Patriotic stained-glass windows and the manifestation of American civil religion

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Letters & Science


Stained-glass windows are a mechanism through which abstract ideas are communicated, often benefitting from their association with European Gothic cathedrals. When church windows include patriotic iconography, the patriotic themes conceivably benefit from this association. Between 1890 and 1950, many stained-glass windows were created for American churches that contain patriotic symbols and images associated with American nationalism. Insufficient research has been published regarding this phenomenon. This dissertation attempts to fill that gap by arguing that these patriotic images represent a manifestation of American civil religion. Over forty churches and cathedrals were surveyed using a methodology based on Erwin Panofsky's framework, which incorporates cultural influences into the analysis of the artistic design. Window themes align with various aspects of America's foundational moments, including those associated with the Pilgrims and Puritans, the War for Independence and the Founding Fathers, America's westward expansion, and the nation's wars. America's civil religion, as discussed by Robert Bellah, includes a set of beliefs, ceremonial rites, and symbols connecting a community that endow a transcendent value on those items. Race, religion, and national identity are foundational elements of that civil religion and are explored here as potential influences in the design process. American civil religion is also typically embraced during times of trial. Therefore, issues of immigration quotas, Indian removal policies, economic turmoil, and military conflicts are considered as well. The windows under consideration here embraced American civil religion, while often whitewashing and sacralizing a view of American history that ignored many of its cultural complexities.




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