Blue, yellow, and red—those are the letters,” says celebrated Danish painter and sculptor Peter Brandes. “They’re like alpha and beta in the Bible: they are the beginning of everything. I could go on and make any language with those colors."
Color is the language Brandes speaks fluently in his most recent project, his third in the United States: four large contemporary stained glass windows for the newly constructed Christ Chapel at Cornerstone University, an evangelical college in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
For Christ Chapel’s westerly window, Brandes employed 250 sheets of hand-blown glass in 48 different shades of blue to explore the idea of baptism and rebirth. In the east, red represents the resurrection morning. To the north, yellow brings joy into the crucifixion scene, foretelling resurrection. To the south, a trio of complementary colors—green, violet, and orange—pays homage to the relationship between blessing and sacrifice in the Old Testament. Each window is made of about 1,000 pieces of glass.
The $14 million building is the first dedicated worship space in the nondenominational school’s 75-year history. It is a dramatic change of venue from the gym where chapel services were previously held, thanks in large part to Brandes’s windows. “As far as I know, there are no other Christian colleges taking on this type of scale and intentionality in designing a chapel site,” says Makoto Fujimura, artist and director of Fuller Theological Seminary’s Brehm Center. “Cornerstone’s effort is quite unique.”
“This is a highly intentional step for us,” says Cornerstone president Joseph Stowell. “Bringing significant artistic statements to campus is an important part of our vision to create an environment that reflects Christ, his work on our behalf, and his glory in a variety of dynamics.” Stowell says initial plans for the chapel called for plain glass windows. But conversations with philanthropist and Cornerstone alumna Roberta Ahmanson helped to recast the vision. After touring the campus and reviewing the initial plan, she recalls thinking, We can do better.
Ahmanson, an advocate for contemporary art, points to Creation as proof that God has a rich visual vocabulary. “Look at space, the face of a baby, or the indefinable glory of a flower. . . . We deny God when we deny the power of beauty and fail to include that language in our spaces of worship,” she says.
A friend and patron of Brandes, Ahmanson suggested that Cornerstone commission the artist to create windows for Christ Chapel. After both parties agreed that Christ should be the central figure in the windows, Brandes was given full creative control of the project.
“[At first], I had some thoughts about concepts that pictured Jesus’ interaction with his disciples,” says Stowell. “But in the end we wanted Peter to depict concepts that he was passionate about. Throttling an artist is usually not productive.”
A favorite artist of Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, Brandes has a number of pieces in Roskilde Cathedral, the main burial site for the Danish monarchy since the 15th century. But his style is anything but mired in the past. “Very often churches in the United States repeat [art forms and themes that have] been done before, because they want to be sure that what they show is in the right line,” he says. “But this has nothing to do with contemporary life. . . .
The text of the Bible is so strong, there is more than enough in it to make new [artistic] interpretations for centuries and centuries to come.”
Brandes’s windows serve as a kind of training ground for the imagination. “This contemplative path to grow our imagination is critical for worship,” says Fujimura, “as we cannot worship without the use of our imaginations.”
Ahmanson hopes anyone who walks into Christ Chapel will experience “the overwhelming wonder of the color and light,” and that their own visual awareness will deepen. She believes the church must regain its role as the home of the best of contemporary art. “We now live in a visual age, an emotion-driven age. The church can have no voice if it abandons visual language, one of God’s loudest, most powerful languages.”
Lisa Ann Cockrel is director of the Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College.
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