One of the most memorable images that strikes any observer of Marga’s work is surely the one of her Virgin Mary in Oxton Church.
Oxton is an out-of-the-way leafy suburb of Birkenhead, and the church is small and set back, and a little dark inside. Yet the the church contains some of Marga’s most, yes … memorable…(!) work.
Among her windows at Oxton, one can see these three tall lights in a side-chapel – which show St Elizabeth, Our Lady and St John The Baptist side by side. All have remarkable faces – from the elderly but very striking Elizabeth to the Michelangelo-esque look of the Baptist.
Yet it is Mary’s face which mostly draws the attention. Although it is an idealised face, perfect in its symmetry and youthful beauty, it does something very different for a Madonna – it gazes straight at us.
Most images of Mary show her looking modestly to the floor, or into the eyes of her Lord (even when Jesus is an infant). That is the traditional pose for her; she is always aware that whatever honour she has, it is only due to her being Christ’s mother. She knows she is of secondary importance only.
Mary is also the ‘Mother of Sorrows’. Her look is mostly mournful. Even when she is young, she is sensing the sadnesses to come.
Only rarely – in pictures of the Assumption – does she get to be solely ‘centre-stage’ looking out.
Yet, here, she is not only the focus of Elizabeth’s & John’s attention, but she is fixing her steady gaze outwards, on us, directly, openly and free of care. She looks like a young and confident woman about to take her deserved place in the world.
It is a most atypical pose for Mary.
There are whole theses being written on how women came to be newly perceived, especially in the images of women created by women, in the years after the First World War – and this depiction should surely be included in those.
(Arthur Rope’s account gives 1928 as the most likely date of completion of this window).
What Marga meant by such an unusual depiction of Our Lady we shall never be sure of course.
However, 1928 is not long after British women were given the vote; and not long after that event Marga had decided to enter a convent, ie to join a community solely composed of other, presumably strong-minded, women (she took her vows in 1923).
Was she saying something in this image about women’s place in the brave new world of the 1920s?
But… if she was, she didn’t keep it up. Her later depictions of the Virgin go back to the more traditional pose, and we don’t see this frank look again in Margaret’s work – though there is a hint of it in her Therese Of Lisieux window, also in Oxton (which Arthur dates as 1931).
(I often wonder how she coped with the extreme discipline she would have faced in a Carmelite convent, especially as she had been something of a rebel when younger. Did she struggle for a while?)
Holy Name Church at Oxton is normally closed, apart from services, so it’s worth keeping in touch with the priest there to see if any open days are coming up.
Marga’s windows there (around ten in all, of different sizes) are remarkable… and worth a visit, and give one lots of food for thought!