Poetic Splendor in Color and Light: The Connick Foundation’s Orin E. Skinner Annual Lecture – Br. Curtis Almquist

Dr. Charles Connick believed that stained glass is “the handmaiden of architecture.”  Quite.  We experience in this monastery chapel the extraordinary synergy of two devoted friends, who both were artisans and spiritual seekers: Ralph Adams Cram, the architect, and Charles J. Connick, the glassman.  You have to be prepared to take it all in.  As a visitor, you don’t simply walk into this monastery chapel from Memorial Drive.

First you must ascend, you must climb the steps.  Most of the cadence of monastic prayer is based on the Psalms, which are chanted in this monastery chapel from early morning, before the dawn, until the completion of the night before we sleep.  Many of the Psalms are Psalms of Ascent: about lifting one’s step, lifting one’s heart, lifting one’s hands, lifting one’s eyes to the holy place where God dwells.  You must reenact that posture of ascent to enter this chapel as you necessarily ascend the steps, but then you must do one more thing.  You cannot enter the chapel full stride.  As you will know, at the top of the steps, you are forced to turn before you enter the rear door of the chapel, the antechapel.  That turning is an experience of conversion.  The word “conversion,” as the word appears in the New Testament Greek, means just that: “to turn,” to turn in a new direction in response to God.  To enter this chapel you willingly ascend, and then you must change course – an act of conversion – before you cross over a threshold.

What you then experience is liminality.  The English word “liminal” comes from the Latin, limen, which is a “threshold,” an in-between space, what the ancient Celtics called “a thin space.” It’s where you can get in touch with two realities simultaneously: liminality.  On the one hand, you come into this chapel, this holy space, and you are very much grounded.  Nothing could be heavier than a floor of undressed slate and polished marble, and the serene walls of granite.  No matter how much you may feel your life is adrift, when you come into this space, you are grounded.  You are held steady.  And then the limestone Gothic arches, columns, pillars, and capitals lift your gaze to the light of the heavens with the beautiful rose window that crowns the antechapel, and the clerestory windows that line the choir.  It is this experience, both of being grounded and surrounded by terra firma and, simultaneously, being elevated up on high, where we can experience the light of God’s countenance shining upon us, that makes this chapel such a liminal space.1

This is one of the things that so many people are looking for in life: to be fully alive as a human being, fully vested in life in the here-and-now, and, at the same time, to be able to see through this life the traces of the glory of God the Creator, who is the beginning and end of our lives.  In a space such as this, we are reminded how the skill of artisans can engage the primordial elements of this earth – wood, stone, iron, sand – in a way that is iconic.  This chapel is an icon.  An icon is a window through which to see God, and a window through which God can see us.  That actually explains the origin of the English word “window.”  Our word “window” comes from thirteenth-century Old Norse, quite literally “wind eye,” an opening through which to see and be seen.2  Long before there was glass; and before then, long before windows were covered with paper, or oiled animal hides, or translucent animal horn, or thinly-sliced pieces of marble, a window was simply a windy hole in the thatched roof or the mud wall that opened the sight to the light.

And that is the other thing that so many people are looking for: light.  Light to enlighten the darkness of life.  We live with so many questions, so many unknowns, and some days, so many fears.  Light chases away the darkness.3  But not too much light.  Too much light can be blinding or searing; too much light can be exposing in a way that can leave you feeling unsafe and unsettled, like being caught in a spotlight.  A place that is a sanctuary – this monastery chapel is a sanctuary – has an intermingling of light and darkness and shadows in between.  Sometimes we need to be enshrouded by light; sometimes we need to be enwombed by darkness.  Enlightenment comes with its own cost, what the Welsh poet, R. S. Thomas, called “the wound of knowledge.”4   You cannot not know what you’ve come to know in life.  Sometimes God keeps us in the dark from what we’re not yet ready to know.  This is what the psalmist is asking God: “Hide us under the shadow of your wings.”5  Being hidden in the shadows.  Saint Paul writes about this in his First Letter to the Corinthians, a scriptural passage that Dr. Connick found intriguing: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”6   A sanctuary – a place of safety and holiness – will have an intermingling of light and darkness, enough of both.  This monastery chapel is a sanctuary.

