the hope he has for his own “pilgrims” as they cross the same “rivers” as “Christian” in their souls' journey to unity with Christ, as symbolized by the “water” arrivals in Leyden or the New World ship. Representation of water crossings noted in all of the stained glass images can be traced to the last stage on Christian’s pilgrimage where it is only in faith (as a bridge), that Christian can complete his journey as symbolized in the final test of his devotion; crossing a deep river with no bridge in order to arrive at the New Jerusalem.

The traveling “paenula,” metaphorically represented as “Christian’s” cloak in the Pilgrim Progress window and the cape of the seventeenth century “pilgrim” leader depicted in the Relief of Leyden, is now replaced with what appears to be a full length Geneva gown as part of Robinson’s attire, conveying the authority and solemn duty of the ministry he hoped to uphold. More importantly it represents the permanency of his destination and conclusion of his journey as “pilgrim.”

The stained glass windows depict the pilgrims’ physical and spiritual journeys in thematic elements, metaphors and conventional emblems and costumes. Stained glass artists such as John Vanderburgh have demonstrated the “pilgrims’” rootlessness and longing for a “home” in the artfully incised inscription in the Pilgrim’s Progress window which reads “For we have no abiding city, but we seek one to come, the New Jerusalem.”

Bibliography: Show Bibliography

(MSGC 2000.0020; 1997.0030; 1996.0051)

Text by Linda Johnson, MSU American Studies doctoral candidate, Michigan Stained Glass Census, June , 2010.