Symbolism in Stained Glass

Stained glass windows have long told the stories of faith through images. As we dedicate a new chapel window, let us explore the symbolism in these windows.

In early May 2015, a new stained glass window was installed in the memorial chapel. This window is being dedicated as a tribute to the ministry of the Rev. Canon Jim & Jean O’Neil, MD on August 23, 2015. The O’Neil window came as a gift from Heather and Ian Stewart to replace a window in the gallery stairwell which was revealed during the recent church renovation.

The Windows Over the Chapel

The new window precedes a series of five windows designed by Rosemary Kilbourn in the mid-1970s. Rosemary was a younger colleague of Yvonne Williams who designed the other chapel windows when the chapel was built in the late 1940s. Jim O’Neil refers to the windows designed by Rosemary as the “I Am” windows. The windows are based upon statements made by Jesus that are written in the Gospel of John:

  1. I am the Good Shepherd; I am the gate for the sheep (John 10:11 & John 10:7)
  2. I am the bread of life (John 6:35)
  3. I am the light of the world (John 8:12)
  4. I am the true vine (John 15:1)
  5. I am the resurrection and the life (John 11:25)

Flowing through all five windows is a theme on the statement:

  • I am the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6)

The new window - "I saw the spirit descending from heaven like a dove" - alongside an existing window - "I am the Good Shepherd"

As conversations began on a possible theme for the new window, it was decided that the theme should come from the Gospel of John in order to maintain continuity with the other windows. Ian Stewart was able to locate Rosemary Kilbourn (who is now retired and living outside Toronto) and speak with her about her work. Rosemary was able to provide her recollections about the windows. The window composition begins with a depiction of Jesus as the Good Shepherd which also includes the image of the gate in the form of a fence. The final window in the composition ends with “I am the resurrection and the life.” The saying, “I am the light of the world” was intentionally placed in the centre of the composition. Rosemary intended that light should symbolically radiate from the centre outward and back again. Having said this, Rosemary explained that the saying, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) begins with the first window and is represented by a horizontal flow of colour throughout all of the five windows she designed. Jesus says, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6). Hence, the first window in Rosemary’s composition with the gate or fence provides the symbolic starting point for the theme of “The Way.”

Inspiration for the New Window

Stained glass window- dove descending with banner "In the Beginning was the Word"

The new stained glass window, created by artist Sue Obata

After learning more about the history of the “I Am” windows from Rosemary, Jim O’Neil suggested that the window might be used to express the theme of Baptism. Jim felt this would be a way to link the new baptismal area with the chapel. With baptism in mind, John 1:32-33 was settled upon as the primary biblical theme for the new window:

  • I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remaining on him.

This became the starting point for Sue Obata, the artist selected by the Stewarts, to design the window.

Sue Obata’s design is a beautiful depiction of a dove, scroll, olive branch, and poppies enveloped in canvas of flowing colour. The theme of baptism is introduced with a graceful image of a dove descending amidst a yellow wave of colour which represents the holy sprit (baptism by the holy spirit). The yellow wave is joined by other colours to convey the beginning of the theme of the Way, the Truth, and the Life which continues as a horizontal flow of colour throughout the “I Am” windows. In addition, the colour blue is used to represent the Jordon River and baptism by water.

A Tribute to the Ministries of Jim and Jean O’Neil

Since the new window is a tribute to the ministry of the O’Neils, the artist designed two special elements which represent the individual gifts of Jim and Jean respectively. The scroll with a passage from John 1:1 represents Jim’s preaching ministry, and the olive branch represents Jean’s healing ministry as a medical doctor (as well as being a symbol of peace). One additional element in the window came at the request of the Stewarts who asked if poppies could be included in the window as a symbol of remembrance for those members of the St. John’s community who have served Canada during war. The poppies are also meant to serve as a reminder of Jim O’Neil’s service in the Canadian navy during WW2. In addition to its biblical symbolism, the window is meant to symbolize both peace and remembrance – the dove and the poppies.

From the outset, it was decided that the new window should not try to imitate the “I Am” windows in style but rather complement them series with a new perspective. The continuity of John’s Gospel coupled with the visual flow of colour in the expression of the way, the truth, and the life has given unity to all of the windows.


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