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Monday, March 16, 2009

The Stained Glass Project: St. John the Evangelist and St. Helen

This is part of an ongoing series called The Stained Glass Project, in which I am attempting to photographically preserve the stained glass windows of my parish church, Our Lady of Czestochowa (St. Mary's) in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania.

With this entry we begin to review the windows along the North side of St. Mary's church in Nanticoke, Pannsylvania. Having worked our way forward from the back of the church on the South side, we will now work our way backwards from the front of the church along the North side.

The first window is a truncated one, missing both the upper and lower openable panels. It apparently was designed that way and not modified at a later date, since it still has its donor tags.


This pair of windows, the sixth from the rear of the church on the North side, contains portraits of Saint John the Evangelist and Saint Helen.

This first image is fairly straightforward: John the Evangelist, quill in his right hand, apparently writing on a scrolled page held in his left hand. Accounts of his life can be found here:

New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia entry for St. John the Evangelist
EWTN page for St. John the Evangelist
Wikipedia entry for John the Evangelist

The eagle that stands at his side deserves some explanation. Each of the four authors of the Gospels is represented by a figure - Matthew a human, Mark a lion, Luke an ox, and John an eagle. The New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia has this to say about John's eagle: "Early Christian art usually represents St. John with an eagle, symbolizing the heights to which he rises in the first chapter of his Gospel. " A fuller description of these symbols is given on the "Symbols of the Four Evangelists" page on the site catholic-resources.org. The ultimate source of these particular symbols, according to this site, comes from a vision recounted in Ezekiel 1:1-14:

In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. On the fifth day of the month (it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin), the word of the LORD came to the priest Ezekiel son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar; and the hand of the LORD was on him there. As I looked, a stormy wind came out of the north: a great cloud with brightness around it and fire flashing forth continually, and in the middle of the fire, something like gleaming amber. In the middle of it was something like four living creatures. This was their appearance: they were of human form. Each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf's foot; and they sparkled like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. And the four had their faces and their wings thus: their wings touched one another; each of them moved straight ahead, without turning as they moved. As for the appearance of their faces: the four had the face of a human being, the face of a lion on the right side, the face of an ox on the left side, and the face of an eagle; such were their faces. Their wings were spread out above; each creature had two wings, each of which touched the wing of another, while two covered their bodies. Each moved straight ahead; wherever the spirit would go, they went, without turning as they went. In the middle of the living creatures there was something that looked like burning coals of fire, like torches moving to and fro among the living creatures; the fire was bright, and lightning issued from the fire. The living creatures darted to and fro, like a flash of lightning.
This particular eagle always disturbed me as a kid, with its large, glassy eye gazing upward lovingly at the evangelist, a cartoonish smile (actually, the bottom of its beak) on its face. I believe this is a Golden Eagle, though its upswept crest does not appear in the depictions I have seen online - if anyone can identify the species more precisely, please let me know. The eagle seems to be in direct contact with St. John's leg, like a dog staying close to his master's side.


Saint Helen, who lived from about 250 AD to 330 AD, is well-known as the mother of Saint Constantine, the Roman emperor who embraced Christianity. Her story is covered here:

New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia entry on Saint Helen
Lives of the Saints: Saint Helen
Wikipedia entry on Saint Helen (Helena of Constantinople)

Among the many stories told of St. Helen is one that credits her with finding the True Cross. From the New Advent Catholic encyclopedia entry on "Archæology of the Cross and Crucifix":

In the year 326 the mother of Constantine, Helena, then about 80 years old, having journeyed to Jerusalem, undertook to rid the Holy Sepulchre of the mound of earth heaped upon and around it, and to destroy the pagan buildings that profaned its site. Some revelations which she had received gave her confidence that she would discover the Saviour's Tomb and His Cross. The work was carried on diligently, with the co-operation of St. Macarius, bishop of the city. The Jews had hidden the Cross in a ditch or well, and covered it over with stones, so that the faithful might not come and venerate it. Only a chosen few among the Jews knew the exact spot where it had been hidden, and one of them, named Judas, touched by Divine inspiration, pointed it out to the excavators, for which act he was highly praised by St. Helena. Judas afterwards became a Christian saint, and is honoured under the name of Cyriacus. During the excavation three crosses were found, but because the titulus was detached from the Cross of Christ, there was no means of identifying it. Following an inspiration from on high, Macarius caused the three crosses to be carried, one after the other, to the bedside of a worthy woman who was at the point of death. The touch of the other two was of no avail; but on touching that upon which Christ had died the woman got suddenly well again. From a letter of St. Paulinus to Severus inserted in the Breviary of Paris it would appear that St. Helena herself had sought by means of a miracle to discover which was the True Cross and that she caused a man already dead and buried to be carried to the spot, whereupon, by contact with the third cross, he came to life. From yet another tradition, related by St. Ambrose, it would seem that the titulus, or inscription, had remained fastened to the Cross.
All of which goes to explain why she is shown holding a cross - though certainly not the True Cross, judging from size alone. The segmented vertical piece, the upright, may be in some way significant, as may be the green cloth wreath around the top piece. But I do not see any explanation for these features in the linked references.


Nor do I see an explanation for the scales held in her right hand. Scales are not listed among her saintly attributes, the symbols typically associated with her.


I am unaware of the significance of the structure depicted in the top round window, though I have somewhat arbitrarily assigned it the identifier of "basilica." It may represent a specific structure, or it may be some more generic structure. It is not the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is built over the site where St. Helen found the True Cross. The text on the scroll beneath the image is not visible, if there was ever any at all.


The donor tag at the bottom crosses both portraits, and reads "Presented by John Smoulter, in memory of my beloved wife." There was a John Smoulter, Jr. who was listed as president of First National Bank of Nanticoke in 1889. Was he the person who donated these windows? And was his wife's name, perhaps, Helen?

5 comments:

MaryRuth said...

I really enjoy reading these stories. The parish I grew up attending (but no longer do) is going to be celebrating their 100th anniversary starting next year and they are getting things going now. My dad is on the "history" committee and I told him about your stained glass project and he checked it out and thought it was a really cool idea. So they might be doing something similar. I suggested they turn some of the photos into a booklet or notecards to sell for fundraising. Thank you for the idea.
Weird factoid: Liberace went to our parish! (and my high school)

D.B. Echo said...

MaryRuth, that's wonderful! I have sometimes thought about turning this into a book, perhaps as a fund-raiser for the parish. But I always talk myself out of it by thinking about the prohibitive printing costs, and realizing the people most likely to want to buy it are currently in dire financial straits. Also, I'm becoming increasingly disgusted with how much of parish revenues, given by the people of the parish to support the parish, are skimmed off by the Bishop of Scranton. I have my suspicions as to where THAT money is going...but an upcoming court case will help us to see how much of a connection there is between the Bishop and local organized crime figures.

hedera said...

It is too, too good to be true that the story about St. Helen says the hiding place of the True Cross was identified by a man named Judas!

the stained glass librarian said...

This is a great project that you are doing. I looked into the image of the church in the St. Helen window. A tiny model of a church reflects her founding of two churches- the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. I'd like to suggest a book that might help you identify some of the symbols in the windows you are documenting- F.R. Webber's Church Symbolism. It was and remains a go-to guide for many stained glass designers at the studio that I work for. A "quick guide" for saint iconography is Rosa Giorgi's Saints in Art.

D.B. Echo said...

Thank you for the information! I'll have to check those out!