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Angels We Have Seen On High

I thought I'd finish out our year with something light-hearted and ravishingly beautiful. The West Window of Worcester Cathedral was designed by by John Hardman Powell in 1874. The original medieval windows were destroyed during the English Civil War, in the mid-1600s.

From the Sixth Day panels: An angel presents the creation of a Rhinoceros

Powell's work was in the Gothic Revival movement of the Victorian era. He simultaneously reproduces the typical imagery of late-medieval stained glass Creation scenes, such as the unformed cosmos being depicted as a series of concentric spheres, as in sixteenth-century Troyes. You can see in the presentation of the rhino above the use of fanciful colors and textures, which make him look more like a bestiary monster than an actual animal. Unlike most medieval artists, it's possible that Powell could have seen a living rhino, perhaps at the London Zoo. But, so many of the choices Powell makes in his Creation window are so highly stylized and often symbolic that conveying how very exotic a rhinocerous would have been in both his presence and England's medieval past seems appropriate in this vibrant window.

The First Day: Fiat Lux

In the first two days shown in the window, God is shown at the center of many concentric circles, in keeping with the Christian ideals of sacred geometry, where the circle is seen as a symbol of wholeness, perfection. In artistic representations like this, the interior of the circle can point to another realm, beyond this world, where God and heaven exist.

In Powell's First Day, God stands, and behind him is darkness. The light he creates ripples out from him in a series of colored circles. His right hand is white, in a white- and grey-rayed sphere, seeming to form light out of nothing. Beneath and behind him radiate out seven white rays. The circle below him has seven golden rays, with a dove swooping down to the now-illuminated, unformed chaos, which bears a face that is reminiscent of the Sumerian creation story of the gods in the darkness. There's some possibility that Powell could have read the translation of the Eridu Creation Story, which was translated into English in his lifetime, but I haven't found any materials on him which would answer my questions about what 19th century academic knowledge he worked from (like, real rhinos, the nature of light as a spectrum, and the first translations of cuneiform).

Powell's depiction of the First Day fascinates me because of five of the roundels which surround God. Each angel presents its own sphere of light, with either only concentric circles, or circles divided into threes or six. Each of the mini-circles uses color in its own way. Are these choices based on an understanding of Isaac Newton's studies of light, or some other set of symbols and ideas known to the artist in his own time?

The Second Day: Separation of the Waters from the Sky

When we look at the Second Day, behind God are sky and cloud, and below him are waves of either water or chaos. Surrounding him are six angels representing different kinds of precipitation. I've never seen the creation of the waters represented in this kind of detail. I guess that in the UK, there would be very particular understanding and appreciation of the way water works in their environment.

From the top, and heading clockwise, we have clouds (this is the one I'm least confident in interpreting, but the others have helpful Latin signs for clarification), then hail, then rain, then dew at the bottom, then snow, and finishing with ice. Look carefully, and you will see that all the types of precipitation form arcs which constitute a subtle red circle framing the band of scripture from Genesis, and God himself.

Closeup: Rain

It's worth a closer look to see Pluvia (rain)'s depiction. It's very witty and reminiscent of Victorian wallpaper, with the drops falling in orderly stripes. Beneath Pluvia is a muse-like female figure, looking simultaneously like a sybil in Michelangelo's frescoes, and an allegory by Alphonse Mucha. Indeed, she holds a down-tipped jar with "Aqua" emblazoned on it. She is Water personified.

The Third Day: Creation of Land and Plants

When we get to the Third Day, God is out of his nimbus and into the world. You may be wondering why the figures representing God all look like Christ. Each is shown with a cruciform halo, and is a young, bearded man. This choice is also used in many medieval Creations, and I believe it threads a particularly tricky theological needle: the second Commandment in Exodus forbids graven images of God, which makes showing God's face in art representing Genesis perhaps sacrilege. But, the idea of the Trinity combines God the Father, Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit, so, one could bypass sacrilege by using Christ to represent God here, and possibly win points for emphasizing the nature of the Trinity.

Surrounding God in his sphere are wheat and other plants. In the radiating roundels you can see sunflowers, roses, and lilies, among others I don't recognize.

Close-up: Red and White Roses

The angel demonstrating the creation of roses shows one vine, with both red and white roses growing. I think this may be a nod to the War of the Roses (15th c) in England, which here shows the red and white blossoms united in the same rooted vine, where both red (House of Lancaster) and white (House of York) peacefully coexist. That they are separate is interesting, because the resolution of the War of the Roses ended with a Tudor rose, which is red with a white center. Perhaps the idea is that in the beginning, the houses are separate, but ultimately they were brought back to one root.

Closeup: Lilies

I pulled out this one for you to see in detail because it suggests another example of "In the Beginning is the End" motif. The lily symbolizes Easter, the Resurrection of Christ. So, in this range of angels with flowers, both the secular powers (roses) and the heavenly one (Christ) are present in the founding of Creation.

The Fourth Day: Creation of the Sun, Moon and Stars

This is a particularly beautiful panel, with choices both in keeping with the medieval tradition and its own innovation. While God is surrounded by a striking array of stars and planets, he is backed by the Sun itself. The conflation (in English at least) of Son and Sun is a medieval Christian visual and writerly trope. It goes back to early Christianity, where the imagery of the Roman god Sol Invictus (with the Sun God drawn in a manly form, framed by the sun itself) is adopted to assert Christianity as superseding the Roman Empire as its dominion.

