Church Takes Great Panes to Send a Message
Trinity Church has gifted to the Lower Manhattan streetscape a new, iconic stained-glass window on its Broadway facade that promises to become a landmark in its own right. Fashioned by world-renowned artist Thomas Denny, the new window is a narrative depiction of the Parable of the Talents, from the Gospel of Matthew, which tells the story of a master who leaves a trio of servants in charge of three allotments of his property while he travels. When the master returns, he judges each servant by the profit earned on the portion of his estate for which that hireling was responsible. The master praises the two servants who earned handsome returns, and condemns the third, who risked nothing, but gained nothing. This leads to the quote that most remember from the Parable of the Talents, when the master says, “for to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away.”
This passage has sparked debate for 20 centuries. In the 1960s, it inspired the sociologist Robert K. Merton to coin the phrase “the Matthew Effect,” which refers to the process of cumulative advantage summed up by the cynical aphorism, “the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.” (Merton, incidentally, was a hyperactive originator of catchy archetypes that would later permeate popular culture—he also coined phrases such as “self-fulfilling prophecy,” “unintended consequences,” and “role model.”)
But was Merton right about Matthew? Most theologians argue that the Parable of the Talents is analogy that has little to do with worldly wealth, and is instead a warning that those gifted with God’s grace are called upon to put that gift to work and accomplish something with it. In a similar context, it would be easy to misinterpret the narrative illustrated by Trinity’s new window.
Several years ago, Trinity’s Rector, the Rev. Phil Jackson, began to prepare for a new window above the Church’s main entrance by reflecting on which Gospel passage would be most appropriate. “People sometimes think that I chose the Parable of the Talents because we’re on Wall Street, and that I wanted say to the community on Wall Street, ‘you need to get your act together, you need to do more than just invest your money,’” he reflected on the day Trinity’s new window was dedicated, in November. “But it actually had nothing to do with Wall Street. I chose it for us. Because Trinity Wall Street has a great abundance of wealth.” This was a reference to the fact that Trinity Church was granted ownership of most of the land in Lower Manhattan (more than 200 acres) by Queen Anne in 1705, when New York was still a British colony. Although much of that land has been sold off in the intervening three centuries, the Church’s residual endowment is still worth more than $6 billion.
“What this parable suggests to me very strongly is responsibility,” Rev. Jackson continued. “The message I was trying to get across to our community is that when you come through the doors and want to be part of Trinity Church, it’s not a privilege. It’s a responsibility. The responsibility is to not bury what we have, but to do something with it for our king and master. The window should remind us of what we have to do with what we’ve been given.” (Trinity Church has given away more than $120 million in the last three years, to non-profit organizations and public-service groups around the nation and throughout the world.)
When Trinity’s search committee settled on Mr. Denny to design the new window based on the Parable of the Talents, the artist insisted upon adding a further narrative thread from Matthew. “Jesus speaks about giving drink to the thirsty and clothing the naked,” he says. This is emblematized by the figure of a supplicant, receiving a cup from a benefactor.
“If you look around the edges of the window,” Rev. Jackson notes, “you’ll see one group of people feeding someone. One group of people giving someone something to drink. Another group of people giving someone clothing. One person visiting someone in what looks like a cell. Denny is representing all of that in the window.”
Dr. Susan Ward, a Trinity parishioner who is also an art history professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, says, “Trinity is one of the earliest Gothic Revival buildings in the United States. And of course, with the Gothic Revival comes stained glass narrative, which was a big part of medieval stained glass. But it actually hasn’t been well represented in Trinity’s stained glass at all, until this window.”
“One of the things about this type of stained glass,” Rev. Jackson adds, in a reference to Mr. Denny’s artisanal approach, “is he actually uses the old medieval technique. He’s one of the last glass artists who uses the same technique they used in the Middle Ages, and has kept that going. He layers the glass, so that you get different colors.” One result of this craftsmanship with that Mr. Denny’s windows are noted for the unique way in which light and color play across the surface — an effect that is achieved by separately etching with acid and staining with silver thousands of individual pieces of glass, before each is hand painted and fired.
But for all the ancient craftsmanship, the new Trinity window contains some strikingly modern idioms. “Down in the bottom right, check out the guy with the cell phone,” advises Rev. Jackson. “He’s so busy and focused on the phone that he can’t see what’s going on.”
Mr. Denny adds, “it’s metaphorically about burying oneself, so there’s a figure who is hunched over his device, unaware of actual life around him.”
“Everyone’s indicted in that one,” Rev. Jackson says, laughing.
Mr. Denny’s creation is the first new stained-glass window installed in Trinity Church in more than a century, and is part of a larger rejuvenation project that began in 2018. This initiative includes a new organ, restoration of original floor plans by 19th-century architect Richard Upjohn, the installation of disabled-access features throughout the facility, and a facelift for Trinity’s outdoor churchyard.
“One of the most important goals of the rejuvenation project,” notes Rev. Jackson, “is that we look at it in a 100-year timeframe. With appropriate care and maintenance and updating, these things will last a century or more, and we believe that actually will happen, God willing. So we’re going to be looking at this window for decades. Just see what you see and enjoy its blessings.”
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