Chapter 8 The baptistry windows

By now it is abundantly clear that the window schemes in Truro Cathedral complement and develop the relationship between liturgical and architectural spaces, whilst each sequence of windows presents a multi-layered narrative on the profoundest theological themes.

The recommended tour now moves to the baptistry area, where the iconography of the windows is a reflection on the themes of Baptism and of Christian Mission. The baptistry area in this chapter is defined as the baptistry itself and the adjoining Chapel of Saint Samson and Saint Boniface.198 This Chapel was created in the 1930s from what was termed the baptistry vestibule by Pearson and Benson. This chapter shows how the glazing of these two areas must be treated as a whole, as it was originally intended by the architect and the Bishop.

From 1887 to 1904, before the nave was completed, the main cathedral entrance was the south transept door. The baptistry vestibule therefore would have been reached by immediately turning left on entering the south transept door, up a flight of three steps, with a further set of steps leading directly from the vestibule to the baptistry proper. Today, the south porch door is rarely used, and the vestibule and the baptistry itself are entered from the south nave aisle. The subtle links between the iconography of the windows in the two areas, the liturgy of the baptismal service, and the spatial dimension of a progression through ever smaller and more intimate spaces has been lost for many decades. The 1930s reordering of the vestibule into a chapel effectively undermines all the original intentions of the architect and the visionaries behind the 1887 Master scheme for the windows. Saddest of all, the reordering destroys one of Benson’s most personal visions for his cathedral.

s13s15. The baptistry vestibule (The Chapel of Saint Samson and Saint Boniface)

Donor, dedicatee and insertion.

The windows were the gift of Walter Deeble Boger of Antony, Torpoint, in memory of his wife Amelia Harriet Boger, and were inserted in December 1889.199

These three lancet windows were designated in the 1887 Master scheme to be filled with scenes from the life of St John the Baptist.200 In the two years between the publication of the 1887 Master Scheme and the insertion of these windows, a significant addition to the subject-matter was made. This was the earliest example of how the Master Scheme was subtly modified as the building of the cathedral progressed and new donors came forward. The new addition of Elijah and Noah in s13 and s15 turned the vestibule glazing into a typological scheme in the manner of the quire transepts (S4 and N4 in Chapter 7). The placing of John the Baptist between these two Old Testament figures reinforced his positioning at the end of the line of Old Testament prophets. This has already been the case in the top right lancet of the great east window, where he is positioned as an Old Testament figure in front of Elijah (E1 in Chapter 6). Elsewhere in the cathedral Noah and Elijah were identified in the 1887 Master Scheme to be included in the projected northeast quire transept window (N4, N4 4g and N4 2c), and, together with John the Baptist, appear as three of the six figures around the Truro pulpit.201 Traditionally, the figures of Noah and Elijah have a special significance in typological schemes. In the baptistry vestibule window Noah is shown holding a model of the Ark, which functions both as a symbol of the Ark of the Covenant and as the connection between salvation by water and the sacrament of Baptism.202 Elijah, shown with his raven waiting for water to end the drought in the desert, was one of the prophets named in the debate about John the Baptist’s identity, as well as being one of the two prophets present at Christ’s Transfiguration.203

Each of the lancets in the baptistry vestibule is divided vertically into three panels.

s13. Elijah, Zacharias and John’s birth


s13. Elijah, Zacharias and the birth of John the Baptist. (Photograph by Camilla Comeau).

ELIAS (Elijah)

s13 3. Elijah is portrayed supporting a raven on his left arm in the same manner as he appears on the side of the main pulpit and in E1 6c in the great east window (E1) (Photograph by Camilla Comeau).

APPARUIT · AUTEM · ILLI · ANGELUS · DOMINI (And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord) (Luke 1:11).

s13 2. Zacharias the priest is shown with the Archangel Gabriel who foretold John’s birth. Gabriel says to Zacharias Ne timeas Zacharia (Fear not Zacharias) (Luke 1:13). (Photograph by Camilla Comeau).

