Our Rich History: Cathedral Basilica window commemorates Pius IX and Ineffabilis Deux

By Stephen Enzweiler
Special to the NKyTribune

For decades, visitors and faithful alike have filed through the north doors of the Cathedral Basilica on their way to mass, confession, to pray at adoration, or perhaps celebrate a wedding. But high above them, patiently silent and framed in mortar and stone tracery, is a stained-glass window unlike any other in the Cathedral Basilica. It tells the story of Pope Pius IX and his December 8, 1854 apostolic constitution, Ineffabilis Deus, which formally defined and proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.

The Immaculate Conception window. (Photo by Stephen Enzweiler.)

The window’s story begins in 1904 as worldwide celebrations were underway honoring the proclamation’s fiftieth anniversary. That was the same year that Covington’s Bishop, Camillus P. Maes, was planning the installation of stained-glass windows for the recently completed St. Mary’s Cathedral. Imbued with a deep, heroic devotion to the Virgin Mary and inspired by the proclamation’s anniversary, Maes decided to include a special window in the cathedral that would honor the Virgin Mary and celebrate the teachings contained in Ineffabilis Deus.

To create the Cathedral’s new stained-glass, Bishop Maes chose Mayer and Company of Munich, one of the premier makers of ecclesiastical stained-glass windows in the world. Writing to Mayer in 1909, Maes presented the basic descriptions of imagery and subjects he wanted the window to contain. Stained-glass windows are essentially visual catechisms, originally developed in the Middle Ages for a faithful who could neither read nor write. Ordinarily containing a single scene or story told at a point in time, they teach some aspect of the faith through the subjects, gestures, clothing, colors, symbols and other artistic subtleties. But the window Bishop Maes wanted presented nine different aspects of the Church’s teachings in a single window spanning millennia. The common thread tying it all together would be the proclamation of God’s singular gift to Mary as described in Ineffabilis Deus, her Immaculate Conception.

To accommodate such a complex story, Mayer laid out the window in such a way that it could be read like a book – from top to bottom and left to right. In this way, the window’s imagery follows a temporal progression through time, beginning in Genesis with Adam, Eve and mankind’s fall from grace, followed by Old Testament prophecies of the virgin birth by Isaiah, then entering New Testament time, and culminating in the church’s formal acknowledgement of the teaching with Pope Pius IX’s proclamation in 1854.

Detail of the proclamation of Pius IX. (Photo by Stephen Enzweiler.)

Installed in the summer of 1910, the window is organized into five major sections or chapters. In the apex of the tracery, we begin with what Bishop Maes described as “the apparition of the Virgin and child.” Dressed in white and blue (symbols of purity and chastity), Mary wears a golden crown, the symbol of queenship, and holds her infant son. Her eyes are cast down in humility, yielding, as she always does, to her son who looks directly at us with open arms, inviting us into his salvific mystery. Like the introduction to a book, the image establishes the relationship of the mother and son from even before the beginning, reflecting what Pope Pius IX described in Ineffabilis Deus: “To her did the Father will to give his only-begotten Son … It was she whom the Son himself chose to make his Mother.”

Pope Pius IX. It was this photograph that Mayer & Co. used for the Pope’s image in the window.

Below the apparition is a litany of small tracery windows illustrated with fig trees and its fruit. Two white heraldic roses representing the purity of Mary decorate each side. In Christian symbolism, the fig is sometimes used in place of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and is also sometimes used as a symbol for Israel. The tracery tells us that God’s plan from the beginning was to use Israel to bring mankind back into union with him, and he would use a virgin, immaculately preserved from sin, to bear the child who would use another tree (the cross) to bring it about.

Below the tracery and reading left to right first are Adam and Eve shown in the very act of disobedience. The serpent slithers up the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and woos Eve with lies and deception … she bites, gives Adam the apple to eat, and the deed is done. “She took of its fruit and ate … and he ate.” [Gen 3:6]. Next, the story advances in time to the prophet Isaiah, here dressed in red and gold, colors associated with blood, martyrdom, and the Messiah’s kingship. Behind him we again see the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In his hands, he holds a scroll proclaiming the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14: “Ecce Virgo concipiet” (Behold, a virgin shall conceive). Ineffabilis Deus addressed Isaiah’s prophecy when it said: “The words of the prophets … describe this wondrous abundance of divine gifts and the original innocence of the Virgin of whom Jesus was born.”

The studios of Mayer and Company in 1910, where the Immaculate Conception window was created. (Courtesy of Mayer of Munich)

Below this are four panels that tell us about four distinct aspects of the Church’s teaching. The far-left panel takes us to Mary’s nativity, where an angel dressed in purple (the color of sovereignty) raises an open book above their angelic head in which is written in Latin, “Macula originalis non est in te” (The original stain in not in you”). “This doctrine so filled the minds and souls of our ancestors in the faith,” wrote Pius IX, that they “frequently addressed the Mother of God … as immaculate in every respect.”

To the right of the angel is the Virgin herself “beaming in glory” as Bishop Maes described her. The image also evokes Revelation 12:1, the “woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” Dressed in blue and white (colors symbolizing purity and chastity), the image tells of the glory accorded her by God in her conception without original sin. She stands on a globe of the earth, one foot on a crescent moon, the other crushing the serpent. “Eve listened to the serpent with lamentable consequences, she fell from original innocence and became his slave,” says Ineffabilis Deus. “The most Blessed Virgin, on the contrary, not only never lent an ear to the serpent, but by divinely given power she utterly destroyed the force and dominion of the evil one.”

Adam and Eve in their disobedience. (Photo by Stephen Enzweiler.)

Farther right, we see Saints Peter and Paul with their apostolic symbols – St. Peter with the keys to the Kingdom and St. Paul with a sword and the book of the Word. Both are dressed in the colors of wisdom, constancy, and faithfulness, kneeling before Mary representing the Church’s faithful acknowledgement of the dogma and of its ancient origins. At far-right, the story of salvation reaches its climax at the end of time in the ancient serpent’s final defeat. Archangel Michael, in the red garments of battle decorated with celestial stars, stands over what Bishop Maes described as “the prostrated evil spirit.” Michael raises his sword, ready to strike the final blow. This scene also evokes Revelation 12:9 where the “ancient serpent” is “thrown down.” The evil spirit which is Satan, with its green skin and horns, fearfully holds a book with the Vulgate text of Genesis 3:15: “Ipsa conteret caput tuum” (“She will crush your head”). Even in defeat, Satan has no choice but to testify to the truth and power of the Immaculate Conception.

This story reaches its climax in the bottom section of the window. Here, Pope Pius IX is surrounded by cardinals, bishops and priests at St. Peter’s in Rome. He is clad in gold vestments decorated with flower rosettes, lilies and fleur-de-lis (all Marian symbols). He holds Ineffabilis Deus in one hand and raises the other in affirmation and blessing, proclaiming: “We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.”

Stained-glass windows at Covington’s cathedral are not only artistically beautiful and spiritually uplifting. They are also replete with symbolism. Learning to understand their deeper meanings and to decipher their visual connections to church teachings opens a whole new vista into appreciating the complexities of this centuries-old ecclesiastical art form.

Stephen Enzweiler is a writer and author. He is a former columnist for the Kentucky Enquirer and is the Cathedral Historian at St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption in Covington, Ky.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at NKU and the author of many books and articles.

The defeat of Satan at the end of time. (Photo by Stephen Enzweiler)

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