The Morris windows at St Germans, Cornwall

Michael G. Swift

A version of this article was originally prepared at the request of St Germans P.C.C.

The Chancel east and South Chapel south windows at St Germans were both made by the William Morris studio of Merton Abbey, London. This studio was formed by Morris in 1862 originally as Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., and was reorganised in 1874 as Morris & Co. (‘the Firm’). At that date Sir Edward Burne-Jones became the sole stained glass designer, replacing earlier artists of the calibre of Morris himself, Rossetti, Madox Brown and Webb.

Artistically and historically the St Germans Morris windows are two of the most significant examples of nineteenth-century stained glass in Cornwall: proof if need be that Victorian glass could equal in quality the stained glass of the medieval period. Both were designed by Burne-Jones, who, in addition to his international reputation as a painter, designed stained glass windows for William Morris for nearly forty years up to his death in 1898. The St Germans windows represent the aesthetic style and design features that characterise the Firm’s output in the final decade of the nineteenth century.

Chancel east

Figure 1. The east window in the chancel at St Germans.
Figure 2. The south transept window of Albion Congregational Church, Ashton-under-Lyne.

This enormous five-light window is one of the largest in Cornwall (Figure 1). All of the ten main figures and angels in the tracery were designed in 1895 for the south transept window of Albion Congregational church, Ashton-under-Lyne (Figure 2). They were repeated at St Germans the following year in this window donated by Alfred Burton. The angel tracery for St Germans, however, is far superior to the tracery at Ashton. Burne-Jones was paid £300 for his Ashton designs, and it was common practice for all the major Victorian studios subsequently to reuse the design cartoons for future commissions.

Figure 3. Tracery above the east window in the chancel at St Germans.
Figure 4. Detail in the tracery above the east window in the chancel.

The tracery at St Germans consists of twenty-four angels (Figure 3), most of whom are playing musical instruments—including a wide range of stringed instruments, the typical Burne-Jones long trumpets, and cymbals (Figure 4). They are all drawn in the fashionable aesthetic style with blue or red wings, similar to those in the west window at Ladock parish church, which was inserted in the same year. Whereas the background to the angels at Ashton is a distracting bright blue, here at St Germans the darker background brings out the details of the angels better, without diverting the eye from the main figures in the five lights below.

Figure 5. Upper tier, leftmost: the centurion.
Figure 6. Upper tier, second from left: Mary, the sister of Lazarus.
Figure 7. Upper tier, third from left: Christ.
Figure 8. Upper tier, fourth from left: Mary Virgin.
Figure 9. Upper tier, fifth from left: St Paul.
Figure 10. Lower tier, leftmost: St Matthew.
Figure 11. Lower tier, second from left: St Mark.
Figure 12. Lower tier, third from left: St Stephen.
Figure 13. Lower tier, fourth from left: St Luke.
Figure 14. Lower tier, fifth from left: St John.

The upper-tier main figures are, from left to right, the Centurion (Figure 5); Mary, sister of Lazarus (Figure 6); Christ (Figure 7); Mary Virgin (Figure 8); and St Paul (Figure 9). The lower-tier figures are, from left to right, St Matthew (Figure 10); St Mark (Figure 11); St Stephen (Figure 12); St Luke(Figure 13); and St John (Figure 14). Each figure is set within a simple border design and above a bold inscription, in this case black lettering on white rather than the customary white Morris script on a black background. These inscriptions were missing in the Ashton design. All the figures stand on a typical Morris vegetation-pattern base. William Morris had died in 1896, and up to his death he was in the habit of supervising every detail in new commissions. All the figures are set against diamond quarries with a subtle background of grape, vine and oak motifs.

The style of the main figures was quite unique to the Morris firm (but later imitated by admirers of Burne-Jones in other studios, notably Henry Holiday for Powells of Whitefriars). Their style is totally aesthetic and totally unrealistic. No reference is made to conventional religious representation: everything is an expression of Beauty—Art for Art’s sake. This applies particularly to the way in which all the male figures are represented—all are beautiful young men regardless. The two female figures are treated in the same manner, and there is no acknowledgement of the age of the Blessed Virgin. St Paul is at the farthest extreme from the usual bald, middle-aged depiction, and all of the evangelists with their Latin scrolls have the same idealised aesthetic features. While we are focussed on the evangelists note the manner in which their emblems of angel, winged lion, winged ox and eagle hover above their heads in a wonderfully surreal manner. The original Ashton designs with their blue-sky backgrounds are much less effective. The centurion and St Stephen (sad loss of facial paint here) complete the set, but by far the most radical design is that of Jesus. Burne-Jones excelled himself here with a vision of a generalised figure of great beauty with the stigmata and crown of thorns for reference, and a chalice at his feet. Note especially the cross as a living tree—William Morris would certainly have approved! Overall, this whole window has a grace and balance that the Ashton window conspicuously lacks.

