This is the second in an occasional series of columns on the windows of our church. The second window from the sanctuary on your right as you face the altar is to me something of a puzzlement. It appears to be a cross on top of some sort of stand, with what appears to be lightning bolts emanating from it. I believe that this window, like the one to its left as you face it, is connected to the theme of Baptism. I am guessing that the object immediately below the cross represents a Baptismal font, such as was nearly universally, and still is commonly, used in Catholic churches in this country. The cross is of course closely related to Baptism, to the theme of dying to sin and self and rising to live a new life in Christ. The lightning bolts are something altogether different. To me they are reminiscent of a 1930’s Buck Rodgers kind of art. I find them very retro. I am not certain, but I would hazard a guess that the lightning bolts are an attempt to show the power of grace operating through the Sacrament of Baptism. This is a very physical and concrete idea of grace as almost a kind of spiritual energy and power, like taboo or manna in traditional Polynesian culture; practically magic. Today we think of grace more in terms of relationship and way of life, and would not represent grace artistically (and certainly not catechistically) as electrical energy or lightning bolts. I find the bolts shooting from the font rather quaint. If you have another interpretation, let me know.
The next two windows, working our way towards the back of the church, represent symbols of the church. The first window contains an image of crossed keys. This is a symbol of the papacy. It is a visual reference to Jesus giving the power to loose and bind in heaven to St. Peter (Mt. 16:18-19). In the Gospel this is about the power to forgive. It has since been used to represent the authority of the Church, especially of the Pope. Everywhere you go in Rome you see the symbol of the crossed keys. Everything connected to the Vatican and the papacy is marked by crossed keys. So this is clearly a symbol of the Church, and particularly the papacy.
The next window shows a boat. This is traditionally referred to as “the barque of Peter.” “Barque” is a small sailing ship, and St. Peter, being a fisherman, would have had a boat, and so the church was referred to as “the barque of Peter.” It is not a very common image of the church today, not so much because it is a bad image, but the way it was often used in the past has sort of tainted it. The emphasis given to the image of the barque of Peter in the past was an idea that the church was a ship that we were in to pass through the rough and stormy seas of life. The idea was to get through this world of woes and troubles to the safe harbor of heaven, and as soon as possible to leave all this behind. The LAST thing you wanted to do was “rock the boat.” Just do your duty and don’t cause trouble. The role of the laity was to “pray, pay and obey.” Since VCII, images of the church more open to the world have become popular, especially the Biblical image of a “light to the nations” (Lumen Gentium in Latin). The Second Vatican Council taught that, rather than shunning the world, the Church exists as a Sacrament for the salvation of the world, and is to penetrate the world with the Sprit of Christ. Hence the image of the barque of Peter, with its negative associations of the world, has fallen into disfavor.
I am rather surprised that the imagery is so dated since these windows were dedicated not in 1953 when the church was dedicated, but almost 18 years to the day later, in 1971, which was after Vatican Council II began. I suspect that the windows were designed when the church was originally planned, but the funds were not available to install them when the church was built. Nearly two decades later when the funds were available, they simply dusted off the original designs and used them rather than update them. Overall the window designs do seem more like 1950’s than 1970’s.
I would also like to mention that, according to the plaque in the vestibule, these two windows were generously donated “In Memory of Alfred & Catherine Beiter by Dr. & Mrs. G.R. Beiter.” Members of this family are still part of the St. Austin parish community. It is nice to see that continuity!