The stained glass window at Trinity Lutheran Church in New Era is, like most great church windows, a genuine work of art. It’s not your traditional scene, however. Instead of the saints, or Jesus, or the Holy Family, this window is a study in nature, depicting the beauty of Lake Michigan, with its vibrant blue water and sandy beaches. Up above, clouds of various hues, some gray, some white and buoyant, suggest both turmoil and tranquility. This is, in short, a most unusual stained glass window. And so, you’re not really surprised when you hear that it seems to have a life of its own.
“What’s so interesting to me is the effect the window has on everyone who sees it,” says Pastor Sarah Samuelson. “At Sunday services, I have a great view of people coming into the sanctuary. I’d say three-quarters of them sit down and look at the window, which is above the altar. And I watch as a sense of peace and security comes over their faces. Often they’ll stay after the service and continue to just look at the window. There’s a definite sense of God’s presence.”
And it’s not just the congregation who is affected. “People who drive by the church often tell me that the window has a calming effect on them,” Samuelson notes. “So many times I’ve heard, ‘When I drive by the church and see your stained glass window, I get such a feeling of serenity.’ That window has meant so much to our church and the community.”
But there’s more. The window doesn’t simply exude a comforting aura. Sometimes it actually seems to be…alive?
“I’ve been told that at night, when the wind rustles the trees across the way, the waves in the water of the window actually move,” Samuelson relates, a definite tone of wonder in her voice. “And the texture and tenor of the clouds changes. Like clouds before a storm.”
In case you’ve got goose bumps, relax. We’re not in the Twilight Zone. These effects were meticulously created by the window’s designer, Richard Hanley.
“All the glass in the window was chosen very carefully,” explains the New Era craftsman and head of Omnibus Studios, which specializes in the complex art of stained glass. “Some came from Germany. European glass is very clear, very pure because it’s never touched by any machinery. It’s all hand blown. And we used glass from the Kokomo Opalescent Glass Studio in Kokomo, Ind. That’s a very famous place—Louis Tiffany used them. Their glass is known for its beautiful texture, which creates various effects.
“Then there’s something called water glass, which we used for the lake. That particular glass is purposely made to look like glimmering water and actually seems to have waves.”
How did Hanley, who has been in his profession for nearly 50 years, and has created many traditional stained glass windows for churches all over the country, come up with this particular vision for Trinity Lutheran?
The process was an evolving one that changed pretty drastically from the original concept of the donor family. “When I start a project, I listen first to what the client has in mind,” Hanley says. “This window was to be in memory of a woman who was very active in the church. She loved flowers and nature, so the family, and the committee in charge of the project, wanted a scene with flowers and birds, that sort of thing. This type of scene was very prominent in Tiffany church windows, which were known for their very soft depictions of natural elements like birds and trees.
“I met with the committee and got their ideas. The most important element, the one everyone agreed on, was a scene that focused on nature. Then the next phase, for me, is meditation. I don’t just sit down and knock something out. I sit and think about the work. I probably thought about that window for two or three weeks.”
Gradually the scene took shape in his mind. “I thought about how we live in this beautiful natural setting. We’re on Lake Michigan. The water, the sand, the beautiful white pines. And I thought, I’m not the artist. God is the artist. He created all this beauty. I decided the focus in the window should be the presence of God. And what greater place to witness God than in nature?”
The mystical effects that seem to emanate from the window are the result of both the various types of glass used and the meticulous planning of the interplay between light, color and materials. At different times of day, the scene takes on a whole different tenor. Sunlight may give it the feeling of radiant hope. A cloudy day may create a different effect. And in the moonlight, the window takes on an air of mystery that seems to echo the mystery of all creation.
“When Christ came into the world, it was the dawn of creation,” notes Hanley. “The sun coming up is about a new day, a new creation. The clouds in the window are both dark and light. The dark clouds suggest the challenges we face. The lighter clouds are about rising above the dark times. There’s a sense of wind, which is such a beautiful thing. You can feel God sweeping in the wind. There’s a lot of subtlety in this window, because I feel that God can be very subtle.”
In the center of the window, vertical and horizontal lines made of pieces of beveled glass join to create a cross.. “The cross creates a rainbow when light comes through it,” explains Hanley. “The clear glass represents the perfection of Christ. Clear light. It’s woven into the window; it’s not real obvious. Again, it’s that subtlety of the divine. God can be with you without something big happening.”
Ultimately, Hanley’s vision goes beyond the scene itself, and into the hearts and souls of all who view it.
“As an artist, church work is mainly what I do. I’m not in this business to make money. I’m 71. My focus in life is to create things of beauty to glorify God in my work and to give inspiration to those who view it. One hundred years from now, if people will look at it and say, wow, that’s beautiful, I’ll have done what God intended me to do. So I’m looking at the big picture in life.”
Fortunately, Hanley didn’t have to wait a century for that reaction to the Trinity Lutheran window.
“Trinity Lutheran is a wonderful church,” he reflects. “They have a very wonderful community, and I was very pleased to be able to do this for them. When I was thinking about the window, I wanted the people to feel a part of it. Because we’re all part of God’s creation. Each of it is a part of that beauty.”
Which could explain the connection the congregation feels to the window, and the peaceful effect it has on the members.
“I got that feeling of peacefulness when I was working on it,” Hanley smiles. “I’m a perfectionist, and many times I’ll look at a window I did and I’ll see something I think I could have changed. I’m almost never completely satisfied with a work. But I feel very good about this window. It just fell into place. I feel like if the window falls into place, the community falls into place. It creates a harmony.”