This window suggests that the creation of the stars and planets is synonymous with the creation of Time itself. The signs of the zodiac encircle the center where God is. The roundel above God's head presents Capricorn and Aquarius, which is the season of Christ's Nativity. All of the signs are represented in the roundels, clockwise in order, returning to the top. Medieval churches often had depictions of the zodiac on their facades (outside of the spiritual interior), where, along with the Labors of the Month, they contextualized human/physical time. Upon entering the Church, one exists in God's Time.

The Fifth Day: Creation of the Birds and the Fishes

When we arrive at the fifth day, Powell presents quite the bestiary. The key difference from a medieval bestiary (and medieval art which contains creation of the animals) is that all of the animals in these roundels really exist. They are not necessarily shown as they might in a scientific illustration. In the central circle, God is shown with a swan, a heron, a crab, and a turtle, among others.

Remarkably, God seems to have a throne which may be a whale or a dolphin. It is made of a violet-blue glass which is used sparingly in the whole program of the West Window.

Close-up: a parrot and a hawk, a flying fish, a sawfish, and an eel

In this section of the window, the upper roundels have angels presenting birds, and the lower ones present fish. The upper roundel with the parrot and hawk is fun because the angel, the parrot, and the hawk are all rousting their wings. The angel's wings are more colorful and more detailed than either of the birds', so he wins the beauty contest between divine and earthly beings.

The roundel with the flying fish and the sawfish impresses me because neither fish is native to England (At that time, anyway. Both have been spotted further north in the Atlantic recently, perhaps due to global warming.). Yet, they're reasonably realistic. What is native in the roundel is the eel the angel reaches for. Eels were a very important (and valued) food source in the English Middle Ages. It is difficult to see these details without binoculars or a zoom lens. I wonder if Powell saw illustrations or photos of these exotic creatures in books, or in Victorian curio/scientific collections at the time.

Closeup: A Peacock

I'm reasonably certain that Powell would have had a number of encounters with peacocks, both in centuries of art, and in Victorian furnishings (some wealthier people would have even kept peacocks). So, I'm on solid ground saying that his stylized version here is his individual artistic take.

Powell uses monochrome pieces of painted glass for the length of the feathers, its head, trunk, and feet. The individual feathers end with the eyes in arresting circles of gold glass, with painted lunettes and a subtle continuation of the rachis of each feather. The artist is careful to continue the radiating of the tail into a full circle, even as some of the feathers are only partial, crafted to look as though they are peeking out from behind the angel. The angel's feathered wings are drawn mostly at angles, and the painting of their details are very different from those of the peacock.

The Sixth Day: Creation of the Animals

The Sixth Day section of the Creation window is populated with easily recognizable and fairly realistic figures (except for one--the rhinoceros at the top of this post, which looks for the world like an assemblage of parts rejected for making a griffin. Except, the rhino cuter than I make it sound.) Most of these creatures seem less detailed than those in the other days. The elephant is white, with golden tusks, while the bull is a flaming red with golden horns. The horse is white, but dappled on its rump. The dog is white, and doesn't seem to represent a particular breed--perhaps a type of hunting hound. The animals in the side-roundels face the center, much more noticeably than the birds and fish in the Fifth Day window.

In the center circle, God/Christ is surrounded by animals, some of whom are also symbols of Christ in religious art: the white stag has magnificent fanned antlers; the noble lion peacefully lowers his gaze, possibly directed toward the lamb, which lies down and flanks Christ on the other side.

The lizard may be there as either close-kin to the serpent (who dwelt in the Tree of Knowledge), or perhaps as a salamander (a beast noted in the Middle Ages bestiaries as resistant to fire). The monkey in medieval art would represent foolish, animal behavior, but Powell could well have known Darwin's theories, which would make this monkey in a tree a way of couching science in religion. I'd consider this quite the reach on my part, if the First Day window didn't seem to be doing something similar by representing light in ways that demonstrate a scientific knowledge.

Closeup: The Tiger

Unfortunately for me, the Creation window has a ciborium in front of it, and that day the area was roped off, so I couldn't get a full shot of some of the panels. Even though only partially visible, this tiger is beautiful to behold. His eye really draws my attention, and his nearly upright stance is reminiscent of figures in heraldry. His coat is almost exactly the color of the stars which surround him, and both he and they contrast nicely with the blue background. The angel seems to be holding him close, as one might lovingly hold a pet.

Closeup: A Dragon

Tucked in at the bottom-right of the Sixth Day of the panel is this very submissive dragon, who appears to cower and simper before God in the upper circle. He is not included with the other Sixth Day creatures, and is slightly smaller in scale than most of them. Rather than appearing menacing or powerful, he seems to cringe and crouch in a defensive posture. I think it matters that he's also fictional, compared to the other creatures shown who exist. He seems to be included in Creation, but outcast from the roundel figures declared by God as good work on that day.

The West Window at Worcester also features the Adam & Eve narrative, but the six days of Creation deserve their own moment here. As with many church stained glass windows, what is shown here is up well above eye-level, and too minutely detailed to be fully appreciated, even with binoculars. This is why I have a hard time buying the "Poor Man's Bible" theory of medieval stained glass(and later). The angels and the animals here are up too high to be appreciated from the ground. Such windows often were an assertion of piety made by a wealthy donor, as much to the congregation as to God and the saints. These windows seem to me to capture the protective power of the church and the otherworldly space within it, as much as the stone walls and the choir screens do. Sacred narratives in glass act as a kind of mortar for the spiritual space, holding together the wonder and meaning the cathedral contains.

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