Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Reading Stained Glass (iv): a war memorial window

Today, 11th November 2014, seems a good day to reflect on a complicated type of memorial: war memorial stained glass. After the Armistice in 1918 the windows paid for and installed in churches and cathedrals by families, communities, schools and regiments no doubt gave consolation and a sense of pride at the sacrifice of those whom the glass commemorated, and at having done something fitting. I’m not sure they are quite so comforting today. Here’s why.

The parish church of St Peter and St Paul, at Clare in Suffolk, is stately and light: most of the windows are clear glass. Some heraldic panels and other fragments in the East window are all that remain of the medieval glass, most of which was smashed by the Puritan iconoclast, William Dowsing, in 1643. But there is heraldic glass, too, in the tracery of a window in the North aisle, and indeed these heraldic signatures may offer a clue to the donor: alongside shields representing the diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, those of an early Earl of Norfolk buried in the Abbey of Bury St Edmund, and the arms of England itself, one of the shields displays the arms of the Haberdashers’ Company. No hint of the donor is given where you’d normally expect to find it: in the inscription at the bottom. Instead the window, by the distinguished stained glass artist FC Eden (1864-1944), has an austere, academic Latin dedication:

In honore[m] pretiosissimi Sanguinis D[o]m[ini] N[ost]ri Je[s]u Chr[isti] et in piam memoriam eorum qui vitam pro patria obtulerunt.
In honour of the most precious Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ and in pious memory of those who offered their life for their country.

So it is a Great War memorial window. At first sight this is simply a stylised Crucifixion scene, with Mary and St John on either side of the Cross, but the design is significantly elaborated: at the top of the central light sits God surrounded by six-winged cherubim, and with the Dove as it were on his lap. Pale beams of light radiate downwards from this highly schematized representation of the Throne of Heaven. Then, at the top of the Cross, there is a kneeling angel immediately above the Pelican in her Piety, that moving emblem of the sacrificial nature of Corpus Christi and the Crucifixion. At each end of the cross bar sit images of the sun and the moon, conventionally seen in crucifixion windows of both medieval and modern design and representing the eclipse, the darkness that covered the earth at the third hour, when Christ died.

On either side, in the two outer lights, are two figures who further help to identify this as a war memorial window: St Michael (left) and St George (right). Dressed in full armour and holding a sword by his side, St Michael carries in his hands the scales with which, at the Last Judgement, he will weigh the souls of the righteous and the unrighteous. He stands upon an almost inconspicuous snake, (the Serpent – i.e. Satan) whom he has defeated. Opposite him is St George, who would usually be depicted in such a window having just slain the dragon at his feet, but here he’s shown simply in an attitude of devotion before the Cross. It’s as if this window deliberately resists any triumphalism. The emphasis is all on sacrifice rather than on victory. Texts appear above both saints: one text in fact, the Vulgate rendering of Hebrews 10.14:

‘Una enim oblatione consummavit’ + ‘In sempiternum sanctificatos’
For by one offering he hath perfected forever them that are sanctified.
An important detail: the Latin word ‘oblatio’ – here referring to Christ’s self-sacrifice, his offering of himself – comes from the same root (obferre > offere) as the word ‘obtulerunt’ used in the window’s inscription to refer to the soldiers’ offering of their own lives pro patria. The self-offering of the soldiers is thus semantically associated with the self-offering of Christ.
And now the most startling feature of all: from the hands and side of the crucified Christ blood streams into an oblong basin or tank out of which the Cross has sprouted. Sprouted seems the right word for, like a tree, it has produced branches which provide the pedestals on which stand the statue-like figures of the Virgin and St John; and from one of these branches a new shoot has begun to sprout.  Actually, what I have called a basin or tank is a bath full almost to the brim: visibly and literally, a crimson blood-bath. Nowhere else have I seen this extraordinary, ironic image in a war memorial window. Indeed, I have only ever seen it in one other window – a tiny 16th century silver-stained roundel in an interior window of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. And in that particular roundel naked figures are shown washing themselves in the bath itself.
Given then that Eden's window is to be understood as a memorial to The Fallen, it appears to invite us to identify the dead of the war as ‘they which’ (to quote from the Book of Revelation) ‘came through the great tribulation’ and have ‘washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb’? For just as the blood spilt in 1914-18 is transmuted here into the sacrificial blood spilt on the Cross, so the bath in this window is transformed into the tomb in the garden of Joseph of Arimathea. This is where Mary Magdalene, seen kneeling on the grass among the flowers, has come with her precious ointment, to embalm the corpse that is no longer there.

One final link connects the scene above to the dedication at the base of window: a small medallion with a shield depicting the Instruments of the Passion – crown of thorns, nails, spear and sponge of vinegar. The shield is surrounded by a wreath studded by five white flowers, a wreath at once of victory and of mourning. I have to repeat here that I find this window moving but discomforting. The visual pun (for that is what it amounts to) on a blood-bath almost disgusts me: is it really  theologically and historically acceptable to imply that the English dead of the Great War –  this window’s heraldry is wholly English and Anglican – have become Christian martyrs, exchanging the blood-bath of Passchendaele for the blood-bath of Passion-tide? To admit that millions of lives were sacrificed in France and Flanders a century ago is one thing; to suggest, however, that the lucky winners, and presumably they alone, were making a Christ-like ‘sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction’ is surely another.

[Illustrations: the war memorial window, N aisle of Clare Parish Church, Suffolk, Artist: FC Eden

Text and photographs © Adrian Barlow

My previous posts in this ‘Reading Stained Glass’ series can be found here:

(i)  Rouen

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Adrian, for this measured and informative and thought-provoking piece. Having spent quite a lot of time yesterday studying the opening movement of the War Requiem with two classes of London teenagers, I can't help recalling one line:

    '...No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells...'

    But I wasn't alive then.