By Grayson Pease

The Good Shepherd stained-glass window is a beautiful piece holding a wonderful place in the Magic City. This window is one of many stained-glass windows in the Cathedral of St. Paul, in Birmingham. This stained glass shows pastel colors and intricate patterns, while depicting Jesus Christ holding a lamb and a shepherd’s hook. You can also see a sheep on either side of Christ, a halo over Jesus, and that they are cast over a countryside background. This stained glass has a deep theological meaning, a rich history, and an entertaining creation.

Jesus the Good Shepherd, central section of stained-glass window by G.C. Riordan & Co., Cathedral of St, Paul, Birmingham, AL, 1893. Photo: David R. Bains, 2019. Used by permission of the cathedral.

Jesus the Good Shepherd 

The subject of this window is Jesus Christ acting as a shepherd. Christ is spoken of as the shepherd in multiple places in the New Testament, and he is also referenced as the shepherd in the Old Testament. John records teaching about his role as the shepherd. In John 10, Jesus speaks of himself. “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber. But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.” (John 10:1-2, New American Bible). He is explaining that he is the only one who will truly enter the gate to the flock. Anyone else that tries to enter the flock is a false shepherd. Christ is the only true shepherd. He is the shepherd to his people, and he is here to protect us. Jesus is quoted in verse eleven saying, “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). This scripture provides the theme of the window. Jesus is quoted saying he is the shepherd, just as the window shows. This passage also shows how much Christ cares for us, his sheep. He will give up his life for us, the sheep of his flock. John’s gospel continues with how Jesus acts as the Good Shepherd. Verse sixteen says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16). Jesus has a powerful message of unity in this verse. He says he will bring all the sheep together in one flock, even though some are from other groups. This message holds true, especially today. Christ will unite all of us in his flock of beloved people, regardless of any divide we have. The gospel of John is one of many places in scripture that outlines Christ as the Good Shepherd, and how he acts as our caregiver and Lord. 

The interpretation of the Good Shepherd in this section New Testament relates back to Psalm 23 of the Old Testament. It begins, “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack.” (Psalm 23:1). This directly ties to John 10:11, stating that the Lord is the Good Shepherd. Verse 2 continues, “in green pastures he makes me lie down; to still waters he leads me.” (Psalm 23:2, The Bible NAB). John 10:16 conveys this message as well, saying that Jesus lead his flock, as one. Comparing these two scriptures provide that the Lord is our shepherd and that he is so good to us. He leads us as one flock and provides for us, in every circumstance. 

The Window and Its Church 

The window features was given in memory of another good shepherd, Father John J. Browne. Father Browne was born in Cork County, Ireland, in 1840. Travelling with Bishop John Quiland, Father Browne came to the United States in 1860. He received his priestly education in the United States and was ordained in the Cathedral at Mobile, Alabama. He then served as a priest at many parishes across Alabama, including St. Paul in Birmingham. Under the leadership of Father Browne, the congregation was moved to its current location and expanded (History). Brown died in Mobile in February 1884. Nine years later this window was completed in his memory.

Memorial inscription in lower register of Good Shepherd windows, Cathedral of St. Paul, Birmingham, AL. Photo: David R. Bains 2019, used by permission of cathedral.

The window part of the original furnishings of the Cathedral of St. Paul in downtown Birmingham. The cathedral was designed by Adolphus Druding and completed in 1893. The first building used as a church by the parish was a small wooden building completed in 1872. This building was moved and expanded in 1880. The construction of the current brick building began in 1890. The cost of this beautiful structure neared 90,000 dollars. The Cathedral of St. Paul has seen four renovations since the original construction of the current building. The interior of church was worked on in 1955, 1972, 1992, and 2015 when they refinished parts of the exterior. As the cathedral’s history explains it is “widely considered to be a handsome example of the American variation on the neo-gothic style” (History). This church features Gothic stylings seen in the pillars, spires, and arches of the exterior. The cathedral website explains that the pillars and spires point to the heavens. They draw attention upward and are supposed to cause us to think higher thoughts. When you enter, it is easy to see the cathedral is built is in a basilica format. The construction of the cathedral features a large half dome at the center and a side aisle on the right and left. The Gothic theme continues to the interior. There are ten large columns dressed in granite that run along the main aisle. The granite pillars are supporting arches that also run the length of the center aisle (History).

Interior of Cathedral of St. Paul, looking toward the altar and the west (liturgical north) wall. Photo: David R. Bains, 2019. Used by permission of the catherdal.

A common practice of the time of this window being made was that many artists would translate paintings into stained glass. The Good Shepherd window is copied form a popular painting by Bernhard Plockhorst. Plockhorst was a German artist known for popular paintings, like the Good Shepherd painting. This painting was done in the nineteenth century, close to the same time as the window. The Good Shepherd window is almost identical to the painting by Plockhorst. Coping paintings of that time was common as stained glass grew in popularity when more churches began to these introduce these windows. The stained-glass workshops would pull many stylings and ideas from these popular paintings (Raguin).

