Our church windows speak, telling us of the Faith, and of a secret sign
From early days the Church has sought to teach the Faith by means of pictures, sometimes on its walls, sometimes through windows and sometimes by sculptured or carved figures in wood or stone. Many of these examples still exist in churches throughout the land and give much pleasure both to worshipper or casual visitor on the lookout for such treasures. We at St Paul’s are very fortunate in having some very attractive windows, although none of them is very old. They are well worth looking at and meditating upon.
The east window showing the figure of Christ with two angels flanked by St Peter and St Paul was given in memory of Hannah, Charlotte and Jane Bateman in 1932.
The East window in the Lady Chapel window was erected in 1888 in memory of Canon H R Smith’s 30 years of ministry to the parish. There is an interesting puzzle about the dates. If the window was erected in 1888, it must have been when he retired because he died in 1896. However, as the Lady Chapel was constructed in 1933, the window must have been moved to its present position – but where was it originally? The window has some unusual features and is full of symbolism.
Canon Smith performed the first marriage in the church of his niece to a vicar on 1st July 1868.
At the bottom of the outer corners, the familiar Greek symbols for Alpha and Omega appear, reminding us that God is the beginning and the end, ie that He is eternal. There is the IHS symbol which for some stands for “I Have Suffered”. Others think it stands for the Greek word meaning “Fish”.
The sign of the crossed fishes was a secret sign among Christians in times of persecution by which they could identify themselves to one another. The Sign is much used in Christian literature today rather as an ecumenical “sign”. Some may have seen it scratched on walls in the Catacombs while on holiday in Italy.
The first of the four main panels contains a figure holding a Cross. Another Cross is at the top of the panel. These possibly stand for the Evangelists preaching the Gospel “We preach Christ crucified”. It is unusual to find such a form of symbolism, if this interpretation is correct. More usually it is the Crucifix which reminds us that Salvation was won for us by Christ dying on the Cross.
The second panel shows the Blessed Virgin Mary standing. In her arms is the Infant Jesus, while at her feet a toddler (probably John the Baptist) looks up at them. Above is seen a Pelican feeding her nestlings with food from her own breast. The Pelican is a symbol of self-sacrifice: we are reminded that Mary’s life was one of devoted obedience to God’s will; of self-denial and suffering.
In the third panel a Dove is seen descending upon one of Christ’s followers feeding a hungry man, while another suppliant, fallen at his feet, waits to be fed. At the Ascension, Jesus sent His Disciples out to the world to preach the Gospel, to baptise and to care for the Sick, the Hungry and the Weak, that as we do it for them we do it for Him. The Dove is the symbol for the Holy Spirit, which enables ordinary people to do extraordinary things for God.
Fourthly, we see a standing figure, holding an Anchor, and presumably preaching the Good News of the Gospel. The Anchor stands for Faith, and its message is reinforced by yet another anchor above, confirming what is symbolised. The connection is recognised in the old hymn, “Will your anchor hold?” It poses the question: “Will the anchor of our personal faith hold firm in the storms of life, when they come”.
The spaces are filled with a profusion of fruit and flowers and with stylised background panels. There are many lilies, symbolic of purity and recalling Christ’s words, “Consider the lilies, how they grow. They toil not, neither do they spin, yet your heavenly Father careth for them.” There are pomegranates, which are mentioned in the Bible and in many ancient religions and In Egyptian and Assyrian sculptures. Among the Romans pomegranates were thought to have medicinal properties: they were much used in tanning. Many kinds of vegetation can be seen in the window, reminding us of God’s care for all His creation as He supplies what is necessary for our bodies and spirits feeding, curing and inspiring us by beauty and joy.
From all this it will be seen that the artist is keen, not simply to create a pleasing picture, but that, as far as is possible, every part of the window shall have something to say to the beholder. The writer cannot guarantee that all this is a true interpretation of what was in the artist’s mind, but at least the window made him ponder and meditate, which was the artist’s intention. Far above are three small windows, each carrying a scroll. The top one carries the words, “Charity never faileth”. The other scrolls say: “Strength in Faith”, and “Rejoicing in Hope”. Perhaps together they are telling us of the Holy Trinity bestowing upon us Love, Comfort and Joy. Truly there is much food for prayerful thought in this lovely window.
Other Lady Chapel windows
Following the theme that church windows are intended to teach and to inspire the beholder, we have portrayals of two familiar events in the Gospels, namely the calling of Peter, and the meeting between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. The key to both is the effect of these meetings with Jesus. No man or woman who has experienced such a confrontation can ever be the same again.
The calling of Peter – erected in memory of the Rev George Vickars Gaskell who died in 1934.
Here is a big, burly fisherman introduced to Jesus by his brother, Andrew. Jesus says to him “Thou art Simon … but thou shalt be called Kephas, which, being interpreted, means ‘Peter’. At present you are a rough, tough fisherman, eager, impulsive, generous, but also unreliable. But all that is to be changed. One day you will known by a new name ‘the Rock Man’.” When Simon looked into the face of Jesus he saw a vision which transfigured his life, giving it a new purpose and direction. Of his devotion to Jesus there can be no doubt, yet we cannot obliterate from our minds how, during the trial of Jesus, the careless chiding of a servant girl was sufficient to cause Peter to deny his beloved Master. The look in the eyes of the bruised and blood-stained face of Jesus he would never forget. Now he knew himself as he had never known before. He could become the Rock upon which the future church could be built, and upon whom weaker followers of Jesus could rely.
It is a wonderful and comforting revelation that it is not simply by our good qualities that God can work His will. Perhaps ever more He can make our weaknesses and failures the opportunities for His grace to work. As Paul discovered, when writing to some rebellious Corinthians, he says of God “My grace is sufficient for thee, for my power is made perfect in weakness”. So, when a man or a woman comes into real contact with Jesus, Jesus can make him or her strong at the very point of their most conscious weakness.
The Samaritans were a mixture of people of varying politics, race, customs and religion, with no special place of worship, and so were despised by the Jews, the Chosen People of God, whose temple was at Jerusalem only. Yet on three out of the four occasions when they occur in the Gospels, it is the Samaritans who appear as the more praiseworthy. So it was an astonishing thing that Jesus should talk with her and even more so, that he should ask to share the water she was drawing from the well. It clearly astonished her also, not only a Samaritan by a woman of ill repute, and known as such to Jesus; yet when He spoke to her, He said some of the most profound spiritual truths He ever said to anyone, revealing His amazing faith in ordinary people’s capacity for attaining spiritual vision and growth. He actually shared with her His own vision of the spiritual kingdom, which was not tied to Jerusalem or to any particular place but one into which all spiritual people could gain admission by the adventure of faith. “God is Spirit, He said, ‘And they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth”.
The meeting between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well – dedicated to Betty Ann Forest who died in 1927
The beginning of the Catholic (universal) Church meant the breaking down of Jewish prejudice; the idea of the God of a nation giving place to belief in the God of the whole world of all people. Our spiritual vision must be of a world where God’s love reigns universally. How strong is our faith in that vision and our regard for truth?