Nothing says sacred like stained glass.

Light filters through jewel-bright windows, bestowing the interior of a church with ethereal beauty.

Stained-glass windows depict key moments in the Bible, inspiring the church faithful searching for meaning on Easter or any other day.

Each window is as individual as the artist who created it or the church that it graces. A church’s architecture or a congregation’s philosophy might influence the window’s design.

Gothic period

Stained-glass windows date all the way back to the Gothic period, in the mid-12th century in Europe, said Mark Moak, art professor at Rocky Mountain College. The art form came out of a combination of theology and progress in architecture.

Previous to that time, in the Romanesque period, architects favored stone-vaulted ceilings, which fireproofed the buildings but required a lot of support. They left little room for windows, Moak said.

“By the time they get to the Gothic period, they’re making all these advances in engineering and were able to distribute the weight into very thin colonnettes and piers and compound piers,” he said. “And that opened up big areas where you could put these windows, so advances in technology led to this medium coming into its own.”

The theology is tied to Abbot Suget (pronounced Su-JAY) of France, Moak said, who trained at the Abbey at St. Denis (Den-NEE).

“He grew in the church as a very young kid and loved the church and wanted to show his love for the church by embellishing this institution that nurtured him,” he said.

Suget came across writings by Pseudo-Dionysius, a late fifth-century or early sixth-century Christian theologian, who equated radiant sunlight with the manifestation of God, Moak said.

“What did Jesus say, ‘I am the light of the world?’ ” he said. “And so we have this tangible, physical form of God.”

Suger, friend to Kings Louis VI and Louis VII, decided to rebuild the Church of Saint-Denis, where the coronation of French monarchs took place, in Gothic style.

It was the first time stained glass was used to decorate a church, Moak said.

“Abbot Suger saw this as a great place to let this light in,” he said. “At the same time, you can tell stories with those windows, so we have stained-glass windows that tell a story.”

Moak points out two kinds of stained glass that might be found in a church. In the sanctuary at First Presbyterian Church in Billings, light pours in through two columns of stained glass. In a back stairwell and in an area near the church entry, windows paint pictures of events in the Bible.

"These windows came from the original church that was downtown," Moak said.

Telling a story

“Stained glass” actually got its name because the glass was stained using glass-based paints, said Susan Kennedy Sommerfeld, artist/owner of Kennedy’s Stained Glass in Billings.

Paint would be applied to glass and fired into the glass, thereby staining it, she said. Its use in European churches had a practical side as well, Sommerfeld said.

“Basically they had a culture of illiterate people, and the way of telling the story of the Bible was through the stained-glass windows,” she said. “And so it was an education tool, as well as being beautiful.”

Sommerfeld creates stained-glass art, including sacred windows, and she restores and rebuilds old stained-glass windows for churches. She learned the art of stained glass from her mother on an Easter break from college.

“She was doing a show and she said, 'Come along and I’ll show you how,' ” Sommerfeld said. “I was living in L.A. then.”

Sommerfeld started doing some work in Los Angeles. When she moved to Billings in 1981, no one else was doing stained glass and she opened a studio, teaching classes and taking commission work.

“I do a lot of church restoration, which means I take the old windows and we rebuild them,” she said. “We basically take them apart and rebuild them because the lead starts to deteriorate.”

At the moment, Sommerfeld has three sets of 100-year-old windows, including some for St. Olaf Lutheran Church in Roberts. She serves the region, with customers in Montana, the Dakotas and Wyoming.

She has also created many windows of her own.

“I’ve done literally hundreds and hundreds over the years,” she said. “I’ve been doing it 30-some years.”

Sommerfeld’s work can be found in Billings, including one of her favorites — a long, slender panel on the east wall of Mt. Olive Lutheran Church’s sanctuary that depicts Christ’s crucifixion.

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She debated using dramatic blood-red glass in the background of the window, behind the cross, but is glad she did. It evokes emotion and lends a haunting quality that clear glass never could.