Print of Bernhard Plockhorst, Der gute Hirte, The Good Shepherd (1887), print by Westminster Color Print, New York Graphic Society. Digital Image from John Schooling, flickr.com

The Good Shepherd stained-glass window was made in the same style as the cathedral. Starting with the border, the window fits the theme of the cathedral well. The window has a colorful border made of pillars on the sides and an arch over the top. Many other saints are pictured in stained glass, much like Jesus as the shepherd. These other artworks follow the same Gothic style as the church. 

The window shows many pastel colors to create the awesome image of Jesus. Jesus is the focal point of this window, and he is shown with a halo to describe his holiness. This window shows great detail in the character of Christ and the sheep with him. The details of his robes, his hair, and the wool of the sheep seem life-like. This image has wonderful detail in the background, also. The landscape is very aesthetic and realistic. The artist added to this artwork by painting a beautiful sky. The sky is a bright mixture of blue and pink that adds tone to this image.  

As G. C. Riordan & Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, was making this window, it closely copied the painting by Bernhard Plockhorst. Next, he would have cut the pieces of glass needed to make the window. They would have cut many small pieces to assemble the pattern of the window. The artist would paint the details and image of Jesus over the glass as the pieces were assembled. As the pieces went together, strips of lead would have been placed in between the pieces of glass. Once Riordan was complete with this design, it would have glazed the lead, which melts it to bonds the pieces together (“How”). 

Interpretation of the Image 

The Good Shepherd window has a powerful message. Jesus is show larging in this window. He takes up a large majority of the window. Christ appears tall and powerful. His intense appearance attributes to his role in our life. He is our leader and savior. Christ is the largest and most important thing in our faith. Jesus is shown with a shepherd’s crook and a halo. The shepherd’s crook is used to keep sheep in line and allows the shepherd to wrangle stray sheep back to the flock. This resembles the way he runs after us. Jesus will track us down and continue to draw us near to him because he loves us. He will be right behind us ready to take us back to the flock every time we turn around. The halo above Christ stands for his holiness. This halo shows the righteousness of Christ and his heavenly authority. The next largest part of the window is the sheep. Jesus is holding a lamb and there is a sheep on either side of him. The sheep are symbols of us, his people. Sheep are inherently not smart. Sheep need the guidance of their shepherd to survive. If sheep wonder around alone, they will become lost, possibly not find food, and could die. With our shepherd by our side, we will be led to food, water, shelter, and we will always stay safe. Jesus is our shepherd. He guides and leads us in the right direction. He is here for us and will help us prevail. The good shepherd, our Lord and Savior, is the most important image of our faith.

Good Shepard, G.C. Riordan & Co., Cathedral of St. Paul. Photo: David R. Bains 2019, Photo used by permission of the cathdral.

The Good Shepherd stained-glass window is a beautiful piece of artwork. This window has a rich history in the Cathedral of St. Paul. The Good Shepherd window is a great religious statement to the Cathedral and the Birmingham area. This image is important to the church and the surrounding culture. This image proves Jesus Christ to be our shepherd and is a testament of faith. This window has a deep theological meaning and compliments St. Paul’s Cathedral. Finally, the Good Shepherd window is a wonderful piece of art and an amazing image for the Christian church.

Good Shepherd
Artist: G.C. Riordan & Co., Cincinnati, Ohio
Created and Installed: 1893
Location: Cathedral of St. Paul (Roman Catholic), 2120 3rd Ave N, Birmingham, AL 35203

Works Cited 

“History.” The Cathedral of Saint Paul, 23 July 2019, stpaulsbhm.org/about/history/.  

“How Stained Glass Is Made (Article) | Gothic.” Khan Academy, Khan Academy, www.khanacademy.org/humanities/medieval-world/gothic-art/beginners-guide-gothic-art/a/how-stained-glass-is-made.  

Raguin, Viriginia C., Stained Glass, Harry N. Abrams, 2003. 

“Rev Fr John J Browne (1840-1894) – Find A Grave…” Created by Larebel, Maintained by Shirley Butler, Find a Grave, 2013, www.findagrave.com/memorial/103024771/john-j-browne. 

Schnorrenberg, John M. and Janice Ford-Freeman. Walking Tours of Birmingham Churches Conducted from 1990 to 1999. University of Alabama at Birmingham, Dept. of Art and Art History, 1999. 

Schnorrenberg, John M., and Marjorie L. White. Aspiration: Birmingham’s Historic Houses of Worship, edited by Philip A. Morris. Birmingham Historical Society, 2000. 

Thegoodshepherdthenandnow, /. “The Lasting Significance of the Good Shepherd- Final Post.” The Good Shepherd Then and Now, 6 Dec. 2016, www.thegoodshepherdthenandnow.wordpress.com/2016/12/06/the-lasting-significance-of-the-good-shepherd-final-post/

Published: November 18, 2020.

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