Ecclesiastical Architecture (6)

Lighting and pews are the last two major aspects of a sanctuary’s architecture. Although they may seem more like necessary incidentals, they actually make strong theological statements. This week, we will look at lighting.

Pagan places of worship are typically dark places. Look at the window-less Aztec temples, the after-sunset Druid ceremonies, the dark interiors of Bhuddist temples. They are all architectural expressions of a spiritual reality: “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed” (John 3:20). “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4).

In contrast, Christian places of worship are places of light, theologically and physically. Until the late 19th century, this meant that sanctuaries put a lot of effort and money into windows. This is why the cathedrals of Europe have massive windows on all sides of the sanctuary, illuminating every corner of the nave. Sunlight filtered through thousands of panes of coloured glass created a dazzling display of brightness.

The Reformation changed what sort of windows churches installed. Roman Catholic stained glass almost always depicted Jesus and Roman Catholic saints. The Protestants removed them. Open any European history textbook to the Reformation section, and you will probably find the author lambasting the iconoclasts as ignorant philistines. But the Reformers were not uncultured, riot happy people. Instead, they were acting from principle.

Pictorial stained glass in churches has always depicted Bible characters, most often the incarnate Christ. In congregations which understood portrayals of any person of the Trinity as a remnant of Roman Catholicism at best, and blasphemous at worst, the windows had to go. The Incarnate Word, they firmly believed, was to be revealed in the preached Word, not the windows.

Decorative stained glass – windows with designs instead of pictures – has been the Protestant norm until the Victorian period, when companies like Tiffany became highly popular and the Oxford Movement influenced much of the Protestant world with a Roman Catholic touch.

But why have stained glass at all? Why not simply have normal windows? So that you cannot see out of the them. Large windows, placed around the sanctuary would offer multiple opportunity for distraction if they had standard glass. Decorative stained glass allows light to flood in while blocking the outside world from view. It enables worshipers to concentrate on the eternally important happenings in the sanctuary, instead of being distracted by the people, places, or weather outside.

With electric lighting, it is easier to illuminate the interior of a church with less thought to the windows. But even there, theology plays a role. Do the light fixtures look like they belong in a church or a workshop? A place of worship, or a place of entertainment? A sanctuary, or a kitchen? God is a holy God of beauty, and ugly or out of place fixtures do not facilitate worship.

“God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). Our sanctuaries should reflect this, even as we look forward to the day when we will not need windows or light fixtures: “And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev. 21:23).