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City Journal: Windows on Fire

Saturday, 2:19 p.m.
Saint Jean-Baptiste Church
76th & Lexington Avenue

I understand as soon as I walk through the door and see the enormous windows on either side of me: stained glass is one form of art that should never be taken out of context. In a museum, it is exquisite but empty. I can't understand it placed in front of a light box with a printed caption tacked below. In a sacred place, it takes on a new dimension; I can almost sense the thousands of faithful who have prayed here, looking beyond the glowing mosaic of color to the Truth that lies beneath.

This church is one of many in the city dating to an era when a church without stained glass was almost unthinkable. Right away, the four huge windows on each side draw me in. The central arch soars into a dome at the far end, with smaller circular windows around its perimeter.

It's very quiet here. (I'm trying to take off my jacket with a minimum of rust ing.) A scattered handful of worshippers sit or kneel in the vast expanse of the sanctuary. I walk to the rows of votives to light one; much to my dismay, I find that they are electric. Little lightbulbs are fastened in the top of the red plastic, and by pushing a button you can turn one on. How convenient.

The windows are a curious mix of biblical and contemporary scenes: "Piux X and Frequent Communion" faces the Annunciation. The former depicts the pope administering wafers and sips of wine to nine small children. The scene is not very realistic—they look awfully well behaved for little kids. I think of the children I've seen in church, the ones who wrinkle their noses or turn their heads and purse their lips when their parents hold them up to the chalice.

The faces of most of the people depicted in the windows are expressionless. It's a relief to come upon a scene charged with emotion: in "The Manna," a cloud hovers near the top of the window while Moses gestures with ferocity toward the ground, where the Israelites, grateful and fearful, gather up the bread. ...

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