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Walter Crane’s Windows In Clapton

September 26, 2023
by the gentle author


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I have often seen the tall spire at Clapton from the footpath along the River Lea, but only recently I climbed the hill from the river to visit for the first time. Built as the Church of the Ark of the Covenant by the Agapemonites in 1892, it became the Catholic Church of the Good Shepherd after 1956 and then began a new life in 2011 as the Cathedral of the Nativity of Our Lord, a Georgian Orthodox Cathedral. Yet despite these different occupants, it remains almost unchanged since it was built in 1896.

My quest was to view Walter Crane’s windows which are considered to be his greatest achievement in stained glass and were described by Sir John Betjeman as”the richest Victorian glass I have ever seen” maintaining that “it made Burne-Jones and Rossetti’s glass look pale by comparison.”

On either side of the nave are a series of pairs of lancet windows with lyrical designs of fruit and flowers, and it is these benign images that welcome the visitor, glowing within the darkness of the church beneath the heavy wooden roof lowering overhead.

It is in the west windows that a certain surreal melodrama creeps in. Here you will discover a Blakean tableau of the Rising Sun of Righteousness, flanked by personifications of the Powers of Darkness – Disease and Death, and Sin and Shame. The Art Journal had a quite a lot to say about these in 1896 which I quote below.

The submission of women to men was a central tenet of the Agapemonites, a bizarre misogynist sect founded by Henry Prince in 1856 that advocated polygamy for men and died out in 1956.

Thankfully Walter Crane interpreted his commission loosely, portraying nine female figures and a single male who is not presented as dominant. Yet there is a grotesquely seductive morbidity in the portrayal of the Powers of Darkness, who are embodied as female which must have made uncomfortable viewing for the long-suffering women of the Agapemonites.

Outside, on the exterior of the church, the effect is as much Gothic horror as Victorian gothic. On the corners of the spire sit outsize sculptures of the symbols of the four evangelists – the winged ox for Luke, the winged lion for Mark, the eagle for John and the angel for Matthew, each trampling underfoot a human figure, representing the trials of earthly existence: Death, Sorrow, Crying and Pain.

It is a strange experience to confront these brutally sentimental representations of melancholy descending to nihilism, the relics of a sinister cult extinguished a generation ago reduced now to mere curiosities.




Briar rose


Poppies in the corn




“The side windows of the nave, nine in all, are filled with flower and fruit designs, in considerably paler colour than the figure compositions. These include the rose, the fig, the pomegranate, the bay, the lily, the vine, the olive, corn and poppies, and the iris. They are naturally of less interest than the subject windows; but they are boldly, simply, and effectively treated, and in a fashion that is thoroughly glass-like, without too nearly following the lines of old work. Perhaps they are a trifle large in scale. It is characteristic of the thoroughness of the artist that no two of these windows are alike; and, more than that, there is absolutely no repetition whatever in them: even when one light seems at first sight to be the counterpart of the other, it is not actually so; each, it will be seen upon comparison, has been separately drawn.” Art Journal 1896

The Rising Sun of Righteousness (Photo by John Salmon)

“Thence rises the Sun, and from its rays issue the forms of Angels with flaming wings bearing a scroll inscribed, ‘Then shall the Sun of Righteousness arise with healing in His wings.’ To the right and left of the window stand the figures of a man with upstretched hands, saluting, and a woman with hands clasped in contemplation. ” The Art Journal 1896

