SOPHIE HACKER knew nothing of Florence Nightingale’s life, beyond the well-known image of the “lady with the lamp”, when she was offered a commission to create a bicentenary window for Romsey Abbey, in Hampshire. Yet she experienced a remarkable response to the commission.
The design by Sophie Hacker for “The Calling Window”, which incorporates snowdrops brought back by a captain from the Crimea
Beginning her research into Nightingale’s life, she visited the Florence Nightingale Museum — designed, through a series of pods, to explore the key moments in Nightingale’s life — where she discovered that the first of these events involved a call from God. The 16-year-old Nightingale was sitting under a very distinctive cedar of Lebanon in the grounds of her family home, Embley Park, when, as she wrote, “God spoke to me and called me to His service.”
Hacker says: “‘When I heard about this story, it was like a gift, an absolute gift from God,” and the “commission design, the composition, just came straight into my head”. Nightingale is depicted on a bench at the moment of her call, and the distinctive split trunk of the cedar rises towards the apex of the window. Christ’s words, “Lo, it is I,” appear in cross-shaped light, toward which Nightingale’s face is turned, while her response, “Here am I, Lord. Send me,” is seen below, in a facsimile of her own handwriting.
The texts and images that surround Nightingale refer to both her theology and her life’s work. “There’s nothing superfluous,” Hacker explains, nothing that’s there “simply for decoration or adornment”. She says: “Every part of the window design has a purpose to expand on Nightingale’s personal theology, her faith, and her professional life.”
The stone bench and the cedar are still at Embley Park; so, when Hacker visited, she sat there and imagined herself in Nightingale’s shoes at that moment in her life. The calling story was experienced as a gift from God because Hacker is very interested in the concept of calling. She has made paintings of the Annunciation, and “that sense of being summoned, being called away from what you know to something beyond your understanding, really does compel me.” She reflects, too, that “In this lockdown period, that sense of being called away from the familiar is quite a deep yearning.”
If calling is the theme of the window, another theme has emerged through the making of the window: that of waiting. This theme is embedded in the process of making stained glass and the particular approach that Hacker learnt from her mentor, Tom Denny.
A detail from the window by Sophie Hacker
It is a complex and labour-intensive process, and Hacker doesn’t think that there are many others working like this, simply because it is slow and also dangerous, as it makes extensive use of hydrofluoric acid. Yet the process “lends itself to very complex and subtle shifts in colour which I absolutely love”. Working in this way involves faith, as you have to believe in your first idea and “trust that the decisions you’re making all the way through at every stage will work”.
The waiting inherent to this process has then been combined with lockdown, which has halted not only this project, but all Hacker’s current projects. Work was halted on “The Calling Window” at the point that two panels had been completed. The installation of the window is being rescheduled, and the dedication of the window has been postponed to 2021, 201 years after Nightingale’s birth.
A detail from “The Calling Window”: Crimean snowdrops brought back by a captain from the war
When the week of the installation came around and nothing was happening, she says, “I was feeling really defeated and saddened.” The experience of waiting “was pretty dismal and disheartening”, as “I’d been pouring my love and my creative energy into this project and the significance of doing a bicentenary window for this woman, it really mattered to me; particularly as I’d got to know her over the couple of years I’ve been working on it.”
Yet there has been an unexpected and positive outcome from the delays: more interest in the project and in Nightingale’s legacy has been generated. Hacker reflects that “we are all spending an awful lot of time waiting at the moment”; so “the significance of waiting is becoming very apparent to me, and how I have dealt with the waiting for this project has definitely taught me something about myself.”
Understanding and appreciating more of Nightingale and her legacy has been one of the pleasures of this project. Hacker says: “I hadn’t appreciated the huge role she had in founding modern nursing or that she was the first woman Fellow of the Royal Society of Statisticians and the author of over 200 pamphlets and texts and books. She transformed the nursing profession across the world and, as a result, has been responsible for best practice, saving lives and transforming medicine.
”She was a profoundly intelligent, very strong character, full of purpose and intent. So I’ve been really grateful that the research led me to this understanding.”
Dedication of “The Calling Window’ by Sophie Hacker for Romsey Abbey is now scheduled for 21 May 2021.