SCRIPSIT · DICENS · JOANNES · EST · NOMEN ·EJUS ([He] wrote, saying, His name is John) (Luke 1:63).

s13 1. The birth of John the Baptist. John’s dumb father writes his son’s name, with the figure of Elizabeth lying on a bed in the background, and a nursemaid placed to the right holding the child in swaddling clothes. (Photograph by Camilla Comeau).

In the upper panel (s13 3) Elijah is portrayed supporting a raven on his left arm in the same manner as he appears on the side of the main pulpit and in E1 6c in the great east window (E1). Below him are two scenes in the life of John the Baptist. The upper scene (s13 2) depicts Zacharias the priest with the Archangel Gabriel who foretold John’s birth. The lower scene (s13 1) shows the dumb father writing his son’s name, with the figure of Elizabeth lying on a bed in the background, and a nursemaid placed to the right holding the child in swaddling clothes.

Besides locating John within the line of Old Testament prophets, these panels also echo similar scenes of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Visitation, and the Nativity in the lower east window (e1).

s14. John the Baptist in the desert and Christ’s baptism

s14 3. St John the Baptist. Sanctus Joannes Baptistus.

The upper panel (s14 3) depicts St John the Baptist as a prophet in the desert. The central scene (s14 2) shows John preaching in the wilderness surrounded by three other figures, whilst the lower scene (s14 1) depicts John baptizing Christ, who stands with his head bowed in the river Jordan. Placed above the scene in the central canopy tracery is a dove with rays.

s14 1. St John the Baptist baptizing Christ. Hic est filius meus delectus[sic]. Probably a mis-spelling of Hic est filius meus dilectus.

The central position of this lancet emphasises its significance within the narrative, and the scene of John baptising Christ is positioned at eye-level as the key event of the whole sequence. In normal Baptistry iconography this scene alone would suffice, but in the Truro scheme it is the central event in a sequence of six narrative panels. These elaborate the significance of the events in the life of John the Baptist, drawing on themes of annunciation, naming, teaching, prophetic conflict with authority and martyrdom, all within the typological context of Old Testament precedents.

s15. Noah, John the Baptist and his martyrdom

s15 3. Noah.

The upper panel (s15 3) shows Noah with his right hand holding up a dove and his left hand supporting a model of the ark.

The central panel (s15 2) shows John rebuking King Herod, whilst behind him is the richly dressed figure of Herodias. The lower panel (s15 1) depicts the execution of John with an executioner standing behind him raising a sword. Like the similar scene in n2 of Stephen’s martyrdom, this is a rather stiff and unconvincing design, and is in marked contrast to the vigour and detail of the previous five panels of John’s narrative.

This final lancet draws together the narrative of John the Baptist, isolated and at odds with society and authority, leading to his martyrdom. Within the larger context of the cathedral’s windows, this sequence also links with the two lancets at the end of the Quire aisles (n2 and s2 in Chapter 6) where, as we have seen, the figures of St John and St Stephen established the themes of teaching and martyrdom both as the summation of the great east window and as the start of the Christian history sequence. The narrative of John the Baptist enlarges on these themes, and at the same time develops the typological scheme of baptism that was already part of the typological quire transept windows.

The recommended tour now goes up from the vestibule to the baptistry itself, passing beneath the carved roundel of a mounted St Martin of Tours shown dividing his cloak with a sword. The significance of its position here is that this act took place whilst Martin was still a soldier and before he became baptised. This also had a personal significance for Bishop Benson, as it is a memorial marking the death of Martin, his eldest son, in 1878.204

Bs1Bs4. Baptistry.

Donor, dedicatee and insertion.

The first two baptistry lancets were donated by the Deanery of Penwith in response to the Internal Fittings Appeal, and each lancet cost £40. The third lancet was donated by the Misses Frances Gidley Pedlar and Ann Pedlar, whilst the last was the gift of Mrs Mary Rogers, at a cost of £50. Once the donations were confirmed, the designs were ordered in April 1887.205 All four lancets were inserted in time for the consecration of the cathedral in November 1887.206

It is obvious that something new for the themes for the baptistry windows was needed, as all the orthodox baptism iconography had already been used in the windows of the vestibule. Mason’s radical solution to the subject matter for the four windows of the cathedral baptistry is one of the most imaginative in the whole building.

