▪Blaxhall’s masterpiece

A visit to the small country church at Blaxhall in deepest Suffolk is a reminder of how things were a century ago. With its remote location set in fields, a long walk from any settlement, Saint Peter’s is the most quiet and peaceful of rural settings. A large, grassy churchyard surrounds it.

Blaxhall Church
It is very old – there is an ancient green man over the tower door – but it bears its antiquity lightly. It ‘slumbers’, to use the quaint language of writers like Arthur Mee.

Inside, the whitewash on the wall crumbles – but a congregation does attend here regularly, you can tell: lots of little smudged hand-written instructions are pinned to walls and doors.

So, only a small country church… – but it has a treasure. Blaxhall Church east window
One of Margaret Rope’s finest windows – her Nativity Window – has pride of place directly over the altar, as the church’s main, East Window. In this place, it covers Sunday morning services in its light.

Family church

Blaxhall village has a number of established families – their members’ names are recognisable on many of the graves, and, most sadly, on its war memorial plaque. One of these families was and is the Ropes. A large stark-white chest-tomb just outside the church porch contains family members.
These Suffolk Ropes owned a large farm nearby, and worshipped here at this church.

So Margaret would have known this place well. Her father, Henry, had been born round here (he only moved to Shrewsbury in his twenties) and it’s known that he’d bring his children back here for summer holidays to be with their grandfather. In these pews, Marga once sat.

The story of how exactly the window came to be commissioned is lost, but we can be fairly sure that the Rope family paid for it. The dedication along the bottom of the window says it is in memory of some family members, including mournfully, Henry Rope himself, who had died in 1899.
The piece seems to have been completed by 1913 when Margaret had just turned thirty.

Density

The window is, frankly, a masterpiece. Beautiful, densely composed, laden with symbolism, subtly painted & coloured and full of emotion.
In many ways this piece is part of her own life-story; and it is one of only two windows that she signed (see: MAR Signature article).

Margaret created this window rather as a medieval artist would have, in that there are dozens of references and connotations that those ‘in the know’ would recognise immediately.
For the rest of us, it is harder to understand, but, happily, the scholar Roger Hall has studied the window and written an exposition. The density of the window is clearly not just in its composition but also in its depth of meanings.
Whether you read the summary of Roger’s exposition of the window or the longer and more detailed version, it is best read alongside detailed photographs of the window, which can be found in Arthur Rope’s photo-book of Marga’s works – it’s worth buying just for these.

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Most curiously, there are elements that are too small to be seen by the naked eye, and only photography has revealed them. Roger postulates that Marga has ‘smuggled in’ some Catholic references in these tiny images; as they would not have welcome otherwise in this stolidly Anglican church.
In fact, this is one of the few Anglican churches that Marga made windows for.

Family portraits

However, even scholars cannot grasp easily the very personal references, though we can guess at some of them.

St Luke is interesting. He is an evangelist of course, but is he actually writing in this depiction? He is gazing at Mary, stylus & paper in hand. Roger Hall is inclined to think that St Luke, the only writer of the gospels who actually described the nativity scene, is writing his report of the scene.
But it is also possible that St Luke, the patron saint of artists, is drawing Mary… (the most famous version of St Luke Drawing Mary is the Rogier van der Weyden one). After all, the Suffolk Ropes produced some notable artists, including Ellen Mary Rope, who designed other artefacts in the church so Luke as Artist would be appropriate.

And why do the four young men in the window all look alike? It’s been suggested that the model for all four was Marga’s brother Michael, her favourite model. But why all four?
And why only two of the evangelists? Luke and John are represented, but no there is no Mark or Matthew.

The small images of countrymen in the window are so realistic that they can only be portraits. The horseman is possibly her father, whose medical practice in Shropshire meant many rural visits on horseback. Roger Hall has identified some of the others too.

Sadness

But for those of us who perhaps only care for the actual scene in front of us, not the references necessarily, it is the central figures that draw the eye.
This is a reflective, sad Mother Mary, and the Christ Child (another wonderful portrait) gazes at us with an almost adult knowing. Mary and Jesus both know what is in store – the sorrow and pain of the crucifixion.  If you look above the stable roof, the angels there bear an (obscured) cross.
This is no joyful birth: the scene has a sobering impact; and it is Margaret’s interpretation of the Christian message of the nativity.

For the congregation who sit facing it on Sundays, it must be a most powerful image.

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Panorama Blaxhall East
Blaxhall East Window, copyright Arthur Rope

 

One thought on “▪Blaxhall’s masterpiece

  1. Curious that you mention the painting of St Luke Drawing The Virgin Mary by Rogier van der Weyden. The Shropshire poet Kate Innes wrote a poem reacting to this work in her collection Flocks Of Words. In the same collection she has poems which reflect on some of Margaret Rope’s works…
    Small world.
    TW

    Liked by 1 person

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