There is another quality that informed the design and crafting of this chapel, an invisible quality, and yet clearly perceptible.  And that is humility.  Both Ralph Adams Cram and Charles J. Connick were not building a monastery chapel as a towering edifice to rival the soaring beauties of neighboring Harvard University.  Both of these men said their prayers.  Both of these men clearly believed their artistic prowess came from a higher power – from God the Creator – and though they were master artisans in their own right, they also saw themselves as servants of the God who gave them inspiration.

In the case of Dr. Connick, as a young man he set off on a passionate exploration to learn not just the technical art of making the finest stained glass, but also to understand something of the souls of the greatest glassmakers of Europe in the early Middle Ages.  How did they create such great beauty without getting lost in their craft, lost in their own glory, wonder, and fame?  Dr. Connick especially became a student of the great French medieval Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres, whose construction was begun in the late 12th century.  Chartres clearly held an answer to his life’s quest: how he was to hone and practice his craft in the presence of God.  He concluded that the medieval glassmen had learned two things: one, the particular genius, what Connick called “the glassiness of glass” as honestly and as thoroughly as their brother artisans had learned the workable qualities of wood and stone.  And secondly, he concluded that in the 12th century, the glassmakers’ working knowledge of light and color in glass were used as a medium for praise and prayer, not primarily as a means of making money.7  Their craft was the prayer of their life.  Dr. Connick became convinced that stained glass could transmit light to the soul.  It was certainly true for him, personally.  He would make it true for others.

For Dr. Connick, this quality of humility, infused into the chapel’s stained glass, would be tested by the refiner’s fire again and again as his own fame increased.  So many people across the United States were looking to the Connick Studio in Boston – among them Ralph Adams Cram – for what was recognized as the finest stained glass produced in this country.8  There was every temptation to be spectacular in his craft.  Rather, Connick saw in this an invitation not to rival but to cooperate with other artisans in the enrichment of a consecrated interior. Connick said, for the glassman, “when [the] interior is already influenced by the work of other craftsmen, the problem tests the quality of his spirit as well as the richness of his talent.”  He concluded, “Such a task appeals only to the craftsman whose spiritual equipment includes humility.”9 Some of Jesus’ own words fit the spirit of the Connick Studio: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”1

Another of Charles Connick’s personal qualities, mediated through the windows of this chapel, is the gift of joy.  He said, “I want to make beautiful interiors for both churches and souls. I want people to hear my windows singing…”  And sing they do.  Inspired by the twelfth- and thirteenth-century European glassmakers whose creations Connick had absorbed at Chartres and other great churches in Europe, Connick concluded the twelfth-century glassmakers were “children of light.”  He said, “Evidently they seized upon bits of colored glass with enthusiasm, and used them to sing forth the joy and praise that were in their hearts awaiting just such an opportunity.”11  And so in this chapel.

The monastery chapel is dedicated to Saint Mary the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist.  The windows behind the high altar represent our patrons, Saint John (on your right), gazing at the cross, and Saint Mary (on your left).  Notice the color blue is so predominant in these two windows and in the windows of the entire chapel.  Blue is the color traditionally associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary, because blue is the color of the heavens.  The angels came to young Mary, out of the blue, to announce that she would bear the Christ Child.  And later, tradition has it the Blessed Virgin Mary was assumed into the heavens, where she was ascribed the title, “The Queen of Heaven.”  Interestingly enough, it so happens that, on the color spectrum, blue is the hue that radiates more than any other color.12  The chapel is bathed in blue light.

The three round windows in Saint John’s Chapel (on your right) depict scenes from the life of Saint John:

  • Saint John writing his vision, what we would call the Revelation to John, the last Book of the New Testament.
  • Saint John’s vision of Christ, clothed with a long robe, with a golden sash, his hair white as wool, his eyes like a flame of fire.  This scene also comes from the Book of Revelation.
  • And then a scene much earlier in his life when John was a fisherman here mending his nets. Jesus called over to him, “Come follow me,” and John did just that.

