Spreading light — stained glass artists share what it’s like contributing their work to temples around the world

MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE — When someone mentions the beauty and art of stained glass, the first thing that comes to most people's minds likely has more to do with Europe and Catholicism than it does with Utah and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But when it comes to modern stained glass installations, both Utah and the Church are gaining recognition. For Tom and Gayle Holdman of Holdman Studios, located in Lehi, Utah, stained glass — or art glass as they refer to it — is making a 'comeback' in the art world and they are happy to be part of the reawakening.

In a recent interview with the Church News, Gayle Holdman explained how, in her experience, many people think of stained glass as a dying art. "Even when we began doing it, people didn't see it as an art. It was thought of as a craft," she said.

Although their Utah studio may not reflect the gothic and renaissance vibes so often associated with art glass, looking at the work that Holdman studios has done around the world, it is apparent that their work can hold its own against even the windows on the great cathedrals of Europe in size, scale, quality, and detail. But for the Holdmans, the true beauty meaning of their work comes from its message of light.

As of May 5, when the Memphis Tennessee Temple was rededicated — following 18 months of renovation, including the design and installation of custom glass art windows — Holdman Studios has either designed and fabricated, or done restorative work on the stained glass window features for 90 temples around the world, with another 10 temples currently on their docket. There are currently 164 operating temples around the world.

Workmen raise the madonna lily windows to install on the Paris France Temple.
Workmen raise the madonna lily windows to install on the Paris France Temple.

"When you walk into the temple, you realize that you are walking into a special space and that you can open up your soul and ask for inspiration from a higher power than your own." Tom Holdman said, explaining why they feel passionate about contributing their work to those sacred buildings.

"We've been blessed to do an art form that can speak so much through light and because we are children of light, we respond to it," Gayle Holdman added, explaining that her favorite part of their work on temples is being able to see how people respond to it when they see it for the first time. Meeting the members who live and work near the temple and seeing their reactions as they witness something that was created for their use, which reflects their culture and environment, is a touching experience the Holdmans look forward to each time they visit one of the newly completed temples.

The windows, she explained, are different than the curtains which were often used in earlier temples because they allow for more light to flow through while still providing for the sacred nature of privacy. And for Gayle Holdman, the color and light that the windows produce enhances the sacred experience.

"Our job is to create something that is kind of familiar for (people) that will help them feel at home in the house of the Lord," she said.

Explaining their process for creating the individual and unique designs for each temple, Tom Holdman said they try to pull inspiration from the landscape and culture surrounding each temple.

"We feel that a temple should reflect the Saints that will be the patrons of His holy house," Tom Holdman said. "Then … we gather inspiration from the culture and mother nature around us."

Each project is approached first by learning about the agriculture of the area and then speaking to local members. From there, along with the team of Church designers, architects and artists working on the temple as a whole, they share ideas with one another for what design concepts they want to include or highlight throughout each individual temple and each art glass installation. Each temple has its own unique design and, while the Holdmans use recurring themes like the tree of life, each temple design allows their use of gospel themes to be presented in new ways.

On the Paris temple, for example, the Holdmans said that each room had its own flower that was incorporated into the window designs, and on the temple in Rome every window was unique.

The art glass feature by Holdman Studios in the Rome Italy Temple visitors' center is titled “Come unto Me.”
The art glass feature by Holdman Studios in the Rome Italy Temple visitors’ center is titled “Come unto Me.”

The glass is there to enhance the beauty and experience for those attending the temple, Gayle Holdman said, but "ultimately, we don't want people to get so caught up in what the glass means that they forget why they're there."

On a truly good piece of art, the artist will leave a piece of their soul, Tom Holdman said. "And as a member of our faith, it's an honor to be able to do art glass, which harnesses and magnifies the light of God, that I may share it with others."

For Tom Holdman, the stained glass stands out as an important item not only because it is his area of expertise, but also because it is the only part of the temple that can be seen from the inside and the outside, he explained.

Sharing details of the windows they produced for the Memphis temple, the Holdmans described how they made use of the pawpaw flower, native to the eastern U.S., and how the windows change with varying lights.

"The pawpaw flower has a rich cranberry color in it," Tom Holdman said. "To get that color … the cranberry color comes from gold ore."

A view of the custom windows on the recently renovated Memphis Tennessee Temple seen from the outside at night. The windows feature the pawpaw flower.
A view of the custom windows on the recently renovated Memphis Tennessee Temple seen from the outside at night. The windows feature the pawpaw flower.

Yes, there is actual gold mixed into the glass to produce that color, Gayle Holdman added.

Because of the addition of gold, the cranberry color used for the Memphis Temple is some of the most expensive stained glass artisans can use. "So you choose carefully how you use it," Gayle Holdman said.

Looking at the pawpaw flowers, which are featured prominently on all of the windows of the Memphis temple as vine-like borders as well as center pieces, it's amazing to see how different the cranberry color looks as the light changes.

"They look completely different at night with the artificial light coming out," Gayle Holdman said. "When you're in the temple and it's the natural light (from the sun coming in) they almost look pastel. But then in the evening when you're seeing it from the outside they almost look like they've kind of turned into the fall pallet of those same colors. They're a little bit warmer. But it's all the same glass, just depending on the light and what's happening outside and inside."

The way the colors change is one of the Holdman's favorite things about the Memphis temple.

"In the evening time, they just really glow," Tom Holdman said.

In the long process of building temples, from the initial purchase of land through to the dedication by a prophet of God, the Holdmans play just a tiny role. But it is a role they love to fulfill because it brings them closer to God.

"We're just this teeny little piece … but seeing the pieces come together in the right time and in the right way over and over again, it's just little miracles that remind me, this is real. There is a real ability to connect with God when it comes to making and keeping sacred covenants," Gayle Holdman said.

That's what makes their work on temples different to any of their other commissions as artists Gayle Holdman explained. And that's why they love it.

"I love being able to see how it doesn't matter where in the world a temple is, what color skin anyone has, what language we speak, we are all children of God and the temple covenants are the same," she said. "And the reality of the Savior, of His Atonement, of His priesthood power, that is just confirmed with every opportunity that we have to help bring the temple closer to His children and see the blessings in their lives."

A skylight in the celestial room of the Boise Idaho Temple.
A skylight in the celestial room of the Boise Idaho Temple.