Shortly before Easter last year, artisans from the DomCat Studios in Cape Coral began the intricate work of restoring the stained glass windows at the Episcopalian Trinity Cathedral in downtown Miami. Plywood boards replaced the windows where sunlight once filtered through the glass in vibrant kaleidoscopic color.
The Very Rev. Douglas Wm. McCaleb remembers trying to inspire his congregation during those initial dark days.
“Stained glass windows are the way the light gets in,” he told them during one sermon. “What do we do now that we don’t have all the saints looking down on us? We have to make our own light.”
In the week leading up to Palm Sunday this year, the cathedral’s stained glass windows went through a resurrection of sorts. After a year of absence, workers began replacing the clerestory windows, those on the upper level, which depict parables and the seven miracles of Christ.
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Easter naturally draws many South Floridians to churches enriched with stunning displays of stained glass designed to inspire awe, tell the stories of the Bible, and, in some cases, the story of South Florida. But visitors don’t have to be among the faithful to appreciate their beauty.
Students of local history may take a special interest in a window donated by Miami’s first mayor at Gesù Catholic Church or the one Miami’s first permanent physician gave to the First United Methodist Church after the death of his only son. At Trinity, a rose window as wide as a doubles tennis court pays tribute to Julia Tuttle, known as the Mother of Miami.
Art enthusiasts may want to head to West Palm Beach, where one of the country’s largest stained glass windows spans 75 feet and covers an entire wall of the Iglesia Adventista del Séptimo Día. The Window of the Radiant Christ was deemed so remarkable that AAA once listed it as an attraction in its tourist guides. Originally commissioned by the Union Congregational Church in 1981 and now the home of a Spanish-speaking Seventh-day Adventist Church in West Palm Beach, the window soars 27 feet from floor to ceiling as it depicts the life of Jesus from the old and new testaments.
Designed and executed by Conrad Pickel in his Vero Beach studio, the window took nine months to build and another five weeks to install. Ninety panels, weighing more than 160 pounds each, make up the mural. Set into aluminum H-frames, the panels were then caulked and sealed against the weather. The mural comprises more than 100 shades of glass, specially made for the project in Germany. The original glass weighed 10 tons; once installed, the window weighed in at 17 tons.
Conrad honed his craft in his native Germany, training at the famed Franz Mayer studio in Munich. His son, Paul, keeps the family tradition alive, using techniques that harken back to the 12th century.
As they listen to classical music, Pickel says, he and his staff start by drawing a full-size image of the window, which they recreate using pieces of hand-cut glass. They then connect the individual pieces of glass using grooved lead strips called cames. Details are hand-painted onto the glass, which is then fired in a kiln at 1,350 degrees Fahrenheit — as hot as some volcanic eruptions.
An alternate approach — known as the faceted glass process — adds an epoxy resin to the glass, where the translucent glass contrasts with the opaque epoxy. Only when the new windows are installed do their beauty and majesty fully reveal themselves and “you get that certain tingle,” he says.
Franz Mayer windows are also showcased at a mission church and chapel belonging to the parish of Father José Luis Menéndez, pastor of Miami’s Corpus Christi Catholic Church on Northwest Seventh Avenue. The main church features Craftsman-style windows from the 1920s obtained from a Chicago church that has long since been torn down and whose name has long since been forgotten. Two windows that Corpus Christi later commissioned in the same style feature two people who were killed by the Nazis at Auschwitz and later canonized by Pope John Paul II.
Franz Mayer artisans also created the crystal-leaded windows at Gesù Catholic Church in the early 1920s. The windows not only relay the events in the lives of Jesus and Mary, but also that of the history of Miami from its origin.
“Many of the windows were donated by the early settlers,” the Rev. Eduardo J. Alvarez says. The church was egalitarian when it came to representing the donors, some of whom came from modest means. The first mayor of Miami, John B. Reilly, was a donor, as was Julia Tuttle’s maid, Margaret Kearney. “The people who donated those windows paid $30,000 at the time, which was a lot of money,” Alvarez says. “But today those windows are priceless.”
Miami’s history also plays out in First United Methodist’s Italian-made windows. According to church historian Wilma Baggesen, Josiah Chaille, the man who designed Miami’s street grid, donated one of those windows, as did Dr. James M. Jackson, Miami’s first doctor and the man for whom Jackson Memorial Hospital is named. As for Trinity Cathedral, its rose window, with 83 panels of glass and a superimposed Latin cross, served as the only substantial monument to the city’s founder until 1961, when the Julia Tuttle Causeway was built.
For the faithful, the windows portraying the Easter story may be the most powerful, especially at this time of year. They can be found in many settings, from the exquisite chapel crafted by the Pickel studio at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Cemetery west of Miami International Airport, to First United Methodist’s precious Lamb of God, which symbolizes Jesus as the Paschal lamb that died to save mankind from eternal damnation. But nowhere is the Easter passion more dramatically displayed than at Epiphany Catholic Church in South Miami, where a stained glass cross with images of the Easter Triduum towers more than 60 feet above the altar. Amid images representing the Last Supper and the crucifixion, a starburst of light erupts from the center of the cross to symbolize the Easter resurrection.
Taken in their purest form, stripped of all religious and historical allusion, stained glass windows can have a profound effect on the psyche.
Just as stained glass windows served to lead man out of the Dark Ages by illuminating churches with brilliant colors that seemed to dance as the sun moved across the sky, today even modern versions of those windows tend to enhance the religious experience. For the modern parishioner, stained glass windows dim the glare of the outside world to provide a spiritual haven that is both cavernous and calm.
“Today, I think that what people want from a church is to have an atmosphere,” says Corpus Christi’s Menéndez, “an atmosphere that is not bright lights, but something in the dark, something that will concentrate their hearts.”