The window at the “squint” in the back of Saint John’s Chapel depicts Jean-Baptiste Vianney, the 19th century Curé dʹArs and patron of parish priests.  He is listening to a troubled soul.

The most amazing Rose Window, is a wonderful example of what Dr. Connick called “a playground for the afternoon sun,” and it represents heaven.13  The central medallion shows the Blessed Virgin Mary being crowned as the Queen of Heaven.  The four vertical and horizontal petals are the stations for the archangels protecting the Blessed Virgin:

  • On the top, Saint Michael with the white sword;
  • Below, Saint Gabriel with the white lilies;
  • On the left, Saint Raphael with the pilgrim’s staff;
  • On the right, Saint Uriel who is the Regent of the Sun.

The outer rim depicts angels singing, swinging incense thuribles, blowing trumpets, and dancing for joy.  Such panoply!  This is what “Hallelujah” looks like.  The word “Hallelujah,” which appears so often in the Psalms, does not have any kind of saccharine quality of triumphalism or denial or escape.14  “Hallelujah” is not a flippant or fluffy word.  “Hallelujah” is simply a willful, joyful expression of praise for God.  It is a bold, informed, obeisant acknowledgment of who God is and what God does, in God’s way on God’s time.  The word does not appear in the Gospel according to Matthew or Mark or Luke or John.  The word “Hallelujah” does not appear anywhere in the New Testament except in one chapter of the Revelation to John.15 It’s like the last word.  In the Revelation to John, which is a dream-like vision of what is and what is to come, the word “Hallelujah” is a chant of the choirs of heaven.  The word is sung in the heavens in a striking contrast with the situation on earth, where evil and suffering have become so tangible.  “Hallelujah” is sung in the heavens, where the travail of earth and the glory of God are finally joined together in God’s coming kingdom, the very thing we ask for in the Lord’s prayer: “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it shall be in heaven.”16 This Rose Window is what “Hallelujah” looks like.

Below the Rose Window are three panels:

  • In the center, the Virgin Mary holding Jesus.
  • On the left, the Shepherds visiting the Holy Family in Bethlehem.
  • On the right, the three Magi, who come from the east bearing gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – for the Christ Child.

The Lady Chapel, in the rear, has five lancet windows representing the fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary:

  • The Joyful Mysteries (bottom windows, left to right): the annunciation, the visitation, the nativity, the presentation in the temple, and finding Christ in the temple
  • The Sorrowful Mysteries (middle windows, left to right): the agony in the garden, the scourging, crowning with thorns, carrying the cross, and crucifixion
  • The Glorious Mysteries (top windows, left to right): the resurrection, the ascension, the descent of the Holy Spirit, the assumption of the Virgin Mary, and the coronation of the Virgin Mary

The sixteen Clerestory Windows above the choir represent men who were founders of religious orders.  The windows begin with Saint Anthony of Egypt, the 3rd century Patriarch of Christian monasticism, then trace their way clockwise for the next 16 centuries: Saint Pachomius, Saint Basil the Great, Saint Augustine, Saint Benedict, Saint Columba, Saint Gregory, and Saint Bruno.  Moving to the other side of the choir, we see Saint Bernard, Saint Dominic, Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Ignatius Loyola, Saint John of the Cross, Saint Vincent de Paul, John Mason Neal, and lastly, Richard Meux Benson, who founded our own order, the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, in Oxford, year 1866.  Each of these clerestory windows has a medallion that depicts history or lore about the life of the particular founder.  My favorites are the crocodile (Saint Pachomius), a coracle (Saint Columba), and the Taj Mahal (Father Benson).

Finally, the two chapel windows I find most endearing are here to your left, the “Workmen’s Windows,” so-called because the trades people who built this chapel gave the gift of these two lancet windows to show, as they said, how privileged they were to do this work for the glory of  Almighty God.  They were working on the chapel during the Depression.

  • Saint Joseph (on the left) bears the miraculously flowering staff, and the medallion, below, shows the Holy Family in Joseph’s carpentry shop in Nazareth.
  • Saint Luke the Physician (on the right) bears the caduceus, the ancient symbol of medicine and healing.  Tradition has it he was also a painter.  He is shown painting a portrait of the Virgin Mary.  Very endearing.