Disease and Death

“There is something most appropriately morbid in the many-hued raiment of Disease, crossed by forked tongues of flame; but it lends itself to strangely fascinating colour. The head is crowned, Medusa-like, with wriggling snakes, in place of locks of hair. The action of the arm behind the head, and the hand clutching the drapery on her breast, are indicative of intense pain. The white -shrouded figure of Death counterbalances in colour the figure of Sin. It again is encircled by a snake, which fulfils much the same decorative purpose as before; but in this case Death’s livid hand grips it by the neck. The other hand, uplifted, lets fall a blood- stained dart. It is a grim and ghastly figure enough; but at the same time admirably decorative. Imagine a white-clad figure, with greenish flesh and purplish wings, against a blue background, the blue and purple echoed, in fainter key, in the snake against the drapery. Its coils break the mass of white, whilst the greenish flames below, growing yellower as they begin to wrap the figure about, carry the lighter tones of colour into the lower part of the window. A clever point in the construction of these designs is the way the faces of Disease and Shame are artfully set in the colour of the drapery, as Death’s dark visage is wrapped in the folds of her white garment. To have made these painful subjects not only dramatically impressive, but at the same time decoratively delightful, is something of a triumph in design” Art Journal 1896

Sin and Shame

“Sin, draped in white, the cloak of pretended innocence, huddles herself together in the attitude of fear and shrinking; her bat-shaped wings break with deep purple the blue sky which forms the background to the greater part of the window. The blue below represents the sea, leaden towards the horizon, against which are seen flames, radiating, it may be presumed, from the Sun of Righteousness. A snake, encircling the figure, whispers the counsel of evil; and fulfils at the same time the decorative function of connecting, by the prismatic colour of its scales, the purple of the wings above with the colour of the flames below.

No less expressive is the companion figure of Shame, crimson-robed, with dull green wings, ruddy-tipped; about her sombre figure also leap the flames; her bent head, and the painful clutch of her hand upon it, are full of meaning.” Art Journal 1896

On the spire are the symbols of the four evangelists – the winged ox for Luke, the winged lion for Mark, the eagle for John and the angel for Matthew, each trampling underfoot a human figure, symbolising the trials of earthly existence: Death, Sorrow, Crying and Pain.

7 Responses leave one →
  1. September 26, 2023

    Down leafy Somerset lanes, you come across the village of Spaxton, the home of Agapemone. It is an extraordinary and somewhat disquieting ensemble, including the Abode of Love in which Prince deflowered a virgin on the altar in front of his admiring followers. These were mainly single women of means, some of whom he ‘married’. Arts & Crafts sensibility, as in Clapton, meets cultism.

  2. September 26, 2023

    Goodness me what depressing prospects! I adore Walter Crane illustrations and the botanical stained glass is magnificent but, doom, gloom, despair and inequality are definitely not sentiments that I identify with. The original owners sound like a bit of a sect. I’ve never heard of them before so will do some research. The Burne-Jones windows in Birmingham Cathedral are currently being restored but, I am sure they will be magnificent when completed.

  3. September 26, 2023

    What a disturbing dichotomy created in the minds of men. The Greek word ‘agape’ is meant to connote selfless love. I see strange beauty here, but very little love. What is the word, when you twist something to suit your purposes…? Perhaps they should have been the Church of the Shameless Sophists. Oppression disguised as sanctification is merely wickedness.

    A very edifying post, G.A.!

  4. September 26, 2023

    Nature and Art triumphs. Apart from all the other historical back stories here, I am enthralled by Crane’s depictions of the natural world, and his customary treatment of the human/idealized body.
    Forgive me if I skip the “blood-stained dart” dialog, and just enjoy the radiant beauty of these panels. Impossible to have a favorite, although the corn and poppies combination was stunning.
    Dare I say, methinks that Crane found his true specialty with stained glass. Powerful, churning,
    lyrical images.

    Thank you, GA.

  5. gkbowood permalink
    September 26, 2023

    Despite the Art Journal’s critique siting sin and shame as female, they look neutral in gender in Sin’s aspect and unknown gender in Shame’s; so bully to Walter Crane! Gorgeous windows in design and execution. Glorious that they have been saved from destruction in all this time. Grateful to you for sharing their history with us.

  6. anarchowalker permalink
    September 26, 2023

    Huge Crane fan, so for me, this is a wonderful post. Will have to visit next time I`m out that way.

  7. sue Jackson permalink
    October 2, 2023

    Would love to visit the church but apart from its Sunday services it would seem to be closed most of the time. Anyone any idea of how to visit to see the Crane windows – I haven’t had any response from the registered phone number.

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