Towering stained-glass windows tell and retell Christendom’s stories in tens of thousands of churches across the world. Beholders strain their necks to experience the infinite handiwork and detail, the colors and intense symbolism revealed in glass, lead and tints.
But not at St. Bernard of Clairvaux Catholic Church in Scottsdale. The 10 stained-glass windows, each measuring 3 feet by 5 feet, are positioned at eye level, like paintings on a wall. Outside light shines directly through to embellish the nuances and hues. A "border" of clear, beveled glass surrounds each work so that images seem to float.
"Most stained-glass windows are so high up," said the Rev. Robert Voss, pastor of this parish founded in 1994. "You go to a European cathedral, and you really have lots of colors, but you can’t really study them and see them. But these are in your face. They are down at human height, and, in a sense, there is a closeness to them."
The windows depict scenes from the life of Jesus and are the work of the Botti Studio of Architectural Arts, based in Evanston, Ill. Though established in 1864, the studio’s origins go back to late 16th-century artisans in Agropoli, Italy. "Each leaded stained-glass window is artistically hand-painted in the tradition of the Old World masters," said Scott Evans, who represents the studio and other artists in the design and development of art for church spaces.
The 1,200-seat church, at 10755 N. 124th St., was completed in 1999 for $5.5 million and was paid for in five years, Voss said. The windows were installed last year at a cost of $75,000, plus $48,000 for two rows of clerestory stained-glass windows above the center aisle. On one side are the names of the 12 apostles and on the other are shields of the 12 tribes of Israel, as named in the Book of Genesis.
But the 10 ground-level windows are Voss’ pride.
"What is amazing to me is the reaction of visitors," he said. "They actually go bonkers when they come. Catholics from around the country cannot believe the price tag and how reasonable it was."
The windows feature plants found in Arizona, including cholla and saguaro cactuses and a paloverde tree. Voss credits Deacon Michael Carlomagno with suggesting that Arizona plants be integrated when they were first shown window sketches by Botti artists.
"When we saw the first window, it was the Annunciation, the angel appearing to Mary and Mary is kneeling and praying," Voss said. "There was a lily, and that’s when Deacon Michael said, ‘We can take the lily out and put in a prickly pear.’ "
Among the scenes are those depicting when the newly pregnant Mary went to tell the news to her cousin Elizabeth, who was also pregnant; the birth of Jesus, a paloverde nearby; and the presentation of Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem where the devout Jew, Simeon, declared Jesus was God’s anointed king and Mary stands in wonderment.
Voss said the fifth window is his favorite. It shows the precocious Jesus, at age 12, speaking to temple elders. In the back of the window are Mary and Joseph, perturbed at searching for Jesus for days, only to find him oblivious to their concerns.
"First of all, you have a very striking face of Christ," Voss said. "It is the face of an icon. The eyes are oversized because this proclaims the divinity. At this age, he is teaching them, and it is the face of God, not the face of a normal child. I was really thrown by it at first."
In a window depicting Pentecost, 12 eye-catching tongues of fire float in the glass, commemorating the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples 50 days after the Resurrection. Mary is at the center of the window, and a church building and a cholla plant are included. "We couldn’t get 12 apostles in," Voss said, "but Mary was present at Pentecost, in the Scripture, so we put the tongues of fire for the 12 apostles, and one over Mary and one over the church."
Remaining windows show the resurrected Jesus appearing to the doubting Thomas; the ascension of Jesus; the assumption of Mary into heaven; and the crowning of Mary as the Queen of Heaven, wearing a wreath of saguaro blossoms.
Voss likens the art of saints to keeping pictures of loved around after they die.
"You keep something around to visually remind you of them," he said. "In our Catholic tradition, the presence of statues and stained glass are ways to make them present to us today, in this case, events from the life of Jesus.
"Everybody was just stunned" when the windows were installed, the pastor said. "This community just unanimously took to those windows right away as a real treasure."