The important supporting roles played by her family in Margaret Rope’s career & work are well-known. The story of the Ralph Sherwin window in Rome is a particularly good example – when mother, brother and sister came together to see the piece created.
This small but complex work is the subject of a new commentary by the scholar Roger Hall, who explains its deep meanings and symbols. Like all Mr Hall’s interpretations, it throws a lot of new light on the work!
The window showing St Ralph Sherwin (see pic right) is to be found in the ‘English College’ seminary in Rome, also known as the ‘Venerabile’ (Italian for venerable). Here, men from England are trained for the Catholic priesthood, as they have been for 450 years.
Sherwin is one of the ‘Forty English Martyrs’, executed in England – a strictly Protestant state – in the late sixteenth century for trying to revive the Catholic faith in this country. He is doubly significant at the Venerabile, being its first ‘graduate’ to be martyred. There is a fuller account of his life in Mr Hall’s commentary.
He was beatified (i.e. made a ‘Blessed’) in 1886 – when Margaret was just four years old -, and promoted to sainthood in 1970.
The opportunity to create a window came in 1933. That was the year the Martyrs Association was set up at the college, and it’s possible that Harry, Marga’s brother, drove the project. Father Harry was based in Shropshire at the time, but was to become resident on the staff at the college in 1937. The Bishop of Shrewsbury at the time, Ambrose Moriarty, Marga’s patron in many ways, also had strong connections with the college.
Likely enough, Harry and/or Moriarty didn’t even have to work too hard to make it happen. We think he simply contacted his sister and mother.
Margaret was going through a great creative period. Despite having been ensconced as a nun in an ‘enclosed’ convent in Suffolk since 1923, she was still producing some of her best work.
Marga was also deeply attached through her career to the English Catholic martyrs, particularly Sherwin, who was a convert like herself. Sherwin seemed to have had a light-heartedness despite all the horrors of his torture and the prospect of a particularly horrific execution; she wrote of him in a letter, “He is so loveable & lovely isn’t he?” All in all, she depicted him four times across her career.
Meanwhile, from Shrewsbury, the siblings’ mother, Agnes Maud Rope, agreed to pay for the costs of the window. Though a widow, she was now comfortably off thanks to an inheritance from her father Edward Burd.
Marga actually re-worked the ‘cartoon’ (i.e. the preliminary design), after Agnes’ death in 1948, to make it a memorial to her. The cartoon (below) can now be seen in Kesgrave Church.
A postscript to this story is a the strange discussion between Harry and Marga over any announcement of the authorship of the window. Margaret had a horror of publicity, and this was reinforced by the strict injunction of her convent’s order not to seek vanity.
In what is a quite touching, but firm, letter, she wrote to him: “We are not allowed to write anything for outside, and it is against (the rules of) our enclosure … a name must not be made known in connexion with the window. Our Mother (Superior) says that the donor’s name can be mentioned though … but … you won’t say your sister did the window, will you?”
We don’t know if Harry overcame his sister’s scruples, but it was hardly a fact that could be kept secret. Marga’s name is later mentioned as the maker of the window in a college magazine (The Venerabile journal, 1943) quite openly.
One of the remaining tasks in this story is to obtain a panoramic photo of the window that can illustrate its true luminous glory. Because it has been placed in a narrow stairwell (see pic right), an ordinary camera finds it hard to capture how the Italian light plays through the stained glass.
Roll on the day when more light-friendly cameras are available to us!
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