The baptistry windows continue the ideas of the vestibule in that they form a new version of typological juxtaposition of figural types from an earlier age with antetype events from a later age. However, it is not the customary Old and New Testament typology that Mason used in this baptistry, but a specifically Cornish set of references. This integration of Cornish Christianity with the general narratives of Church history will reappear more and more frequently in the later Church History sequences of the north quire, north transept and nave aisles. These Cornish themes for the baptistry were a major part of the 1887 Master Scheme, and can be viewed as Benson’s attempt to forge a distinct Cornish identity separate from that of the original Diocese of Exeter.

The 1887 Master Scheme identified the life of Henry Martyn as the main subject for the four baptistry windows.207 Each lancet contains two episodes from the life of this early 19th century missionary. Born in Truro in 1781, he was the third son of a Gwennap miner. He was educated at Truro Grammar School and St John’s College Cambridge before choosing his missionary career to India, Persia and Armenia. His local significance was emphasised in a contemporary description of the new cathedral’s exterior (when viewed from Cathedral Lane):

to the west of the transept is seen the circular roof, the tapering pinnacles and open parapet and narrow lancets of the Baptistery. This portion of the building not only gives variety and character to the architectural design, but, from the fact of its being a memorial to Henry Martyn, the devoted missionary, a native of Truro, will always recall and link the Cathedral with sacred memories of the missionary work of the Church.208

There is much evidence that this was a subject close to the heart of Canon Mason, the first Canon Missioner.209

What makes this subject so appropriate for the baptistry of Cornwall’s first cathedral for over nine hundred years is the manner in which the Martyn theme is linked to the Celtic missionary saints from Wales, Ireland and Brittany who originally established Christianity in Cornwall. One can sense Mason’s hope that each baptism in the baptistry would be the admission of a new member of the Christian church who might eventually be inspired by the earlier examples of mission portrayed in the windows.

Bs1Bs4. The Cornish saints in the upper panels

Bs1 3. St Pol de Léon as a Bishop.
Bs3 3. St Constantine.
Bs4 3. St Winnow.

In Bs1 3, St Pol de Léon, labelled St Paul, is portrayed vested as a Bishop, with his right hand holding a crozier and his left a model of St Paul parish church in Penwith. In Bs2 3 St Cubi appears as a fully robed monk holding a copy of the Gospels. Bs3 3 shows St Constantine clothed as a monarch including crown, royal robes with furred collar. His left hand holds a sceptre while his right supports an orb, and he stands before a seated stag. Whilst it is appreciated that very little for certain is known of the actual lives of any of the Cornish saints,210 the stag usually is the attribute for St Petroc, who was traditionally supposed to have converted Constantine.211 The final Cornish saint is St Winnow as a hermit preacher in Bs4 3, clothed in a short tunic and cloak, with a pastoral staff in his right hand.

One of the most striking aspects of this selection of Cornish saints is the way they emphasise different functions of their mission. St Winnow looks suspiciously like a version of St John the Baptist, and it can be no coincidence that he would be the first of the Cornish saints to be seen if one approached, as originally intended, via the baptistry vestibule, with its themed windows of St John the Baptist. In addition to the function of preacher, the other Celtic saints represent the church, mission and royalty.

Bs1Bs4. The Henry Martyn scenes

Two things stand out about the eight panels showing the life of Henry Martyn. The first is that a large number of scenes has been allocated to the life of someone who might initially be viewed as being of only local importance. Incidentally, he also appears as the main figure in the Church History sequence in the north nave aisle (n31 in Chapter 12). The second impressive feature is the care and skill that Clayton and Bell lavished on the wealth of intimate detail shown in each panel.

Bs1 2. Henry Martyn at Truro Grammar School.
Bs1 1. Henry Martyn praying by Lamorran Creek.
Bs2 2. Henry Martyn sailing from Falmouth.
Bs3 2. Henry Martyn preaching at Cawnpore.
Bs3 1. Henry Martyn translating the New Testament.
Bs4 2. Henry Martyn disputing with Persian Doctors.
Bs4 1. Henry Martyn’s burial at Tokat.

