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Stories in Light: The Sanctuary – The Sacred Center

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 stained-glass windows – the improbable creation of a glassworks by cloistered Carmelite nuns in LeMans, France.

Raised above the transept floor by steps, the sanctuary is the area that contains the altar and is the most sacred place in the church. There are two sets of windows in this area, one east and one west, each with four saints. As in the nave, these windows portray saints. Unlike the nave, the saints portrayed in the sanctuary all lived in the time of Christ, because the founders of Notre Dame “honored especially the holy personages of the Gospel who lived in the intimacy of Our Lord.” (Chapter 5)

Above Anne and Joachim are The Virgin and Child and Saint Joseph (Window 26), the holy family. The Virgin Mary faces forward and wears a crown. Saint Joseph stands in the adjacent niche, at the Virgin’s side. The family scene found in Joseph’s medallion certainly evokes the family of Holy Cross. Fr. Sorin established a Confraternity of the Holy Family. Its members would “study and imitate the life of that earthly Trinity, and secure for themselves the protection of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Evidently, it is adapted to none better than ourselves; in every way, it should be our Confraternity.” (Chapter 5)

Across the sanctuary, the west tympanum presents The Trinity (Window 25) as the Throne of Mercy, an image popular from the twelfth to the seventeenth century. God the Father, seated in the heavens on a throne of clouds, holds the lifeless Jesus on the cross. The Holy Spirit in the form of a dove is between them. (Chapter 5)

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