In Vienna this week, I’ve had the opportunity to check out quite a few churches. In the middle of the old city there are maybe a dozen spectacular churches, sporting everything from Gothic to super modern architecture. The biggest and most famous, St. Stephen’s Cathedral, is the seat of the Archdiocese. A Romanesque and Gothic church built between 1160 and 1511, the Cathedral is like many other churches of its day, sporting huge stained glass panels along either side, and the east end, of the the church.
I’ve always wondered why stained glass was so widely used in churches built over the last two thousand years. Some of them are beautifully done, but I always thought they looked a little tacky, especially when they’re next to some spectacular architecture or other art.
But, I thought about these in context. Back in the 1500s, life was pretty dull. The most common colors were probably earth tones. Most people lived on the dirt. If you were a commoner and your clothes were dyed, they were probably white, black or gray. There was certainly paint around, but all in all, the world was probably pretty drab.
For the same reasons the church paid to have everything gold plated, they likely paid for the stained glass. These things were probably dazzling in comparison to everyday objects. Nobody had OLED screens and color billboards staring them in the face all day long. Hell, color prints of any sort were serious luxury items.
It’s funny that what once was probably an amazing sight to behold now seems so dull and tacky to me. It’s amazing how fast we get jaded.
So who cares?
Well, most obviously, color is important. The 80’s and 90’s brought neon pinks and greens and yellows. Steve Job’s first iMacs embraced the translucent colors to redefine what a computer should look like. But less than a decade later, he scrapped all the color, moving back to the sleek, black, white and silver motifs of the 50’s and 60’s. Why? Each time he did it, it overwhelmed us. As soon as everybody started making gadgets that looked like they were cast out of lollipops, Jobs moves us back to the sleek aircraft silver and piano black gadgets we use today. And most of the industry has followed suit. So what’s next? I have no idea, but I bet its something that overwhelms us. We’re currently in a pretty colorless/minimalist phase, so I bet the pendulum swings back the other way.
But more importantly, color is just one way to overwhelm. That should be your goal. The Catholic church got people to donate billions of dollars, at least in part, because of the overwhelming feeling of being in those churches. It’s impossible to walk into St. Peter’s Basilica and not be blown away by it. If it was 1624, you’d have to assume god played some part in the building of it. It must have been simply overwhelming.
That sense of being overwhelmed feels great. It makes you feel like you’re a part of something: it lends instant camaraderie. Whether you overwhelm through color, or feeling, or service or whatever, that should be the ultimate goal.