As a parallel to the John the Baptist narrative sequence in the vestibule, the panels encompass Martyn’s early life, his travel and preaching, the challenge from rival religious authority, and finally death. In Bs1 the upper scene (Bs1 2) depicts Martyn in a group of six students at Truro Grammar School, a building that is only a few hundred yards from the cathedral. The lower scene (Bs1 1) depicts Martyn praying by Lamorran Creek212 (inscription reads ‘meditating in Lammoran [sic] woods’). The foliage and river richly evoke the Cornish landscape, whilst the rising sun symbolically creates his sense of awakening mission in the East. In Bs2 Martyn is depicted in the upper panel (Bs2 2) embarking from Falmouth docks, whilst the lower panel (Bs2 1) shows his first encounter with heathenism, where two half-naked natives are shown worshiping an idol in a shrine. Bs3 develops the theme of mission with a scene (Bs3 2) of Martyn preaching at Cawnpore surrounded by a circle of seated natives. The lower scene (Bs3 1) depicts Martyn seated at a writing desk translating the New Testament, whilst behind stands a dark-skinned man clothed in turban and cloak and holding up a book. The narrative concludes in Bs4 with Martyn disputing with Persian Doctors (Bs4 2). The lower scene (Bs4 1) depicts Martyn’s burial at Tokat, where he died of consumption. Standing beyond the grave an Armenian priest reads the burial service.

There is something very apt about this whole sequence in its architectural and liturgical context. The architecture of the baptistry is regarded by many as one of Pearson’s masterpieces; truly Gothic in its execution, with a wealth of architectural and decorative detail that was already such a feature of the other sacramental area, the quire and sanctuary. Yet it is also an intensely intimate space. It is separate from the vast spaces of the main cathedral, and its scale is entirely fitting for the baptismal sacrament enacted there between a priest and a family. So far, all the cathedral’s window schemes have been on the largest and most ambitious scale, but in progressing through the vestibule and baptistry we encounter early typological figures from the Old Testament and Cornwall’s Celtic history. We also have the detailed narrative of two prophets and missionaries, one central to the Gospel story and the other local and (in 1887) reasonably contemporary. For these reasons, the stained glass windows of the baptistry area must rank as some of the most imaginative and successful in the building.


  1. MG Swift, Canon P Lambert, JM Whitehouse. Truro Cathedral Baptistery. Truro Cathedral occasional monograph No 3. .
  2. TCM/432 Cathedral Local Building subcommittee minutes, , and TCM/1134 Residentiary Chapter Minute Book , p 87. Intention of Mr Boger of Wolsdon, Antony to donate three lancet windows, Royal Cornwall Gazette p 5. Insertion of windows, Royal Cornwall Gazette p 7.
  3. Dean and Chapter of Truro, The Cornish See & Cathedral, Historical & Architectural Notes, p 50. Truro, Heard & Sons, .
  4. The ‘Great Preachers of righteousness’ (Dean and Chapter of Truro , op. cit., p 20) also include Moses, Christ and St Paul.
  5. Genesis 6:14–22 and Ⅰ Peter 3:20–21.
  6. Ⅰ Kings 17:1–6, Luke 3:1–17 and Mark 9:2–13.
  7. Inscription (in Latin) to ‘Martin White Benson, died 9th February 1878, aged 16 years’. There are no documentary grounds to support the idea that Benson saw a connection between his son’s name and that of Henry Martyn.
  8. TCM/435 Minutes of the Executive Committee .
  9. The Church in the West, .
  10. Dean and Chapter of Truro , op. cit., p 50.
  11. Dean and Chapter of Truro , op. cit., p 14.
  12. DD/716/69/4 Diaries of Canon Mason , Preached on the occasion of the centenary of Henry Martyn.
  13. Nicholas Orme : Cornwall and the Cross: Christianity (Chichester, ), p 5.
  14. Catherine Rachel John : The Saints of Cornwall, (Padstow, ), p 67.
  15. Henry Martyn was a very popular figure to the Victorians, and only two months before the consecration of Truro Cathedral, Henry Martyn Hall, the official inter-collegiate Christian Union headquarters, was opened in Cambridge.