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Professor explains history, significance of Basilica stained glass

| Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Tuesday evening, theology professor John Cavadini explored the history and artistry of the stained glass windows in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. He spoke in the Andrews Auditorium of Geddes Hall as part of the University’s celebration of the 200th anniversary of Fr. Edward Sorin’s birth.

Cavadini offered a theological and historical interpretation of information that he, his wife Nancy Cavadini and Cecilia Cunningham gathered. Cunningham, a former professor at Indiana University South Bend and Basilica tour guide, and Nancy Cavadini researched for a book together about the stained glass windows.

Cavadini first discussed the history of the Basilica and how Sorin chose each piece of stained glass during the Basilica’s 13 years of construction. Sorin received the glass from a Carmelite monastery in France, which did its best work on the Basilica in attempt to expand into the North American market, he said. He encouraged the audience to meditate on the theological nature of light and how it relates to the glass.

“The saints are those who, in Christ, are themselves light,” Cavadini said. “The light from light, incarnate in Christ.”

Cavadini went on to link his thoughts on saints with Sorin’s “pedagogy” which could be found in the stained glass. All of the panels of stained glass depict the saints along with notable moments from their lives, he said, and each panel has an educational message for Notre Dame students.

The stained glass panels along the nave of the Basilica include images of well-known saints such as Saints Patrick and Mary, the Mother of Jesus. There are also images of less-famous martyrs and some saints who did not actually exist, he said. However, Cavadini also said many of the panels are particularly indicative of Sorin’s pedagogy.

Sorin almost equally combined the number of saints known for piety and contemplativeness with saints known for their great actions, Cavadini said. This pattern culminates towards the front of the Church with the juxtaposition of Mary Magdalene and Saint Martha, who brought Christianity to France.

“[These images are] the union of action and contemplation, since Martha represents action and Mary represents contemplation,” Cavadini said. “So the life that Sorin wanted to uphold for the students that came into the Basilica was a life of action, a life of future leaders of all sorts, who were nevertheless dedicated to prayer and never lost their link with the contemplative life.”

Cavadini said the stained glass in the transept at the front of the Basilica also held special significance. The east transept has a large window depicting a marvelous Pentecost scene, he said, while the west transept has a large window depicting the Dormition of the Virgin Mary.

The window in the east depicts the beginning of the Church and is therefore illuminated by the sunrise, Cavadini said, while the window in the west is fittingly lit by the setting sun and reminds us of our ultimate destiny through the image of the end of Mary’s life on Earth. Cavadini said the transept is Sorin’s way of depicting the “pilgrim Church” on its journey from beginning to end.

Cavadini said in conclusion that Sorin’s primary goal was to produce students who would become saints. He wanted Notre Dame to be a place that could educate young people to also be successful in their endeavors while achieving sainthood, he said.

“Father Sorin asks us to imagine our lives not just as a career, but as a story, which God is writing with the light of his love,” Cavadini said. “And allow God to write that story, and you can then see the end of it.”

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