A NEW stained-glass window was dedicated earlier this year in
the lovely little Romanesque Iffley Parish Church, outside
Iffley already boasts one of John Piper's happiest windows: a
gathering under the Tree of Life of the animals associated with the
nativity. Scrolls come from their mouths with inscriptions based on
the Elizabethan wall-paintings at Shulbrede Priory, which evidently
caught Piper's fancy as they had that of Beatrix Potter, who wove
them into The Tailor of Gloucester.
The font at Iffley stands immediately below Piper's south
window; and now Roger Wagner's north window has come to occupy its
other side. For all that Wagner's Tree of Life carries the
Crucified, there is yet a poignant note of joy; for the tree itself
is in riotous spring blossom, and the River of Life, which winds
down the green hill from the base of the Tree towards the font, is
teeming with fish.
Both Piper and Wagner come to stained glass as painters. Piper
worked in the closest collaboration with stained-glass artists,
especially Patrick Reyntiens, who interpreted his ideas on paper
into glass. To be able to convey luminescent colour was an
intoxicating magic to the Middle Ages, and still is today, when we
have all the skills of film. To watch a good stained-glass window
changing through the moods of the seasons and the sun is one of the
great rewards of regular church attendance.
One of the technical difficulties lies in the necessity for
support. With only small spans of glass possible in the earlier
Middle Ages, the leads had to be closely meshed. Nevertheless, if
you see a bar running across a face, for instance, in a Romanesque
window, it will be mending an ancient break. Nowadays, the joint
can be healed invisibly with silane.
Our 12th-century ancestors used their leads, whenever possible,
to outline figures and drapery, and other compositional elements.
Curiously enough, as skill in making wider expanses of glass grew,
the aesthetic effect did not necessarily grow likewise. No one has
ever improved upon the windows of Chartres. Now, of course, most
things are possible.
Here at Iffley, the deep, fretted embrasures and small, simple
rounded windows are ideal for jewel-like glass in the 12th-century
tradition; and Wagner has responded fittingly. His window was
already provided with a ferramenta of horizontal bars, which he has
absorbed into his composition. Unlike Piper, Wagner has mastered
for himself the whole art of stained glass, at the able and
generous hands of his friend Tom Denny.
This Christus hangs among the upper branches of the flowering
Tree. The blossom around him is of pink and white against a sky of
changing blues, and rooted in a Golgotha of darker blue. The
foreground is of that "green hill far away" which, for me, will
evoke the choirboy voice with which my grandmother still sang in
her 80s. She sat back in her wing-back chair by the open
french window on to that gentle summer evening, joining in that
hymn on the radio. Her knitting had slipped down in the chair; for
her lap was occupied by the tame rabbit and the cat curled up
together, while the spaniel slept on her slippers. Well, the rabbit
and his browsing mate are in this window, feeding among what look
to me like fritillaries. From the foot of the Tree springs a
glinting River of Life, winding down the green hill, and teeming
with dancing fish. Under the shade of the Tree cluster seven
black-faced sheep and a lamb. There is much here, as there in much
in the Piper window opposite, to delight a child, and much to give
pause to the rest of us.
It was only after Wagner had conceived his design that he
visited San Clemente in Rome, and saw the great mosaic of the 12th
century where the Christ hangs on a Tree of Life covered with white
doves, the scrolls of its flowering branches filling the apse. He
did not know that the equation of the Rood with the Tree of Life
had been made before by Jacobus de Voragine (c.1230-98),
who spelt it out in The Golden Legend, as famously
illustrated by the wall-paintings by Piero della Francesca in San
Francesco in Arezzo.
That the Tree of Life that opens and closes the Christian Bible,
the Tree of the Garden of Eden and of the Heavenly Jerusalem should
also have been identified in the Middle Ages with the Tree of the
Cross takes explaining. This the Dominican Jacobus set out to do,
following what was clearly established legend. Those of us who have
studied the frescoes painted by Piero in the years 1452-64 around
the choir of San Francesco in Arezzo are familiar with the
When Adam realised that he was going to die, he sent his son
Seth back to the Garden of Eden, seeking a message from God. The
angel guarding the closed gate gave Seth a seed from the Tree of
Life with the promise that when it bore fruit he would be made
whole. Seth returned to find his father dead. He planted the seed
in his mouth, or, in some versions, a seedling on his tomb. Hence
the skull beneath the cross in some crucifixes, and the name
Golgotha. The tree grew mightily, and was cut down by Solomon to
form a bridge over the moat to his palace. The Queen of Sheba
recognised the trunk for what it was, and told Solomon, who,
horrified, took down the bridge and had the trunk buried. Then, of
course, it was dug up in time to be used for the cross of Christ;
buried again; and finally rediscovered by the Empress Helena.
Fragments of the True Cross tend to stem from Constantinople.
It is appropriate that this legend should have been widely
disseminated by the friars. The thrust of their great success in
the 13th century lay in their skills as preachers, and stories like
this were a compelling power in their sermons. The Franciscan
Johannis Metensis, preaching in Paris in the 1270s, took meditation
on the Tree of Life a stage further. Franciscans preached extempore
(some of them were illiterate anyway). Easily memorised visual
diagrams were invaluable to them. In Johannis Metensis's
Speculum Theologiae, as illustrated in the mag- nificent
illuminated fragment of the psalter of Robert de Lisle (BL Arundel
MS83 11), of the very early 14th century, there are a number of
such memorable diagrams.
It opens with the sphere of the Franciscan Archbishop of
Canterbury, John Peckham, and contains nine further folios of
diagrams, most of them originating from Johannis Metensis's book.
F.125 verso shows the Tree of Life. The whole is framed by an array
of prophets, led by St Peter and St Paul. A heart-rending painting
of the Crucified hangs from a slender green tree, with, at the
crown, the Pelican in her Piety in a nest of oak leaves. The leaves
of the Tree itself are of the vine, but the fruits are apples, each
labelled with a virtue.
So the apple and the vine, referring both to the Tree of Life
and to the disastrous Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, bear
the suffering Saviour in this medieval version. Some of us can
remember when the atom was split, and the final consequences of
meddling with the serpent's tree were fully revealed.
Such is the ancestry of Wagner's conception. For him, the Tree
of Life is laden with apple blossom, the whole agony of its burden
almost hidden by the annual promise of new life; "for they do these
things in the green leaf. . ."
This artist has already proved himself a great painter, a fine
engraver, and a poet. I hope that there will be more stained glass
from his mind and hand. Meanwhile, Iffley is the place to seek if
you are looking for the best that we have done and can do