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How Great thou Art

Dean of St Mary’s Cathedral shares the visual, spiritual and theological appeal of its historic stained glass windows in a stunning new book.

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As each artwork is full of theological meaning and symbolism and can appeal to anyone of any age, not only Catholics or Christians, Fr Don explains that they remain a rich means of evangelisation that can endure through centuries. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
As each artwork is full of theological meaning and symbolism and can appeal to anyone of any age, not only Catholics or Christians, Fr Don explains that they remain a rich means of evangelisation that can endure through centuries. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

They say stained glass windows are used to help bridge the gap between the earthly and the divine … and nothing is more evident than the incredible displays at Sydney’s St Mary’s Cathedral.

Constructed of glass pieces, connected and outlined by strips of lead, the stunning windows are one of society’s most primitive methods of storytelling and offer an ethereal experience with colour and light.

Drawing on his life-long love affair with the beautiful windows, Dean of the Cathedral, Fr Don Richardson, has answered the many requests over the years by some of the millions of visitors to one of Sydney’s leading landmarks, and published a stunning book explaining the stories behind each one.

“The windows are not there to just make the cathedral more beautiful, but also more reverent and to bring people closer to God.”

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Beauty and Light with Faith, explores the meaning of all 50 windows brought to Australia in the late 1880’s in what he describes as “one of the very finest Gothic revival Cathedrals in the world”.

The book, featuring breathtaking images by Sydney photographer Giovanni Portelli, shows not only the beauty of the windows, but explains what they depict, their history and invites people to explore their deeper meaning.

Fr Don said throughout his life he has always had a deep fascination with the stained glass panels and today regards them as “old friends”. “I never take them for granted, whenever I see them there’s always something different to see or to contemplate, I still get excited by them,” he said.

Beauty and Light with Faith written by Fr Don Richardson (also pictured at right) is the result of his life-long fascination with the windows at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Beauty and Light with Faith written by Fr Don Richardson (also pictured at right) is the result of his life-long fascination with the windows at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

“The impact of the beauty and transparency of these works of art is as powerful today as it was when they were crafted.

“They don’t just present a scene, they are full of symbolism, and draw you in, they take you into the meaning of the theological and spiritual aspects, so they really appeal on every level.

“The windows are not there to just make the cathedral more beautiful, but also more reverent and to bring people closer to God.

“I can still remember visiting the cathedral as a kid and being completely mesmerised by the windows, which obviously has never left me.”

“And they are of interest to so many people other than Catholics, for example, if you are interested in history, or architecture or art or crafts, they do their work, for everybody who sees them either consciously or unconsciously.

“They are a valuable tool for evangelisation, inviting people to explore the deeper meaning behind them.”

The idea for the book began more than 20 years ago when Fr Don was an assistant priest at the Cathedral.

Painstaking photography by Giovanni Portelli captures the best views of each window. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Painstaking photography by Giovanni Portelli captures the best views of each window. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

But his fascination with the windows has been with him for a lifetime.

He fondly recalls visiting the Cathedral during a trip to Sydney from his hometown Casino as a five-year-old boy and marvelling at the “glowing windows in the dark building”.

The fascination continued as a cathedral tour guide as a young sacristan and then when he entered the seminary.

“Having been here on and off for so long and in various capacities it just aligned for me to do it, being here as dean and with some great staff has enabled me to put it together and it has come to fruition.”

“I can still remember visiting the cathedral as a kid and being completely mesmerised by the windows, which obviously has never left me,” he said.

“And then back in the 80s I started making notes on them just so I could tell people what they were looking at as I was taking them on cathedral tours.

“That was a labour of love, but then most of the more accurate research I did was as an assistant priest at the cathedral in the 1990s.

One of St Mary's Cathedral's rose windows. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
One of St Mary’s Cathedral’s rose windows. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

“People would often ask about the windows and say ‘it would be good to have all of this published’ because they wanted the information.

“Also various Archbishops have suggested it, I think Cardinal Clancy was the first one along with Cardinal Pell and Archbishop Fisher, so I did it … eventually.

“Having been here on and off for so long and in various capacities it just aligned for me to do it, being here as dean and with some great staff has enabled me to put it together and it has come to fruition.”

“That was a labour of love, but then most of the more accurate research I did was as an assistant priest at the cathedral in the 1990s.”

And in case you’re wondering, the Annunciation window is his favourite, partly because of the way it’s been painted and the colours that have been used as well as the particular symbolism that’s in it.

Beauty and Light with Faith can be purchased at the Cathedral Shop or Mustard Seed Bookshop for $50.

Alternatively email [email protected] and they will contact you for your details. Please add $5 for postage.

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