Sometimes a work of art stops you in your tracks.
The stained glass in the south aisle of the parish church in Whatton, Nottinghamshire, does just that. It was installed in 1879-1880, a commission in memory of four members of the Harrison family, farmers, who died between 1865 and 1876. It is a classic example of the Arts and Crafts style of William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones.
Morris and Burne-Jones met as new undergraduates at Oxford in 1853. They were both in Exeter College and were part of a set of friends, mainly from Birmingham, although Morris hailed from London, all interested in poetry, history and religion. Their families expected them to enter the Church.
Morris acquired the nickname of “Topsy”, on account of his thick mop of dark brown hair, although he was also known for agitated movements and for whirling his arms, like a top. Burne-Jones called himself “Ted”, which was altered by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who joined their set, to “Ned”. Their friendship lasted until Morris’s death in 1896.
Their interests moved towards art, medievalism and socialism and away from joining the Church. With a private income from his father’s investments in copper mining in Devon, Morris was able to invest in business himself. He and six partners established a furnishing company in 1861 (Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co) which he dissolved in 1875, compensating some of the partners, to create Morris & Co (1875-1940). The company became the best known decorating business in Victorian Britain and the byword for good taste.
Stained glass was the first of the firm’s successes. They were able to capitalise on the surge in neo-Gothic church building and especially the large-scale commissions from architect G F Bodley.
Morris and Burne-Jones’s windows were richly but not garishly coloured and had a consistent pattern or layout, based on what they saw and admired on a visit to Chartres cathedral in 1855. The main figure panels usually contain saints or prophets and were designed by Burne-Jones. Below these were more detailed smaller panels depicting stories from the Bible. Morris preferred to design the “pervasive vegetation” of the borders and the angels in the tracery above, although he supervised the glassification of the whole piece. The Whatton window is an excellent example of their visual formula.
It is also a good example of Morris’s flower symbolism:
Any decoration is futile when it does not remind you of something beyond itself.
Each of the main panels contains Christian flower motifs. The central figure of Christ is bordered by pomegranates. These have a firm place in religious, pre-Christian and Eastern mythology, as A S Byatt describes in her essay, Peacock and Vine. Ancient Egyptians were buried with pomegranates, as images of a new life. The Greek myth of Proserpine, eating pomegranate seeds before being released from Hades, was captured in a famous Pre-Raphaelite painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 1874, only a few years before the window was made.
Pomegranates were regarded by Buddhists as blessed fruits, symbols of fertility and plenty. Christians gave them the meaning of resurrection or life within death. Christ the King, the window says, will come again.
St Peter appears to be surrounded by apples. While these were regarded as forbidden fruit in the Old Testament, in the New Testament they came to be associated with redemption from the Fall. A second Adam, with apples, brings new life. And, conventionally in religious art, St Peter holds the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.
The depiction of Saint John is interesting. I thought at first it would be Saint John of Beverley, to whom Whatton church is dedicated. However, Burne-Jones appears to have chosen Saint John the Evangelist, for whom there are more artistic precedents. He is shown with a cup out of which is flying a serpent. There were many paintings of Saint John neutralizing a poisoned chalice by casting out the poison in the form of a serpent, notably by El Greco, 1605 and by Alonso Cano, 1637. The story is of John being tested by the High Priest of the Temple of Diana at Ephesus and challenged to drink poison without feeling the effects. The flower border appears to be of roses, again a potent symbol of veneration and, more particularly, of blood shed on the cross and the crown of thorns.
The Whatton window is of the highest quality and, while we know little about the Harrison family who commissioned it, we know a great deal about the celebrated designers and their significance in art history.
Both the biography, William Morris: a Life for Our Time, by Fiona MacCarthy, Faber and Faber, 1994 and A S Byatt’s essay, Peacock and Vine, Chatto and Windus, 2016 can be found in the Bromley House Library, Nottingham.
MacCarthy is the source for the phrase “pervasive vegetation” in describing Morris’s designs from the early 1870s onwards.
The web-site of the Louvre Museum has a description of Cano’s painting of Saint John, at http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/saint-john-evangelist.
Thanks go to Janet Greasley, churchwarden at St John of Beverley, Whatton, for her assistance.