top of page

Let There be Coloured Light: Stained Glass Windows in Canada

by Patrick Burns and Janna Eggebeen


Editor’s Introduction:


NO CRAFT IS MORE ASSOCIATED WITH SACRED SPACES than stained glass windows. In a church, chapel, synagogue, or mosque, architectural stained glass separates the sacred from the secular yet opens the interior to light that is both real and spiritual. Stained glass windows are more than decorative: narrative and symbolic scenes are the picture books of faith and often memorials to significant persons and events.


Patrick Burns devoted fifteen years to developing an extensive online archive of architectural stained glass in Canada. His passion for stained glass windows dates from the installation of 43 stained glass windows by the master glassmakers André and Paul Rault in Rennes, France, at the Holy Rosary Cathedral in Regina in 1951. Burns’s father, a member of Holy Rosary and owner of a church supply store, was instrumental in this process, which added a sense of familial pride.

A cathedral and stained glass window showing Mary.
Holy Rosary Cathedral in Regina, SK, and its Immaculate Conception of Mary window by the Rault Studio, 1951

His documentary mission gained urgency with the sale and export of a 1533 stained glass window of Adam and Eve by the French renaissance glass artist Valentin Bousch. Made for a Benedictine priory church in the Lorraine, the Order sold the church and its furnishings when the priory dissolved in the early 20th century. The windows ended up in separate public and private collections in the United States; this one became part of William Randolph Hearst’s collection before being sold to a private buyer in Vancouver in 1952. The window remained in Canada until auctioned off to a London antiques dealer in 2007. Burns calls the loss a Canadian art tragedy that points to the lack of interest and therefore protection of stained glass windows.


The Institute for Stained Glass in Canada website, established the same year as the sale of the Adam and Eve window, is a treasury of images, research, and resources on stained glass windows from every provinces and around the world. Following are some highlights from his archive.


­The Vancouver glass studio of Henry Bloomfield & Sons made excellent examples of traditional stained glass windows in the Arts and Crafts style. Bloomfield emigrated from England to Canada, and in 1892 he opened British Columbia’s first art glass studio. Holy Trinity Cathedral in New Westminster, BC, has three stained glass apse windows by Bloomfield & Sons that date from the church’s rebuilding after a fire in 1898. The windows show the baptism of Christ, Christ enthroned in glory, and the Pentecost. Each window has beautifully painted, distinctive details that deepen their message: the depiction of two Indigenous men flanking the coat-of-arms of the diocese of New Westminster’s first bishop; a blushing angel under Christ’s feet; and the Masonic symbols of the Pentecost window, a gift from the Grand Lodge of British Columbia.

A stained glass window showing the creation of Adam and Eve and their explusion from Eden.
Valentin Bousch, The Creation and the Expulsion from Paradise windows, 1533, private collection, and a detail of the Pentecost window by Henry Bloomfield & Sons, Holy Trinity Cathedral, New Westminster, BC, 1898

In mid-century Toronto, Yvonne Williams (1901-1997) developed a more modern style while remaining rooted in the figuration and techniques of medieval stained glass. Over a fifty-year career, Williams created hundreds of windows for buildings across Canada. An early commission resulted in the windows for the east wall and oriel of Strachan Hall within Trinity College at the University of Toronto.

Stained glass is a guild production, and Williams worked with many artists and craftspeople. For the Strachan Hall windows, Ellen Simon supplied the cartoons and Esther Johnson selected the colours and glass. The five east windows show figures who represent different eras and areas of literature. King David, for example, symbolizes the language arts of the ancient Hebrew world, while Shakespeare stands for those of the English renaissance. Posed with poor Yorick’s skull, Shakespeare locks eyes with the viewer below lines from Measure for Measure: “Heaven doth with us as we with torches do. Not light them for themselves.” Although not ornamenting a sacred space per se, these outstanding stained glass windows add to the ritual of communal dining in this neogothic refectory.


Interior of Strachen Hall and its Shakespeare window.
Strachen Hall, Trinity College, University of Toronto, and its Shakespeare window by Yvonne Williams, with Ellen Simon and Esther Johnson, 1947

A Roman Catholic church that breaks the mould is Our Lady of Seven Sorrows in Maskwacis, Alberta. Built in 1960, the church’s design reflects the Plains Cree communities that make up its congregation. Alex Twins (1929-1994) contributed the church’s colourful paintings and windows in the late 1980s. A residential school survivor and orphaned as a teenager, Twins rejected Catholicism, but his early trauma led to alcoholism and imprisonment. Through Alcoholics Anonymous and a priest’s help, he rebuilt his life, found his faith, and returned to his community and making art.

Interior of a church and three of its stained glass windows showing Indigenous people enacting Biblical scenes.
Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Church, Maskwacis, AL, with artwork and windows by Alex Twins, 1980s

Twins considered it vital to depict Biblical figures as Indigenous. He felt this would make these stories more relatable to their audience, as well as rectify the Catholic Church’s negative views of Native spirituality. Twins’s windows are unusual not only in their imagery but also in their materials and fabrication. An untrained artist, Twins achieved the look of stained glass for a fraction of the cost by affixing handpainted mylar shapes and black strips to a clear glass pane; he then sandwiched the mylar composition between another sheet of glass. This technique allowed for greater colour control and more fluid designs.

Modern stained glass windows, like those by Alex Twins, are often experimental in their approach to medium, style, and subject matter. Preserving and supporting Canada’s fragile stained glass heritage is an ongoing project that happens in many ways: through the work of contemporary makers and dedicated organizations, the conservation of existing examples, and the creation of digital archives such as the Institute for Stained Glass in Canada.


Photos by Patrick Burns.


Patrick Burns (BA, MA) is a native of Regina, Saskatchewan. After teaching English at the BC Institute of Technology in Vancouver for 31 years, he founded the Institute for Stained Glass in Canada in 2007 (https://www.glassincanada.org/). With grants from several provinces, he has photographed stained glass in situ in nine Canadian provinces.


Janna Eggebeen has an MA in design history and a PhD in art history. She worked in museum education and university administration in Chicago; Washington, DC; and New York City. Currently, she is the editor of Ornamentum and teaches design history courses at OCAD University and Sheridan College.

Comments


bottom of page