Shaven Heads and Golden Skullcaps
Wilhelmina Geddes: The Crucifixion and the Deposition with the Virgin Mary, St John, St Joseph of Arimathea and St Longinus with Scenes from the Entombment and the Passion, war memorial window, St Luke’s Church, Wallsend-upon-Tyne, Northumberland, 1922
The window is dominated by the figure of Christ, conceived as a world-weary, working man. His T-shaped position imbues his figure with strength, unlike the sagging ‘V’ shape frequently adopted to evoke pathos. Geddes has obviated the window’s five narrow lights by extending Christ’s arms along the transverse arms of the cross. His open, nailed hands, although taut, seem to reach out to comfort his distraught mother and St John below him, integrating the relationship between the five lights. Geddes has further unified these by accentuating Christ’s musculature and lengthening his thighs by one section more than in her coloured design. His broad features are emphasized by his closed eyes, broken nose, bushy beard and moustache, and thick dark hair obscured by a crown of green thorns. His proudly-held head and body are constructed with exacting brushstrokes and volumetric washes, displaying Geddes’ vigorous painterly treatment and consummate anatomical knowledge. A further unifying device is the golden mandorla radiating around him, ending in rainbow-coloured slabs, abstractly painted. Geddes represents the blood and water that spurted from his body, when pierced, by tingeing this golden vesica red.
His strained face suggests compassion as well as mental and physical suffering. The anguished attitudes of introspective meditation of the four ‘Watchers’ attending him, from left to right, Joseph of Arimathea, the Virgin Mary, St John and Longinus, and Christ’s feverish yet resigned expression, suggest the imminent moment when he ‘gave up the ghost’.
Geddes’ depiction of aged St Joseph of Arimathea draws on the Gospels of St Mark and St John. The wealthy Israelite’s combination of courage, shown by risking his life to obtain Christ’s body from Pilate, and a faith strengthened immeasurably by his witnessing the Crucifixion, made him an ideal choice here. Despite his scarlet-lined purple cloak, his ascetic nature is symbolized by his white shift, sinewy hands wrung in consternation, bony feet and furrowed brow. With grimly perturbed solemnity, even anger, he reflects on the cataclysmic event taking place beside him.
Beside him, Mary stands at the foot of the Cross, her head bowed as she weeps into a white cloth, the slender fingers of her weathered hand gesturing in desperate supplication for her beloved Son. Her dark-skinned features are loosely washed with brown painting medium, as fluid as her tears. The deep blue mantle enveloping her is lined with scarlet, enriching her simple brown under-garment and tan leather-strapped shoes. Her dark hair is hidden beneath the white wimple framing her distraught face, in which her eye sockets are white, literally emptied by the tears she has shed. Geddes’ figure may be called the Virgin of Sorrows.
St John the Evangelist faces Mary, so contemplatively immersed that he seems intent on bursting his architectural confines. Of the twelve Apostles, he was among the closest to Jesus, remaining at the foot of the Cross throughout the Crucifixion. It was to John that Jesus entrusted his mother shortly before his death on the Cross, the reason for identifying the weeping woman opposite him as Jesus’ mother. His steadfast concentration is emphasized by the raised blood vessels of his straining temple and neck and the taut tendons in his bare foot protruding over the window’s border. His muscular body, accentuated by acided abrasion on the surface of the flashed ruby glass to imply sculptural volume around his shoulders, thighs and calves, acts as a vessel for his profound emotional response to his Master’s death and passion. In this he resembles Rodin’s sculpture, The Thinker (1880), whose ‘strength resides entirely in its redoubtable musculature, but so much concentrated power emanates from the figure that its bowed head suggests meditation’. Both John and the Virgin Mary resemble the man awaiting his fate in William Blake’s The House of Death (c.1795). Like Rodin’s and Blake’s barely clothed figures, Geddes’ sentient human forms express deeper emotional, spiritual and psychological states than the physical presences they manifest.
Longinus was ‘the centurion who was assigned by Pilate to stand guard with his soldiers at the crucifixion of the Lord, and who pierced His side with a lance’. We see only the back of his head, his muscular neck and part of his face – at the moment of his conversion: ‘By chance he touched his eyes with a drop of the blood of Christ which ran down the shaft of his lance, and immediately his eyes were healed. He then quit the military life, received instruction from the apostles, and for twenty-eight years led the life of a monk … working many conversions by his word and his example’. Although wearing the dress of a Roman centurion, his black hair is crowned not with a helmet but a golden halo, anticipating his subsequent life of Christian dedication. Geddes has effectively conveyed the physical strength of a Roman officer suddenly rendered vulnerable in a way that will profoundly change his life.
The gravitas of Christ and the four Watchers is contrasted with the gestures of the small figures in the narrative scenes above them.
