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Detail of 'Hymn of the Universe' by Sadie McLellan. Picture by Barbara Robertson
Detail of 'Hymn of the Universe' by Sadie McLellan. Picture by Barbara Robertson

Windows on the Mystery of God

Thursday January 15 2015

The Rev Allan McCafferty is convener of the Stained Glass Group of the Church of Scotland’s Committee on Church Art 
and Architecture. Here he shares some of the stained glass windows that are important to him.

 

I have enjoyed looking at stained glass for as long as I can remember.

Such windows have a quality somehow missing in other art works. Why is that? 
If you look at a painting, sculpture, piece
 of furniture or indeed most things, light bounces off the items in question, enters our eyes, and so we see them. However with stained glass it is a bit different because we are dealing not only with reflected light but also transmitted light - light that shines through the window.

I always remember a stained glass window in Granton Parish Church (above, picture by Norman Smith). I was a student attached there when training for the ministry. It is a simple window but I think the simplicity is what makes it work so well. A blue cross, with the letters IHS (a monogram of the name of Jesus) and besides that, red drops. It takes the worshipper straight to the heart of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, and every time I walked down the aisle of the church I was reminded of that.


 

For 17 years I lived in Orkney and from Kirkwall East Manse I could see St Magnus Cathedral, the other Church of Scotland place of worship in the town. One of the privileges of living in a place for a long time is that you get to see how the seasons affect things. That for me seemed particularly true of the Cathedral’s West Window by Crear McCartney, which was unveiled by the Queen in 1987 to mark the Cathedral’s foundation 850 years previously. It seems to me that the window is made for that building and that spot within the building.

In Orkney, winter days are short and summer days long. The blues predominated when the light was diffuse or low in the sky in winter but in summer, 
at certain times, as the sun was setting the light streamed through the top and the pink medieval pilgrim’s cross, with orange, gold and red surrounding it, predominated and cast rich patterns on the rough internal sandstone. A cool effect in winter and a warm rich effect in summer, possible because the artist crafted it for that precise setting.


 

I now serve in Hope Park and Martyrs Church in St Andrews. The former Martyrs Church is now the University of St Andrews postgraduate reading room. Inside the building are many fine stained glass windows, amongst them this wonderful window by Sadie McLellan from 1988 entitled ‘Hymn of the Universe’ (photo by Barbara Robertson). It is a large window and its presence always touched me.

Almost every time I looked at it I would see something new, a new symbolism which emerged when you gave the window time and attention. There is an energetic Holy Spirit, Adam and Eve, the serpent, the reminder that God is Alpha and Omega the beginning and end, the Sacrament of Holy Communion, and the prayer ‘O Lord make us one’ and much more besides.

Sometimes when churches unite or close, important windows are threatened or lost if they cannot be moved but in this instance, thankfully, they remain in place and enhance the new reading room. I hope that although no longer used as a church that this ‘Hymn to the Universe’ and the other fine windows there continue to stimulate the students and inspire them to produce their best.


Stained glass windows can be simple or complicated, designed for a specific place or able to work in a multitude of settings. Transmitted light enters eyes and amongst other things windows can move, charm, challenge, surprise or even ground individuals in a place. At their best they can point people to the mystery of God, and help nourish faith in a way few other things can.

Do you have a favourite piece of stained glass? Email us with a picture and short explanation of what it means to you.