Dan Corkery: Stained-glass image pays tribute to WWI heroes

Dan Corkery: Stained-glass image pays tribute to WWI heroes

Thousands of fans Saturday visited one of the state's largest war monuments.

Both the east and west sides of Memorial Stadium are graced with massive limestone columns bearing the names of 188 University of Illinois men and one woman (Army Nursing Corps member Gladys Gilpatrick of Plano died in Philadelphia) who paid the ultimate sacrifice in World War I.

But not all local connections to WWI are big buildings. At least one is thin — a pane of glass — and its image prompts many to reflect on the meaning of sacrifice.

On the west wall of St. John's Catholic Newman Center (at Sixth Street and Armory Avenue in Champaign) is a 17-foot stained-glass window depicting the crucifixion of Christ. At the base: a sailor and soldier kneeling, with the America flag draped forward. Beside them, Lady Liberty. At the top is a verse from the Gospel of John: "Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends."

At the bottom: "In memory of our soldiers and sailors who fought and died in the World War for the Fatherland."

"A unique and truly American version of the most important moment in Christian history," according to Paula Mae Carns, a scholar of medieval art and head of the UI Literatures and Languages Library. About 10 years ago, she researched and wrote about this window and the 19 other stained-glass works in the church.

In an interview last week, Carn speculated that the war's heavy toll on college-age men was still top of mind for Father John O'Brien, the chaplain when the church was built in 1927.

"Those American soldiers," she said, "gave their lives as Christ gave his life."

How unusual is it to add contemporary figures to a biblical scene?

"Rare enough," says Aaron Frei, a fifth-generation member of Emil Frei and Associates in St. Louis, the firm that created the St. John's windows. His great-great-grandfather, Emil Frei Sr., a native of Bavaria, started the firm in 1898 as Emil Frei Art Glass.

The windows are in a style called "Munich pictorial," which no doubt Emil learned while studying at the Munich Academy of Art. This style became especially refined around 1910, Aaron Frei said, so the local windows are part of that heyday.

"It was really the pinnacle of painting on glass," he said. "The technical proficiency of these artists was really unrivaled in the history of stained glass, before and since."

Given the size and detail in each window, no single artist could do all the work. Instead, a team of 20 to 25 artists would work on these projects.

"They would spend their entire careers painting nothing but faces," Frei said, "while others would do only garments, while others would do the architectural canopy."

Surfing the Internet this past week, I found a similar window (created by Emil Frei Art Glass) at St. Ignatius Church in Chicago. The figures of the kneeling sailor and soldier, with Lady Liberty gazing upward, are nearly identical to those in the local window.

That made sense to Frei.

"They basically had a set plan and so you'll see a lot of commonality," he said of windows in various churches. "They had their style and they tended to repeat a lot of the same scenes."

Dan Corkery is a member of The News-Gazette's editorial board. He can be reached at 217-351-5218 or dcorkery@news-gazette.com.

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