In the tops of the window’s two outer lancets are the heads and shoulders of two profiled young Apostles with haloes. With shaven hair, zealous expressions and necks straining, each grips a coloured goblet in anticipation of the Eucharist. Set against a yellow ground, they seem to grow organically, like medieval gargoyles, from the scene below. They lead the eye up to further Apostles above the transverse arms of the Crucifixion, who re-enact the Last Supper in Heaven. In ranks of ascending glorious colour, they flank the golden vesica emanating from their Divine Master sitting in the top of the centre lancet. Mantled in royal purple, holding a blood-red goblet of wine, he appears weary from earthly trials. Two older disciples proffer their chalices for his symbolic blood. Only Judas, robed in yellow, the colour of deceit, does not bear a cup.
At the foot of the central light, the Deposition after the Crucifixion is enacted in Golgotha, ‘the place of a skull’. The crimson cloaks of Joseph of Arimathea, who had secretly got leave from Pilate to remove Jesus’ body, and Nicodemus, who brought anointing oils, frame the limp body of the dead Christ. Nicodemus bears the weight of his torso while older Joseph gently lowers his legs. The women who ‘followed after, and beheld the sepulchre, and how his body was laid’, weep into their blue veils.
On the right, above John and Longinus, the rocky setting of Calvary is represented by Cubist cross-hatching on white glass. Two of the holy women bearing anointing spices find ‘the stone rolled away from the sepulchre. And they entered in, and found not the body of the Lord Jesus. And it came to pass, as they were much perplexed thereabout, behold two men stood by them in shining garments: And as they were afraid, and bowed down their faces to the earth, they said unto them, Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen.’
The alarmed women gesture dramatically at these winged angels swiftly advancing towards them. These figures embody Geddes’ new sinewy physical archetype, their skin tautly drawn over flexed nerves and muscles. Like dancers in their richly coloured, flowing robes, shaven heads and golden skullcaps, these supernatural beings convey authority and reassurance through their facial expressions and outstretched hands. They are stern messengers whose angular physiognomy suggests they herald from an embattled celestial domain, mindful of their momentous task.
Geddes’ masterful composition, rendered with deep, smouldering colours and orchestrated with rhythmic leadlines, captures the attention before further study reveals the dramatic details interwoven into her overall design.
Before the window was packed up and shipped to Wallsend-upon-Tyne for its installation and dedication on 14 July, it was exhibited in Dublin at An Túr in Upper Pembroke Street on 16 and 17 June. Susan Mitchell, writer and colleague of Æ Russell, wrote a perceptive appreciation of it in the Irish Homestead. She concluded: ‘Miss Geddes understands the effect of colour on the imagination. The splendid rubies and purples of the glass are profoundly moving, and are used with a fine art to deepen our perception of all that is implied in this vision of the Passion. “The Tower of Glass” has much fine work to its credit, but none more beautiful than this window – the work of a poet in stained glass’. Geddes considered this ‘a great notice’.
The Irish Times critic subsequently commented on her drawing (if one may use the word when speaking of stained glass), where the real power of this window, and, indeed, of most of this artist’s work, lies. In Miss Geddes’ drawing there is great emotion ... It is a fine, bold drawing, afraid of nothing, even brutal at times.
The window reached its destination early in July, and Purser received a cheque for £725 from Wallsend on 12 July. To celebrate its completion, she took Geddes to France and then London. Apart from giving her protegée a well-earned break and escape from the deteriorating political situation in Ireland, she wanted to encourage Geddes, not least by settling a major article she was planning for The Studio on her restless star artist. So Purser contacted her old friend Stephen Gwynn, who had eulogized Harry Clarke’s analogous ‘Crucifixion’ two years earlier.
Before Purser and Geddes left for France, trouble had considerably worsened on the Dublin streets: ‘There was some fuss of Republicans and Free Staters at Harry Fergusons in Lower Baggot St today, & Free State armoured cars called “The Big Fella” and “Custom House” were on guard and happy crowds watching’, Geddes wrote almost gleefully to her sister Florence. ‘It’s supposed to have been an attempted raid by Republicans; and some thought that part of the guard who wore no uniforms, and had no arms but revolvers sticking out of their pockets who were standing friendly among the uniformed men were Republicans but they certainly were not. Whether the Republicans were hunted away or besieged inside the motor works nobody knows nor indeed whether the whole story wasn’t quite different’.
Excerpt from Wilhelmina Geddes: Life and Work by Nicola Gordon Bowe, Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2016, pp 166-171
The commission for the window at Wallsend was received in 1920 by Geddis’ employer, Sarah Purser of An Túr Gloine Stained Glass & Mosaic Works, Upper Pembroke Street, Dublin. It was intended as a memorial to the 26 men of the parish who died in service during the First World War. The window was completed at the height of the Irish Civil War in 1922.
photographs courtesy of Jozef V.Voda