Modern Stained Glass: Recontextualizing the Traditional Framework of the King James Bible

by Shelby Moser, M.A., adjunct professor of art

Through tradition, the King James Bible formed a cultural framework for biblical reference. Its formal cadence and Gregorian tradition endured controversy and time, forging a legacy still relevant today. Quoted and referenced by modern icons as diverse as Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and Bono, the ascribed 17th century prose consistently proves its adaptability to a contemporary context. Its ability to influence and contextualize underscores its universal authority.

The fluid, evolving nature of tradition facilitates artistic progress. While decades of racial tensions, feminist issues, and socioeconomic strains have undeniably influenced art’s philosophies, artists continue to draw inspiration from traditional sources, referencing the authority of early Christian aesthetics in unexpected ways. Making an impact in this genre, Gerhard Richter and Banksy, two contemporary artists, both deviate from the aesthetic past while regularly utilizing referential symbols embodied in the King James Bible.

Orthodoxy in art, typical in the early Medieval era, captured narratives in the form of stained glass windows for the illiterate masses. Ornate grids of multicolored glass and plate tracery became the vehicle to transform the cathedral’s interior space, thereby transforming souls. Though a signature architectural element of the Christian Middle Ages, contemporary artists also recognize the stained glass window as a valid reference. Gerherd Richter, famed German photorealist, designed the stained glass window for Germany’s prized Cologne Cathedral, which had been partially damaged since World War II. The unveiling in 2007 revealed an homage to the past and affirmation to modernity in a pixel-themed abstraction with 72 computer generated colors randomly arranged 11,500 times replacing signature imagery from the Gothic genre . From a distance, the colors exemplify the illuminated walls of Medieval stained glass. Closer proximity reveals a different, mechanized era.

Richter’s shift in subtext conceptually repeats in Stained Window by Britain’s famed street artist, Banksy. With art students from Los Angeles, Banksy created urban art with similar symbolic references to tradition. Occupying a large wall at the Los Angeles County Museum of Contemporary Art, this stained glass window actuates devotion using paint instead of glass. This changed medium simulates the multicolored windows from cathedrals, while the graffiti-like tags and imagery replace the standard martyrs and prophets. Banksy’s kneeling figure in the foreground, identifying him as the window’s “artist,” alludes to a personal religious experience. This use of referential theme recapitulates Richter’s affirmation of tradition’s authority and stands as a signifier of change.

Although religion and tradition seem anachronistic to contemporary art and society, their legacy holds the innate ability to empower socially, politically, and even spiritually. Richter embraced technology, abstraction, and convention in one fell swoop, creating a new motif for a technological generation. Banksy brought tradition to the masses with his urban window. Unlike highbrow art usually associated with tradition and elitism, he created his Stained Window for popular culture. Richter and Banky’s audacity captured an innovation and unconventionality similar to the advent of the King James Bible and Christ. Their antithetical introductions (the Bible in English, and the Son of God as a baby) upended expectations and brought religion to society in its own vernacular.

This reversal of the marginalized and privileged mirrors the life of Christ and contemporary art. Society historically dismisses art that break from the common expectations. The KJB and Christ were anticipated in more conventional ways, yet their uniqueness and ubiquity proved authoritative and inspirational. Pablo Picasso once claimed, “God is really another artist. He invented the giraffe, the elephant, and the cat. He has no real style. He just goes on trying other things.” Picasso made the case for the artist who pushes the limits of conventionally recognized and accepted styles as being more attuned to the Source of all creativity, to Genesis.

Clearly, tradition cannot be ignored. Embracing tradition allows for a broader context and opens the doors for progress. The adaptability of the King James Bible continues to influence and inspire, 400 years later. More than just a canonical source for Christians, it stands as an integral part of language, culture, and tradition.