The panel borders show symbols of many different trades and arts that were engaged to build this chapel: the metal worker with tongs and sheet of metal; the carpenter with hammer and nail; the mason with trowel and level; the plasterer with mortar board and trowel; the excavator with shovel; the plumber with a leaky faucet and wrench; the steam fitter with wrench and pipe; the electrician with his cable; the sculptor with chisel and mallet; the engineer with slide rule and book of calculation; the stained glass craftsman with glass and triangle on drawing board, and the architect with a compass.

Charles J. Connick looked for metaphors that were large enough to capture his experience of finely-crafted stained glass windows, with their peals of color.  One of his favorite metaphors was music, these magnificent windows as a “mysterious music to the eye.”17 He calls the windows “trumpets of rallying colors on sunny days,”18 and “like an orchestra of bells and harps in the wind.”19  He had learned from the ancient windows that “light changes constantly, and that a window balanced in light is more like music than it is like any sort of picture.  It sings in the light.”  He said, “I learned to listen to the shifting colors in glowing windows, much as I learned to listen to vibrant sounds in music.”2  Speaking of Chartres as well he could of this chapel, Dr. Connick said, “Those great lancets peal forth warm waves of color that recall vast passages for bass viols, brasses, and woodwinds in a gorgeous symphony.21

The music metaphor “rings true” to me in our experience of these resplendent windows.  If you were to listen to the music of an orchestra,  you could sit with a conductor’s score in your lap and focus your attention on the many parts playing before you: the technique, the interpretation, the balance, and the voice of the various instruments – the mesmerizing oboe solos, the sonorous sound of the trumpets, the tympani crescendos… or, rather, you could simply sit back and take it all in, listening to the production as a whole, from beginning to end.  And so with these windows.  You can listen to the music of these windows the same way.  You can individually take in the facets and features of any one window: the representations, the symbols, the shadows, the shades.  The detailing of this glass-art is absolutely stunning; it is magnificent.  Or you can stand back from the detail and take in the big picture, allowing the manifold colors, shapes, patterns, pieces play to your soul.  Do both.  For right now, in this moment, let the radiating glint of this afternoon’s sunset break through any clouds of despair that hang over you.  What you see here is the hope of heaven.

Blessed Ralph Adams Cram, Charles J. Connick, and Orin E. Skinner and their fellow artisans who have recreated here such beauty.


1 The psalmist prays (Psalm 80:7): “ Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”  See also Psalm 4:6; 44:3; 67:1; 80:3; 80:18; 90:8; 119:135.

2 “Window” – early 13c., lit. “wind eye,” from O.N. vindauga, from vindr “wind” + auga “eye.”  The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology. Robert K. Barnhart, ed. (New York: Harper Collins, 1995).

3 A prayer at Compline, the  monks’ night prayer: “Lighten our darkness, O Lord; and in your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of your only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ.”

4 R. S. Thomas (1913-2000) was a Welsh poet and Anglican clergyman.

5 Psalm 17:8.

6 Connick, p. 73, quoting 1 Corinthians 13:12.

7 Adventures in Light and Color by Charles J. Connick (New York: Random House, 1937); p. 6.

8 On December 29, 1945, The New York Times headlined a story: “C.J. CONNICK DIES; GLASS CRAFTSMAN; Considered World’s Greatest Artisan on Stained Windows –Works in Many Churches”; p. 13.

9 Connick, p. 11

10 Matthew 5:16.

11 Connick, pp. 21-22.

12 Dr. Connick reported that “some colors radiate – or spread – more than others. Blue is the color that radiates most; green, red and yellow follow with receding power.” Connick, p15.

13 “Playground for the sun,” one of Dr. Connick’s metaphors for the experience of a window, p. 40.

14 “Hallelujah” occurs in a number of Psalms, especially Psalms 111-117, where its position indicated that it was chanted as a kind of antiphon by the choir of the Levites.

