How to Read Three of America’s Most Beautiful Stained-Glass Windows
A look at Niagara University’s three gargantuan rose windows
I’ve mentioned before in these pages that one of the benefits of working at a Catholic college is the ability to stop in the campus chapel for spiritual communion and the refreshment of prayer.
Niagara University, a Vincentian college where I teach English, looks over the gorge at the Lower Niagara River, and has a campus that boasts a chapel that has survived not one, not two but three fires — all of which razed it to the ground. Since Niagara University (NU) alumni have come through time and again to rebuild the castle-like chapel, it’s called “Alumni Chapel.”
However, the chapel was originally dedicated to Our Lady of Angels and it’s not hard to see why: three of the gargantuan rose windows feature the Blessed Virgin in the center, surrounded by angels (in the narthex), by Old Testament figures (in the western apse) and by founders of religious orders and congregations and societies (in the eastern apse).
Since the last two windows mentioned face each other across the nave, I have, for years, tried to figure out some one-to-one relationship between the Hebrew Scripture personages on the left with the Christian “rose petals” on the right side. But all to no avail: there seems to be no correlation.
Still, there may be readers out there, much more learned than I, who do know of some connection between “the Old and the New,” and thus I present the layout of these windows.
At the top (let’s call it 12 o’clock position and go in a clockwise direction) of the Old Testament window is Moses. His story is so well-known that it’s not worth trying to shoehorn it into a sentence or two here. He is depicted here holding the Ten Commandments.
Right across the aisle from him at the top of the other rose window is…
St. Vincent de Paul (1580-1660). The fact that Saint Vincent takes the top spot in this rose window, right across from Moses, should come as no surprise, since Niagara University is a Vincentian institution. I’ve written at length on St. Vincent here. He is the founder of the Congregation of the Mission (aka the Vincentians or the Lazarists), which has about 3,400 members today.
Back on the Old Testament window at 1 o’clock, right after Moses, is Samson. Samson was the last and best-known of the Judges of Israel. Betrayed by Delilah and brought to Gaza to be blinded by the Philistines, Samson famously retaliated by bringing down the house, literally, on top of his oppressors.
Across from Samson: St. Benedict (480-547): the founder of Western Monasticism and co-Patron of Europe, his Rule is followed not only by Benedictines, but many orders of monks such as the Camaldolese, the Trappists and the Cistercians. It was a huge influence on almost anyone who founded a monastic community.
Back on the Old Testament window we have Daniel. Renowned for the famous story of “Daniel in the Lion’s Den,” where he is saved from a pride of lions, and, especially in the Catholic Tradition, his saving of the pure Susanna, he and his text have always been a part of the Catholic canon of the Bible.
Facing Daniel, in the opposite rose window, is, at 3 o’clock, St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787), the founder of the Redemptorists, now numbering about 5,120 members. A Doctor of the Church, St. Alphonsus was a savant who obtained a double doctorate in jurisprudence — at the age of 16! He went on to write 111 books on everything from dogmatic theology to apologetics to moral theology.
Back on the rose window of our “Elder Brothers in the Faith” (as St. John Paul II called our Jewish brethren) is the prophet Jeremiah (687-586 B.C.), one of the “major” prophets of the Old Testament. Known for his nonstop warnings and complaints against the faithlessness of his audience (hence the term “Jeremiad”), his book is one of the longest in the Bible.
Facing Jeremiah is St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), “God’s Fool.” The first to receive the wounds of Christ — the stigmata — and founder of the Order of Friars Minim (“Little Brothers”), St. Francis is perhaps one of the best-known and best-loved saints. His order, which was fracturing even during his lifetime, has about 30,000 members in the Capuchin, Conventual, Leonine Union, Third Order Regular, Poor Clares and Sisters of St. Francis varieties.
At 6 o’clock on the Jewish rose window is King David with his harp. The second King of Israel (after Saul), he has become immortalized by slaying the giant Goliath and composing The Book of Psalms.
Across from King David is Saint Dominic (1170-1221), one of the glories of Catholic Spain, he founded the first of the mendicant (“begging”) orders, the Order of Preachers, today numbering some 7,000 members. Famous Dominican saints include St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Albert the Great and Pope St. Pius V.
After King David is the Prophet Ezekiel, a Hebrew priest and prophet from the sixth century B.C. during the Babylonian Exile (593-571 B.C.) Perhaps his most famous line from his book of prophecy is, “And I will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and will give you a heart of flesh.”
En face with Ezekiel is perhaps the least-best-known of all the founders on the rose window: St. Paul of the Cross (1694-1775) who founder the Passionists. His goal was to blend the monastic life (based on devotion to Jesus’ Passion) with preaching and outreach to the poor. There are 2,200 Passionists today.
At 9 o’clock on the Old Testament window comes Aaron. Aaron was the brother of Moses and a high priest of the Hebrews. Why he isn’t located right next to his brother Moses (at 12 o’clock on the rose window) is a mystery.
Directly across from Aaron on the Christian founders’ side is St. Augustine (354-430), who, after St. Paul the Apostle, was the next biggest influence on Christianity, and one of the four great Western Doctors of the Church. Bishop of Hippo, son of St. Monica (who never stopped praying for his conversion), baptized by St. Ambrose, inventor of the autobiography (see his Confessions) and one of the most prolific writers of all time, Augustine also left a Rule, which is followed not only by his own Augustinian Order, but by Norbertines and other religious orders.
The last window in the Old Testament side is Isaiah the Prophet. He produced the longest and arguably most important of the “Major Prophetic Books” of the Old Testament. Though he is the first of the four major prophets, he appears in the penultimate position of this window.
The final part of the Christian rose window is St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), the great soldier-turned-saint, whose Society of Jesus (“The Jesuits”) numbers just under 20,000 members today and includes, of course, Pope Francis. Known both as great missionaries (St. Francis Xavier) and educators (St. Francis Borgia, St. Robert Bellarmine), they provided the Church with a ready response to the Protestant Reformation, with their allegiance to the Pope.
Perhaps it is too much to read into a one-to-one matching of the Old Testament figures with the founders of Catholic orders — but the fact that window-makers of Niagara University’s Alumni Chapel did so at all is a rather remarkable — and as far as I can tell, totally unique — feat!
- stained glass windows