Margaret Rope had a great affinity with symbology and iconography; her windows are full of meanings and signs. In this article, the scholar Roger Hall writes about one such, one that is probably not familiar to today’s readers: the ‘City Of God’. Though Margaret depicted it a few times, it figures most prominently in Shrewsbury Cathedral, in the Great West Window and the Baptistery Window.
Margaret Rope’s wonderful, huge Great West Window in Shrewsbury Cathedral, her first major commission, was completed in 1910. It is a picture gallery of British martyr saints, and part of its dynamism comes from the saints’ variety of poses and the different directions in which they are looking. One in particular, St Edmund (extreme left in the window), is gazing up towards the apex of the window, and if you follow his gaze you will see up there a walled city. This is no ordinary city.
If you look a little, you will see, near the edges of the window here, the sun, moon and stars, and right across it a vast expanse of water. According to the account of the Creation in the Book of Genesis, beyond the earth’s atmosphere was a solid vault, the firmament, containing the sun, moon and stars, and beyond that were ‘the waters above’, which were held back by the firmament.
Beyond the ‘waters above’ was heaven: so the city you can see is the heavenly City of God, also known as the New Jerusalem, the abode of God, his angels, and his saints – including St Edmund and those others whose earthly sufferings are shown in this window.
A city from Revelation
The architecture of this City in the West Window is somewhat reminiscent of Carcassonne in France. The artist has included details from St John’s description of his vision of the New Jerusalem, coming down from heaven at the end of time, in Chapters 21 and 22 of the Biblical Book of Revelation: the City is described as surrounded by a great, high wall with 12 gates, and the twelve gates are twelve pearls, each being a single pearl (hence the expression ‘pearly gates’!), and the river of the Water of Life flows out from the throne of God, which is in the centre of the City. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for “the healing of the nations”.
Lamb over the scene
Right at the top of the window, above the City, amidst the stars, is a haloed lamb (see pic below), with a pole from which is flying a red banner. This is Christ, the Lamb of God, the sacrificial victim who, by dying on the cross, conquered sin and death: the pole/cross signifies his death, the banner his victory over death.
From the Lamb rays of light illuminate the Holy City below: in Revelation, St John says that the city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, ‘because its light is the glory of God, and its lamp is the Lamb’.
You may well have seen this symbol before in a non-religious context: it appears on many pub signs as ‘The Lamb and Flag’. Pre-Reformation hostelries often adopted religious symbols as their distinguishing signs, and these have often survived (though renewed many times) to the present day.
The City of God also appears in Shrewsbury Cathedral’s ‘Baptistery Window’, which can be seen to one’s left as one enters the cathedral. Situated in front this window is the cathedral’s font, where both children and adults are baptised into the Catholic faith.
Here, Marga’s interpretation of the City has been heavily influenced by the window’s main theme, i.e. a depiction of the blessing of the font ceremony from the old (pre-1950s) Holy Saturday liturgy. (You will find a detailed description of the whole window in my commentary on Arthur Rope’s Margaret Rope Archive website).
In this window, Marga has introduced some variations from St John’s description: there are three rivers issuing from the gates of the City, symbolising the Holy Trinity (in whose threefold name, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, all Christians are baptised), and above the City we have the Sacred Heart of Jesus rather than the Lamb of God. There are appropriate quotations from the Book of Psalms on banners above and below the City and around its ramparts.
One other interesting feature of this depiction, though it’s so small you might not immediately notice it, is the monogram in a shield over the foremost gate of the City, MR (= Maria Regina = Mary Queen … of Heaven). Mary is referenced here because she has a metaphorical connection with the Sacrament of Baptism: Jesus, the Son of God, was born from Mary’s womb, and at baptism Christians are reborn as children of God in the baptismal font, the ‘Womb of the Church’.
The prayer recited by the priest during the old font blessing ceremony asked ‘that those who are to be sanctified in the immaculate womb of this divine font and are to be born again new creatures may come forth a heavenly offspring.’ By placing her monogram over the entrance to the City of God the artist is emphasising Mary’s role as the ‘Gate of Heaven’: Mary was the portal through which God the Son, Jesus Christ, passed to reach earth from heaven, and she is also the way that baptised Christians on earth can hope to reach heaven, by following her example and seeking her help.
And there is another connection between Mary and the City of God: just as two millennia ago God came down to earth in Mary’s womb to live among us, so at the end of time He will come down again with the City of God: ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them …’ (Revelation 21:3).
Mary of Agreda, a 17th century Spanish nun, reasoned from this, in her work The Mystical City Of God, an account of the history and life of Mary, based on her divine revelations, that ‘there is no doubt that this metaphor of a city [in the Book of Revelation] refers truly to the most holy Mary.’
One can only speculate as to why the City Of God appealed so much to Margaret Rope.
Of course, it is the only ‘picture’ of Heaven that has a Biblical foundation, so a fervent convert like her may have well been drawn to it.
Also, as an artist (who loved to depict ‘medievalist’ city-scapes in many other of her windows), she must surely have enjoyed the challenge of painting it!
Although we know that the City of God also features in some of Marga’s later works, sadly, good photos of these others do not exist.
In the (redundant) seminary chapel at Upholland College in Lancashire, Marga’s West Window has as its theme the Church and, as the City of God is also known as the Church In Heaven, it’s no surprise to see it figures there in a tracery light. In this depiction (see Margaret’s original sketch, right), the City again has a medievalist feel to it.
The biggest regret concerning the Upholland Chapel that is that no one has been allowed inside it for over twenty years. One day (we hope) permission for photography will be granted, and then we will get to see a photo of this particular City Of God by Marga in all its full glass glory.
The same applies to the City in her Good Samaritan Window from St John the Divine Church (in Randfontein, South Africa). Sadly, the Margaret Rope Archive only has some black & white photos of it in its ‘pre-installation’ stage. We hope to have full ‘live’ photos of it – one day soon.
The last City made by Marga (that we know of) appears on a Nativity card she created.
Roger Hall (with thanks to TS for the photos)
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