15 The word “Hallelujah” appears four times in Revelation 19:1-10 and also in Tobit 13:8.

16 We read in the Gospel according to Mark: “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” (Mark 13:24-27)

17 Charles Connick in Adventures in Light and Color (New York: Random House, 1937).

18 Connick, p. 141.

19 Ralph Adams Cram: An Architect’s Four Quests – Medieval, Modernist, American, Ecumenical.  Douglass Shand-Tucci (Boston and Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005), p. 298.

20 Connick, p. 160.

21 Connick, pp. 35-36.

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  1. Ruth West on June 16, 2018 at 00:35

    Your wonderful descriptions make me long to visit the chapel there. The artisans who crafted all of that are, no doubt, in the nearer presence of our Lord God, enjoying the beauties of heaven. Thank you so very much for this piece.

  2. Gresh Lattimore on June 15, 2018 at 10:45

    Br Curtis, This is a marvelous explanation of the SSJE chapel! It would be great if it were made available to visitors and parishioners alike. There is a handout available, but your sermon brings in so much more! I’m printing this out and taking it with me the next time I visit! Thanks so much!

    Blessings, Gresh

  3. Jane on June 15, 2018 at 03:14

    Oh the beauty, the joy, the light and music that play out in your words as I picture a place I have never been and hear of the gifts, the creativity and humility of people I have never heard of…
    And all forever pointing upwards to our glorious King!
    My heart has been singing as I have read your words.
    Thank you, thank you.

  4. Margaret Dungan on June 29, 2015 at 08:58

    Dear Brother Curtis,

    A thousand thanks for this wonderful description.I hope one day I may be able to see the Chapel myself with this in hand but I almost feel as if I have seen it thanks to you.

  5. Jerry Mawhinney on June 27, 2015 at 10:28

    And blessed be you brother Curtis for depicting it in such beautiful and wonderous prose. You made me want to book a flight to Boston the minute I finished it. It is definitely on my bucket list. God’s grace, love, and peace be with you.

  6. Sallie on June 27, 2015 at 08:49

    a wonderful description, both physically and metaphorically. My architect husband would have loved it. But my spirit failed when you spoke of the ascent. When one has mobility problems there is no joy in an ascent- only determination, often pain, and when you get to the top, relief. But then maybe that is a metaphor too.

  7. Pam on October 11, 2014 at 17:17

    Thank you for this beautiful walk through the monastery chapel …….. You have been my eyes :). How wonderful it would be to sit in the colors and the light surrounded by those beautiful stories. I always loved to sit on the floor and pray by one of the stained glass windows at my church because at a certain time of day, the light would shine through and it was like I was sitting in the middle of a rainbow. It sounds like you are also….. The hope of Heaven :).

  8. Tinka Dawson on October 11, 2014 at 11:18

    The likelihood of my seeing these beautiful windows is slim, but I could hear their music through your words. Thank you.

  9. Barbara Frazer Lowe on June 7, 2014 at 10:52

    Thankyou Br.Almquist – You have given me the gift of being in the chapel, seeing every window, feeling its music, learning of the humility of it creation, background of Chartres (which I have visited and studied); I pray I may be fortunate enough to visit you; your gift is indelible.

  10. Kimberly Jackson on June 7, 2014 at 05:44

    This is an extraordinary, beautiful text. Thank you.

  11. Berjouhi Spencer on December 7, 2011 at 06:24

    Dear Brother Curtis,

    My sister, Charlene Arzigian, forwarded your lecture on the stained-glass windows at SSJE after I inquired about them during a recent visit to the Monastery. I not only read and listened to it, but also printed it to bring with me and follow your descriptions when I visit again. Having been to the Chartres Cathedral several times, I now recognize the intense blue quality in your chapel. I have always felt there was something familiar and comfortable in the atmosphere of SSJE – I think now it is the Chartres blue discreetly illuminating the granite and limestone and marble and slate – much like Our Lady of Chartres. I love your treatment of “liminality”. As a former Latin teacher, I often used the word for vocabulary development and sometimes just to have fun with my students – peppering them with my “subliminal” suggestions for self improvement.

    I took the liberty of forwarding the link to some of my friends at St. Christopher’s in Chatham.

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

    Berjouhi Spencer

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