▪Baptistery’s secrets unlocked

One of Margaret Rope’s richest and most vibrant windows is also one of her most baffling – especially to a modern audience. The ‘Baptistery Window’ in Shrewsbury Catholic Cathedral seems to be just a collection of disconnected scenes, and the casual visitor must wonder what she was trying to do.
Well, now the Margaret Rope scholar, Roger Hall, has done a full analysis of the iconography in the piece… and it is a puzzle no longer.

A series of scenes

The Baptistery Window (see pic right) is to be found in the corner to the left as one enters the cathedral. The scenes in it are distinct, even if apparently random. From the bottom going upwards: we have the running deer of Psalm 41; a depiction of a Catholic rite; Noah’s Ark; the ‘City Of God’; and the Sacred Heart. Coming down: on the sides we have streams of water which form an enhanced figure-of-eight; the flames of Hell; a Paschal (Easter) candle and its triple-stick submerged in water; more flames of Hell; and finally, the very demons of Hell.
What a strange mixture!

However, after his research, Mr Hall has pulled them all together. What he has shown is that all the elements in the window relate to the ceremony of the Blessing Of The Baptismal Font, which is a part of the Church’s annual Holy (Easter) Saturday rituals. Thanks to him for all the facts in this post.

Deep in symbols

In the modern Catholic Church, this particular ritual takes place during the Saturday’s midnight service. However, when this window was installed (around 1922), the event would have taken place on the morning of the day. See photo below.
Though Holy Saturday is a day of profound sadness & foreboding for Christians, being the day after Good Friday (when Jesus had been killed on the cross), the ritual itself does speak of hope for the future, as does the very sacrament of Baptism itself.

Once one knows what the window is about, identifying the elements becomes (slightly!) easier. Each scene is representative of a moment within the blessing ceremony. Here is some explanation, as pieced together by Mr Hall…

The deer comes from a psalm sung by the priest as he approaches the font; the blessing of the font itself (always done in semi-darkness) is depicted; the rainbow behind Noah’s Ark is the symbol of the now-renewed covenant between God and humankind; the waters depicted in the window come from the ceremony’s liturgy, spoken as “the streams of your abundant grace”; the candle is the ritual Paschal (Easter) Candle which is dipped into the font; the City Of God is the fount of baptismal cleansing waters; and the Sacred Heart represents the wounds of Christ on the cross, especially that in his side (from which issued, says the Bible, water – significantly -, as well as blood) which is specifically referred to in the ceremony’s prayers.
And the aspects of Hell – the red flames and green demons?

The deer from Psalm 41, with – on the outside – demons, excluded by the baptismal streams

The demons are to do with another section of the ceremony. Any Catholic who attends the Holy Saturday service will know how eerie the ceremony can be at this point. In the church (lit only by candles at this point), the priest intones at the font, “May all unclean spirits, by your command O Lord, depart from hence; may all the malice of diabolical wiles be entirely banished; may no power of the enemy prevail here”. Marga’s vision is that the demons then snarl, as they are forced by the power of the prayer to leave. In essence, it is something very few of us see in this secular age; a ceremony to expel devils.

Details

As Mr Hall also points out, the window is also full of other, tiny details, all put there by Marga for a reason.
The five spots on the candle are one of these, the curiously placed water jar is another, the wider references for Noah’s Ark another, the way ancient Christian legends identify the deer with baptism another… and many many more! Mr Hall’s full exposition gives a deep analysis of these other symbols – much more than can be attempted in this post – and is very much worth reading. You’ll be able to access it by clicking here.

Drama

One shouldn’t forget though that, however satisfying it is to now understand the story behind it, for most of us the window is still simply a wonderful, dazzling work of art (it is one of the biggest draws for visitors to the cathedral). Once again, one is aware of Margaret’s ability to pull absolute drama out of her work.

Of course, stained-glass in churches is uniquely placed to exercise theatre: combining the shifting colours & brilliance of daylight with the extra story-telling power that comes from being in a sacred setting, and deliberately sited to give the viewer a sense of awe.
But what Marga does in her windows is also use all her feelings of spirituality (she entered a nunnery just one year after this window was completed) and her knowledge of religious iconography to tie the devout observer in even closer to the work. So the Baptistery Window is no shiny, superficial work but a complex piece of art that asks the careful observer to stand and think.

Once one knows that, the window is even more of a tour-de-force than one might have realised.
~ ~ ~
Postscript
There are often a few questions left over when studying a Marga window – and this is no exception!

The visitor to it will notice immediately that the window is not next to the cathedral’s baptismal font, which is surprising. However, the explanation of that is that, back in 1922, the old baptismal font did, in fact, stand right in front of it. The font has been moved twice since.

The features of the priest and of the cross-bearer appear to be, respectively, those of Canon Moriarty (the cathedral’s administrator in 1922) and those of Michael Rope, Marga’s brother. Moriarty’s features seem to be an exact (flipped) version of a photo of him (see pic right) currently in the Shrewsbury Diocesan Archives. This tells us that Marga, whose portraiture is often praised, may have worked, at least now and again, from photographs.

Who commissioned, and who paid for, the window? The dedication is to ‘Elizabeth de Souza’, who had been the previous bishop’s housekeeper, so one’s first tempted to say it was she who commissioned it, perhaps having left money in her will for it (she died in 1907). However, current speculation is that Moriarty may have commissioned it – Marga was his favourite artist -, and that Marga returned the compliment by placing him in the window. (It was a habit of medieval artists to place the donor into their works of art, and Marga was much taken with medieval traditions).

Talking of medievalism, Mr Hall has pointed out that the story of the window (i.e. the sequential order of the ceremony) runs from the bottom to the top. Nowadays, we are more used to the stories within works of art reading the other way, but Mr Hall points out that the medievels often designed stories within artworks to go bottom-to-top – and he believes Marga also deliberately worked her design that way, as another indication of her feeling for the medieval.

Finally (though one never should say “finally” with Margaret’s works…!), if Margaret wanted to create a window to accompany a baptismal area, why didn’t she just depict a regular baptism? (The previous, Victorian window in that spot was a depiction of the baptism of Jesus).
Maybe this is because she did seem to be engaged by the Blessing’s drama of fire & darkness, because she depicted the same Blessing Of The Font ceremony again, in another of her works, the Lumen Christi panel (now to be found in Kesgrave Church). It must have had some great meaning for her.

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One thought on “▪Baptistery’s secrets unlocked

  1. The installation of Margaret Rope’s windows in the cathedral often meant old ones had to make way.
    Her Baptistery window replaced a Victorian one showing the Baptism of Christ, which is now in the former chapel at the convent in Belmont (Shrewsbury).
    Her ‘Soldier Window’ also replaced one. The original showed St Augustine and St John the Evangelist, and is now also in the convent.
    For completion… the upper lights in her St Laurence and Seminary Martyrs windows originally contained the symbols of the 4 Evangelists – St Matthew’s man, St Mark’s lion, St Luke’s ox and St John’s eagle – but where they are now is not known.
    RH

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