Roamer: Wonders in stained glass

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Roamer’s last page before Christmas comes with a seasonal image reproduced from Belfast artist Wilhelmina Geddes’s beautiful stained glass window in St Mildred’s Church near Lewisham, depicting the Madonna and Child.

Roamer’s last page before Christmas comes with a seasonal image reproduced from Belfast artist Wilhelmina Geddes’s beautiful stained glass window in St Mildred’s Church near Lewisham, depicting the Madonna and Child.

“Framed by the turquoise heavens” the Madonna sits above a green, grassy orchard full of tiny trees “around which silver waters swirl” writes Geddes’s biographer Nicola Gordon Bowe in her absolutely stunning new book about the little-recognised (till now!) stained-glass artist.

In 1937 an archaeologist described a multi-coloured find of ancient glass fragments in Palmyra in Syria as “greenish white, bluish white, moss green, two tobacco yellows (one more gold than the other), burnt sienna, smoky, three purples (one near wine, one more brown), a garnet of great beauty and two violet purples.”

‘Painting with light’ was the recent headline on a review of Nicola Gordon Bowe’s biography, and it’s the vibrant colour and hues of Geddes’s powerful imagery that makes each and every one of her windows unforgettable.

Born in 1887 in Leitrim, Geddes’s parents moved to Belfast when she was two years old where she and her three younger siblings were raised as strict Methodists in a succession of houses between the Lisburn and Malone Roads.

Aged just 16 Wilhelmina began her art studies in Belfast Municipal Technical Institute where she excelled over the next eight years.

Coincidentally (amidst our current onslaught of annual Christmas pantomimes) it was her striking illustration in 1910 of Cinderella and an Ugly Sister that set her on her way to becoming “the greatest stained glass artist of our time” as she was described after her death in 1955.

Cinders, valued at 3 guineas, went to an art exhibition in Dublin, followed a year later by Wilhelmina, to begin specialist training in stained glass.

Sarah Purser, founder of the Dublin stained glass workshop An Túr Gloine (the Tower of Glass) bought Cinderella and although she remained living in Belfast, Geddes would become one of An Túr Gloine’s main designers between 1911 and 1926.

Her first two full-scale windows, completed in 1912, are both in Co Fermanagh.

Her Angel of Resurrection: ‘Why seek ye the living among the dead’ is in St Ninnidh’s Church of Ireland, Innishmacsaint and Innocence Walking in the Fields of Paradise is in St Molaise’s Church of Ireland, Monea.

Wilhelmina’s richly coloured windows are all over the world.

Along with history’s greatest artists, musicians and writers, a crater on the planet Mercury has been named after her.

She won prizes and received glowing reviews for her work.

Though suffering greatly physically and mentally she benefited from numerous commissions for stained glass memorial windows in the wake of the First World War.

Her Ottawa Memorial Window (1917-19), representing a slain warrior being greeted by military saintly heroes in heaven, “incorporates consummately painted figurative images from legend and the Bible to personify the tragedy of loss,” writes Nicola Gordon Bowe.

Unveiled by the Prince of Wales in 1919, her Ottawa window was internationally acclaimed as “one of the artistic triumphs of this century” – “nowhere in modern glass is there a more striking example of a courageous adventure in the medium”.

Saints Patrick and Columba, Jesus Christ with Mary and Martha and the raising of Lazarus are in Larne.

Faith, Hope and Charity, Christ blessing the little children, Moses with the ten commandments and the Parables of the Prodigal son, the wise virgins, the Talents and the Good Samaritan are in Belfast.

And the Madonna and Child, on this page today, is in St Mildred’s Church, Lee, near Lewisham, London.

With it Roamer wishes all his readers and contributors a very happy and meaningful Christmas.

The illustration and artist’s biographical material is from Wilhelmina Geddes: Life and Work by Dr Nicola Gordon Bowe. Full details on www.fourcourtspress.ie