To the casual visitor, however, the most striking feature of this window must be its colour. Morris used the highest quality of hand-blown antique glass for this window, and even on the dullest of days the window glows and throbs with translucent colour. One feature of so many Morris windows is the way they use the deepest colours for figures which are then set in light backgrounds: thus avoiding the fault of so much Victorian glass where provision for natural light is not allowed for and the church interior becomes impossibly gloomy. It is worth taking some time examining the ways in which the dominant colours used in the window are balanced one against another. Christ is the central focal point for the window, and the amazing variations of reds used for his clothes are repeated in a more subdued fashion for St Matthew and St John at the extreme edges of the window. Both Marys have the typical Morris green as a dominant tone (which is not the conventional colour for the Virgin Mary) but which further emphasises the red figure of Christ in the centre. The centurion and St Paul at the edge of the upper tier are in blue, mirroring Sts Mark and Luke below in the inner positions, making a very harmonious balance. St Stephen, directly below Christ, is the only multi-coloured figure, which helps to ensure Christ is the focal point. One can only conclude after a close comparison with the original Ashton window that the window at St Germans is a far greater artistic success in its management and choice of colour.

South chapel

The two windows of a total of six lights in the south wall of the South Chapel were also donated by Alfred Burton in 1902. All the designs are by Burne-Jones. Following his death in 1898, the Firm re-used his designs for decades, and so although this is a later insertion than Chancel East, the designs are mostly much earlier, and show how Burne-Jones’ designs changed over the decades.

Figure 15. Upper tier: Joy, Justice and Faith.
Figure 16. Lower tier: Hope, Charity and Praise.

The figures are all allegoric females depicting Christian Virtues, namely from left to right Joy, Justice, Faith (Figure 15): Hope, Charity, and Praise (Figure 16). The main figures do not have borders this time, but are set in diamond quarries with rose and oak motifs, which allow the maximum light in whilst accentuating the rich colours for each figure. Each one stands on the typical Morris vegetation-patterned base, but this time instead of an inscription there is a multi-coloured band. This device harks back to some of the earliest Morris windows (for example at the Chancel east window of 1864 at Ladock) when Morris and Webb designed colours in horizontal bands to run throughout the glazing patterns: concentrating the colour whilst again allowing for natural light.

Figure 17. Detail from Charity in Figure 16. Photograph copyright © www.asnapintime.co.uk.

The earliest design is ‘Joy’, which is shown as an angel blowing a long trumpet, first used at Cheddington, Staffs in 1869. This is so typical of Burne-Jones’ middle period, where his figures have a life and vigour lacking in his later aesthetic designs. The movement in the red clothing of the angel is really remarkable, offset by the blue wings. The next design is ‘Charity’, which used his design for St Martin of Tours from Brampton in 1880. St Martin is in the act of dividing his cloak, to give one half to a beggar (Figure 17). Although he is supposed to be a Roman soldier, he is here portrayed in Burne-Jones’ idiosyncratic armour that he used frequently in his oil paintings (e.g., the ‘Perseus’ series). Next in chronological design comes ‘Justice’, first used for Boston USA in 1883. This helmetted figure holds the scales of justice in one hand whilst carrying a long sword in the other. ‘Faith’ and ‘Hope’ were both designed in the following year for Llandefeilog, Carmarthen. ‘Faith’ is a female figure holding a palm in one hand with a chalice that contains a serpent (a poisoned cup) in the other. Hope is a traditional representation where the female is looking to Heaven with hand outstretched to receive a crown as a token of eternal glory.

This leaves us with ‘Praise’, the original design of which was for the north transept window at Ashton-under-Lyne in 1896 as one of a group of Old Testament figures. At Ashton she appears as Miriam, but the addition of a pair of red wings transformed her into the allegorical figure of ‘Praise’ for St Germans. In 1872, Burne-Jones produced a famous design for Miriam at St Michael and All Angels, Waterford, Hertfordshire, a typical product of the Firm’s 1870s output, where the vigour, movement and swirling draperies capture the ecstatic moment of Miriam’s dance. At St Germans, the newer Miriam design is lower key. However, despite the angelic transformation, the combination of her flowing hair and aesthetic dress puts her firmly into the category of a pre-Raphaelite ‘stunner’, and therefore forms an apt conclusion to these remarkable windows.