Home News and Features St. Augustine, Montpelier’s Prayer Wheel of the Sun

St. Augustine, Montpelier’s Prayer Wheel of the Sun

St. Augustine Parish, Montpelier, stained glass windows. Above, “Three Nails." Photo by John Lazenby.
St. Augustine Church, the large granite building on Barre Street, is home to some of central Vermont’s most significant artwork: large stained-glass windows made by Wilbur Herbert Burnham, a key figure in the revitalization of the art of stained glass in the early 20th century. 

You wouldn’t know from the outside, where the windows are barely distinguishable from the weathered granite. But inside, the sun fires the windows into sheets of rainbow light, much like the trees of central Vermont this time of year.

Living trees are an apt comparison. For Burnham, stained glass is a uniquely “living” artform in that light not only acts on it but through it; the “supreme expression in terms of color,” he wrote in a 1924 article “Stained Glass Construction and Details-II,” “enhanced and glorified by the light of heaven.”

Burnham made blues and reds, the dominant colors of the height of stained glass in the 12th and 13th centuries, the central colors of his palate. He emphasized simple design and a humane realism, very different from the stylized piety of some Catholic art. And perhaps unique for his age, in the windows made by Burnham, Jesus is brown. 

The stained-glass windows are not just beautiful, they come together in a unified vision. Starting in the eastern corner with the Annunciation, 28 panels — four each on seven windows that cover the side walls — portray the entire life of Christ. Some images not typically included stand out, such as the Rich Young Man.

St. Augustine Parish, Montpelier, stained glass windows. Above,“Raising the Cross.” Photo by John Lazenby.
The Raising of the Cross is an even better example. Workers raise the crucified Christ up with rope extended from the cross. Although almost certainly not intended by Burnham, this echoes the comparison that Indigenous Catholics of the Plains Tribes made between the Sun Dance and the crucifixion, sometimes using the phrase “Jesus was the first Sun Dancer.”

Burnham also included extensive symbolism in the windows of St. Augustine, some that may not be expected in a church. A beehive to honor “Mother Bee” and her gift of fragrant wax for candles. A unicorn, which represents the birth of Christ. The “Tres Clavos,” or three nails that pierced Christ, a long-standing devotion that took unique form in Afro-Cuban spirituality, which Hector Lavoe invokes in his song “Aguanile.” And my favorite: a butterfly, which is a symbol of resurrection and perfect for a land that celebrates the return of the monarchs every year.

St. Augustine parish paid $25,000 for the windows in 1938, about $500,000 in today’s currency. A large amount of that tab was paid during the Great Depression. 

 Yet there must be a hidden story about how St. Augustine Church was able to connect with an artist as prominent as Burnham. The April 3, 1939 issue of Life magazine features a photo of Burnham at work in “Stained Glass has U.S. Renaissance: Gothic craft restored after 500 years.” His work is found in such places as the National Cathedral, the Princeton University Chapel, and Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. The Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution today houses the archives of Burnham’s studio.

What makes the windows of St. Augustine Church a masterpiece is that they partner with the sun. Every day, the sun re-tells the story, rising in the east at the beginning and “circling” the windows. The sun progresses through the story, setting in summer at about the window with the panels portraying the Death and Entombment and rising the next morning where the tabernacle sits. 

As with the best of popular art, anyone can participate in this hidden ceremony of glass and sun that occurs daily in the heart of our community. Merely go inside and partake of the colors, maybe light a votive candle to the Virgin Mary, and at the same time be part of a granite votive candle fired by sunlight, a great prayer wheel continually turned by the sun.

For a tour of the stained glass windows, T.W. Wood paintings, and other features of St. Augustine Church, contact the parish office at saintaugustineoffice@comcast.net