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Taking the mystery out of stained glass commission & design

By Andrew Cary Young

The commission and design processes for a stained glass window aren’t as mysterious as they might seem at first glance.

RecentlySPIRIT OF STAINED GLASS ICON, I received a phone call from a divinity school student. She was writing a research paper about a stained glass window which our firm created for a North Carolina church at least a decade ago. The student wanted to know what, as a stained glass artist, prompted my design process. Interestingly, prior to divinity school, she was a faithful member of the congregation for two years.

She recently returned to the church to look — with new eyes — at the stained glass window. Once she permitted herself to be contemplative, she discovered that the window had a story to tell.

We discussed how the window reflected the donor families’ deep roots in the community. Its design tells the story of the old, rugged cross in brown glass painted to resemble wood. The five areas of red glass further the story of the wounds Christ suffered during His crucifixion.

This level of contemplation doesn’t always come naturally; often, as we consider stained glass design, we think in concrete terms — of the story told through symbols and images. We’re often literal in our observations.

However, creating an image with glass, lead and paint is actually a form of abstraction. The object depicted in the window is a symbol and a guidepost for the viewer to interpret — for himself or herself, uniquely — the meaning of that symbol.

A few practical steps

When choosing a stained glass studio, there are a few important first steps.

Study the studio’s body of work. What you request must be within the studio’s abilities and range of styles. It’s the studio’s responsibility to meet your expectations. And, in the end, the window belongs to God as a reflection of our faith.

Ask a key question: What do you want the viewer to feel? Begin with a lyrical idea and a thought that deepens the theological underpinnings of the window.
Should the window be a celebration?  
Should it express mystery?  
Will it be in a room for meditation, or in a space set aside for worship by
the congregation?

Composit Photo of WindowUnderstand the process. Typically, the process of commissioning a window begins with a conversation between the window designer and the appointed members of the congregation. The designer produces an initial sketch.
This is just the beginning. The sketch might not solve all the issues in the design, but it certainly helps to define them.
Some of the references might not speak to everyone, but it will speak to some. By keeping the design “open” in this way, viewers may interpret the meaning for themselves and their own individual spiritual journey.

Consider the room. Take scale into account, as well as other environmental conditions — the amount of natural sunlight and the time of day when the room will be used, for example. The window design should respond to the room in which it will be displayed, as a different environment might not communicate the story as effectively. Also consider the purpose of the room and who will view the window.

Design revisions should respond to the ideas and concerns identified in discussions between the church committee, the architect and the designer. For instance, a donor might want the window to celebrate a marriage or to commemorate a loved one; this perspective might offer useful suggestions for the window’s design.

After these conversations, the studio begins the process of creating the window. At this point in the process, the focus is on letting the window become the window.

When the window is in production in our studio, it’s like an ugly duckling transforming into a beautiful swan. In its new home, the stained glass window will begin to “sing” as it becomes whole.


Andrew Cary Young, president of Pearl River Glass Studio, Inc., in Jackson, MS, has dedicated his 40-year professional career to creating traditional leaded stained glass as well as art glass in service to the Christian Church.

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