The exhibition Canterbury and St. Albans: Treasures from Church and Cloister features two masterpieces of sacred Christian art that were designed to evoke introspection and awe: monumental stained glass windows from Canterbury Cathedral and beautifully painted and gilded pages from one of the Middle Ages’ most beautiful books, the St. Albans Psalter.
But how, exactly, does sacred art create awe—and what does awe change in our lives? I asked the Reverend Dr. Gwynne Guibord, an Episcopal priest and founder of the Guibord Center, which seeks to connect people across religions to a shared experience of the holy, about her experience of the exhibition and the role of art and beauty in spiritual practice.
Tell us your first experience of Canterbury and St. Albans.
I turned the first corner in the exhibition and saw the stained glass windows, beautifully lit from behind. It was an awe-filled moment. I remember audibly gasping—it caught my breath because it was so exquisite.
What is awe?
It’s the realization that we are witness to something bigger than we are. It’s a “wow” feeling.
Awe brings with it a sense of humility—being a small part of something—but also a sense of belonging.
What else can awaken our sense of awe?
Great music. It can evoke our sense of awe, of wonder, of joy, and of sorrow.
Light plays a powerful role in both stained glass and in manuscript illuminations. Does it also evoke awe?
Light is healing and offers a feeling of peace and well-being. Evil has frequently been defined as “dwelling in the shadowy recesses of untruth.” So there’s a truthfulness about light, an inclination to move toward it.
What went through your mind while looking at the stained glass windows in the exhibition?
The windows bring us into the presence of history, immortalized in stained glass. In looking into the figures’ eyes, I wondered what they could tell us about what they’ve witnessed.
What have these figures [of the geneology of Christ] seen? What have they witnessed from their lofty places where they’ve been framed in Canterbury Cathedral? They hold history, they hold secrets; they are witness to great joy as well as horrific grief.
It almost sounds like the windows are animate. Did you experience them that way?
I certainly did, but I’m looking through the filter of a priest.
Did you have a similar connection to the illuminated leaves from the St. Albans Psalter, also featured in the exhibition?
Absolutely! To see the stories laid out is a magnificent experience. I thought about the hundreds upon hundreds of hours it took to make that book, and the deep faith and deep love of God and humanity it required.
Does the way a sacred book looks or feels change our experience of it?
Yes. In the Episcopal Church, for example, the Gospel is taken through the congregation to be read from the back of the church. The book is incensed to lift up our intention and prayers.
This reverence for sacred text is universal. Most faithful Muslims keep the Holy Qur’an at the highest point in the house. The Torah is kept in the tabernacle. Sikhs treat their holy text, the Gurū Granth Sāhib, as a living person—so much so that, with great reverence, it is wrapped ceremonially at night and placed in a bed, to be taken out again the next the morning.
The word “book” isn’t quite right for a sacred text, then.
Right—“book” doesn’t accurately describe it.
How can someone from another religious tradition make a connection with Christian art?
We forget how interconnected we are. The art we see at the museum is part of our collective history.
All traditions have objects that are sacred to them: the sacred art of Islam is calligraphy. Orthodox Christians revere icons. A Buddhist temple has shrines dedicated to Buddha and to honored ancestors. The more we understand about one another, the less likely we are to harm one another—and the more likely to protect one another, when harm does come our way.
What need does beauty serve?
Beauty is restorative. There is real horror in our world—natural disasters, war, slavery, abuse—and we need a beautiful sunset, we need beautiful stained glass windows and illuminations, liturgy and music, to counterbalance it.
And art? How does it enhance our connection to the divine?
It helps us leave the secular world behind. All space, all beings, and all creation is sacred—but we don’t walk through life seeing it that way. Art offers a transition, helping us leave behind the secular world and move into a sacred place.