Gouda, Church of St. John - VM - James Skillen
The Freedom of Conscience Window
in the Church of St. John the Baptist in Gouda, The Netherlands
by James Skillen
This month we remember the liberation of Europe from Nazi domination and the end of World War II. The more recent liberation of Eastern Europe from Soviet control also inevitably comes to mind. And of course the popular struggles for freedom in Libya, Syria, Egypt, and other Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries is one of the central dramas of our day.
The long march to freedom and against oppressive governments did not begin recently, of course. This stained glass window in the Sint-Janskerk (Church of St. John the Baptist) in Gouda reminds us of that. In 1595 the States General of The Netherlands donated this window to the town’s main church, which had become Protestant in 1572 and is famous for its many beautiful windows. The image clearly reflects the period of revolt against Spanish and Catholic oppression (the 80 years war) by the people of the Low Countries. Gouda, moreover, was especially known for its concern with freedom of conscience, which to the citizens of this town may have meant first of all the freedom to embrace the Protestant faith, yet it also referred to freedom of thought and expression in a wider sense.
In this window freedom of conscience is allegorically portrayed as a woman riding in a chariot pulled along by the virtues of love, justice, unity, faithfulness and determination. With one hand she is holding a human heart to her bosom, with her other hand she is clasping an open Bible. The vehicle is rolling over a man with a crown and a red royal cloak denoting tyranny, upending the old social order. The other figure on the chariot with sword and shield portrays the protection of faith. The window makes visible that virtues like love (denoted by a mother with two children), justice, unity, faithfulness and determination empower freedom of conscience to triumph over tyranny and intolerance. Moreover victory is only possible as faith with its armor protects us while we fight for freedom of thought and religion, which was a very real, life-and-death battle at that time. Remarkable, is it not, that the governing authorities wanted to honor freedom of conscience and religion by giving this window to the church?
Yet we must remember that this window came from a relatively early period of popular uprisings against authoritarian rule in the West. The citizens and magistrates of Gouda were Reformed Protestants fighting for their freedom from Spain and Rome. This freedom of religion, however, did not yet mean totally equal conscientious freedom for people of all faiths, and there was not yet sufficient distinction between national freedom and religious freedom. Nevertheless a new spirit was at work and would grow in influence in many parts of the world.
Looking at this window today leads me to prayer: O Lord, please remind us continually that Christ Jesus, not we ourselves, is the liberator of conscience and the victor over oppression. Show us how to live thankfully for the freedoms we have inherited, and strengthen our commitment to serve those who do not yet enjoy freedom of conscience and religion. Show us how we should honor and submit to those in ecclesiastical and governmental authority as we encourage them to exercise their callings on our behalf in service to you. Inspire us to work humbly and unflaggingly for just governments that will indeed protect freedom of conscience and religious freedom. Set us free to create works of art as well as works of just government. Give us the desire so to yield our conscience to you that we will be drawn ever more powerfully by the virtues that reflect your goodness and glory. Amen.
James W. Skillen, former president of the Center for Public Justice in Washington, D.C., is the author of In Pursuit of Justice: Christian-Democratic Explorations (2004) and A Covenant to Keep: Meditations on the Biblical Theme of Justice (2000).
More information about the windows in the Sint-Janskerk in Gouda can be found on www.sintjan.com.
ArtWay Visual Meditation May 1, 2011