She also included little touches, like bits of lead that poke out of a thorn bush at the bottom of that window, next to the door to the tomb. All of the glass in the window is opalescent, except for the see-through cathedral glass of the tomb, which gives a feeling of glowing light.

“That was absolutely the right choice,” Sommerfeld said.

On the opposite wall, another of the four 11-foot panels in the sanctuary symbolizes creation and is filled with blue sky and colorful flowers. Just the bottom window of that panel contains more than 1,000 pieces of glass.

Several blocks away, at St. Pius X Catholic Church, Sommerfeld created a series of windows in the entryway, the day chapel, a fellowship room and the sanctuary. Though modern, like the windows at Mt. Olive, they have a style all their own.

A whimsical window in the fellowship room includes ribbons of red, turquoise and blue and children leaping  in the air. The entryway contains a creation window that looks entirely different than the one at Mt. Olive. The design is bolder, fiery and intense. The windows in the sanctuary also include ribbons of color that flow around the room. They are incorporated in crucifixion and resurrection windows that are equally unique in their look.

Old and new art

Part of what guides Sommerfeld in her designs is the architecture of the building, whether it’s traditional or modern. People at the churches also give her direction.

“I don’t feel like I’m here to dictate what I want,” she said. “It’s far more collaborative for me than that. I work really closely with my clients.”

Sommerfeld’s goal is twofold: to be artistically satisfied and to satisfy her clients.

"They’re the ones who have to look at it all the time,” she said.

As for the actual creation of the windows, it's an art that is both old and new.

“We are still building our windows in the same way that they did centuries ago,” she said. “Do we have an advantage with the materials and tools we use? Absolutely.”

The lead is more of an alloy mix now that is much stronger than was used in earlier times. Earlier glass cutters were steel-wheeled and fairly crude, Sommerfeld said, whereas now she uses one with a carbide tip.

“The wheels are much harder and smaller and easier to use,” she said.

Sommerfeld proves just how easy it is, cutting with ease through a piece of purple glass. Then she demonstrates how the edge of the glass is wrapped, either in lead, which from the side looks like an I-beam and holds two pieces of glass, or in copper foil that is then soldered.

Copper foil, which is more rigid, is used on pieces such as lamps that need to resist the pull of gravity. Lead is used in windows, which remain in an always-moving vitreous state and need flexibility.

“Because the lead is soft and we’ve put putty around every piece of that glass, it can expand and contract and the glass won’t break,” she said.

The window starts with a design, from which patterns are created, just the right color of glass is selected and then it is put together by hand, one piece at a time.

“It’s sort of like a jigsaw puzzle, except you cut all the pieces and put them together,” Sommerfeld said. “You’re always working glass to lead, glass to lead, glass to lead.”

As for the glass itself, Sommerfeld buys most of hers from manufacturers in the United States, although she has glass on hand from all over the world. It comes in square sheets as large as 42 inches.

The choice of colors infused in the glass is endless.

“The glass, when it is a molten state, there are certain metals and minerals that are added to create the different colors,” she said. “They might use selenium or gold to get the red and the orange colors.”

Most often Sommerfeld uses glass with particularly chosen colors to carry out her designs. Occasionally, pieces of the glass will be painted and fired to capture details, such as a face, body parts or hair, or maybe an animal of some sort, to give it a more natural look.

Painting on glass is a multiple-step process, she said. It involves painting a layer and firing it in the kiln, then repeating the process until it’s done.

Creating stained glass art is very labor intensive and physically demanding, Somerfeld said. She estimates that finishing just one of the panels at Mt. Olive took 180 hours, not counting the design work.

The end result inspires those who visit the churches over hundreds of years. And although the art of creating stained-glass windows will continue to evolve, the reason for their creation is timeless.

“One reason I think we’re still doing stained glass for churches is because it enhances the space,” she said. “And hopefully, if I’m doing my job right, I’m enriching the architecture of the space. I’m complementing what the architects have done to create a really wonderful worship space.”

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