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The Twenty-Third Psalm Window

Text by Michael Lampen, Archivist, Grace Cathedral

Perhaps the most beautiful window in Grace Cathedral, the Twenty-Third Psalm window is poetry in glass; a feast for the eyes, and a comfort for the spirit. A masterwork of renowned stained glass artist Charles Connick of Boston (1875-1945), its several medallions, or scenes, explore portions of the immortal verses of the famous psalm. Connick's poetic genius masterfully shaped the imagery of the psalm into stained glass, each scene framed by the rising tendrils of a growing vine. The floral design echoes the famous Tree of Jesse window at Chartres Cathedral (c. 1150). Famous shepherds of the Bible flank the main scenes and angels flank the smaller medallions. The scenes/verses read upward, in traditional medieval style, rising, as it were, from earth to heaven. The window is located in the east wall of the cathedral's south transept.

The window border and medallion background are dominated by rich "Connick blues" and aquas and the climbing vine framework is an alternating contrast in gold and pale blue. A ruby red background links the individual medallions, and the same color is seen in the shepherd's cloaks, balanced by green and aqua robes. The flanking angels echo the gold of the vine, which also extends into the spiraling border tendrils. Bright oranges appear in the shepherd's halos and robes, and in the angels' wings. The sheep, and the shepherd's headgear, are various creams and near whites. The window, traditional stained glass with painted details, supported by an intricate lead framework and bronze supports, is four feet wide and twenty-three feet nine inches tall. It awaits restoration.

The Twenty-Third Psalm window was partly inspired by "The Song of Our Syrian Guest", a charming little book by William Allen Knight (1863-1957), a New England Congregationalist minister. The book describes a tea party for western guests, at which (Lebanese) Syrian shepherd Faduel Moghabghab interprets the famous psalm for them, from a working shepherd's point of view. The window is given a New Testament flavor by showing the shepherd with the tri-nimbus (three-rayed halo) of Christ. Created in 1940-41, the window is a gift of the first Dean of Grace Cathedral, James Wilmer Gresham, in memory of his beloved wife, Emily Cooke Gresham (1871-1940). 

The most famous and beloved of all the Psalms, the Twenty-Third Psalm probably dates from the fourth to sixth century before Christ, but looks back to the golden days of King David. Basically a psalm of confident entreaty, trusting in God's grace, the Twenty-Third Psalm interweaves several related themes. As a sheep, the psalmist humbles himself before the compassionate care and generosity of God the shepherd, recognizing God's preeminence as a wise and loving ruler of his people, and as a role-model of perfect kingship. The psalm also shows the people's point of view, one of gratitude and trust in their shepherd-king. A sub-theme may be the meal, as a ritual of thanksgiving for deliverance. A second theme is the Exodus; the Israelites in the wilderness, fed by divine manna, refreshed by the spring in the rock, and led through danger toward the promised land. A third theme is that of David; the shepherd boy anointed as future king, fugitive from King Saul in the wilderness, and king of Israel, shepherd of a nation. A fourth theme, seen from a Christian perspective, is that of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, nurturing, protecting healing and saving his human flock, and also his own testing in the wilderness, anointing as a guest, last supper, crucifixion and resurrection. Jesus quotes the previous psalm, Twenty-Two, on the cross ("My God... why hast thou forsaken me.") Finally, the enriching insights of the Syrian shepherd, lost to most modern urban readers, lead us back to the shepherd and his sheep.

Like all the psalms, the Twenty-Third Psalm is poetry. The psalm is composed of paired phrases, rhyming, as it were, in thought rather than in last words. Most pairs in the Twenty-Third Psalm are examples of synthetic parallelism, in which the first phrase (i. e. "The Lord is my shepherd...") is complemented by or leads to, a second phrase ("(thus) I shall not want"). Although original tunes do not survive, the psalms were originally set to music and sung. The name "psalm" derives from the Hebrew root "zmr" which refers to song, and is also a reference to the lyre or harp which accompanied the singers, with which we associate the traditional psalmist King David.

The shepherds depicted in the small medallion borders are all (with one exception) well-known Old Testament figures. They follow the themes of goodness and mercy depicted allegorically in the top large medallion. Shepherds favored by God for their goodness are on the left (Abel, Jacob and David) and shepherds upon whom God showed mercy are on the right (Lot, Esau and Joachim).

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