Stories in Light: Bringing the Stained Glass of the Basilica at the University of Notre Dame to Life

The Basilica of the Sacred Heart at the University of Notre Dame contains one of the largest collections of late nineteenth-century French stained glass outside of France. Stories in Light by Cecilia Davis Cunningham and Nancy Cavadini describes the windows according to their location in the building, from the narthex at the entrance to the Lady Chapel behind the altar. More than 100,000 visitors tour the basilica each year to admire its architecture. Today, the Notre Dame Press brings the Basilica to you.

In celebration of the Advent season, the Press brings you a seven-part series to tell the unique story of the windows – the improbable creation of a glassworks by cloistered Carmelite nuns in LeMans, France. The windows, made between 1873 and 1884, are the work of the Carmel du Mans Glassworks of Le Mans, France. The surprising story of how the windows came to be at Notre Dame begins with the creation of stained glass windows by priests and brothers in the early years of the Congregation of Holy Cross, and the daring and unprecedented foundation of a stained-glass business by the strictly cloistered Carmelite nuns who were their neighbors. (Chapter 1)

Fr. Sorin always insisted that education offered in a religious setting was “the vital question of the day.” The Carmelites saw their windows as indispensible to Holy Cross’s educational mission and Notre Dame’s exceptionally large window order allowed for the development of a significant iconographic program for the church. Notre Dame’s forty-four stained glass windows contain two hundred and twenty scenes. Following the custom of northern France, the stained glass is read left to right, first the lower register and then the upper. There are, in addition, grisaille windows made by the Carmel du Mans in the stairwells to the choir loft, near the church entrances, and in the clerestory. (Chapter 1)

A floorplan assigns each window in the Basilica a number, providing a map to locate the window in the basilica. These numbers follow the Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi: the numbers are assigned beginning in the “front” of a church, with the windows behind the altar, and, alternating each side, finish at the “back” of the church, with the entrance to the nave. (Chapter 3)