In her art, Margaret Rope was as much attached to saint symbology as any religious painter of centuries past.
As befitted her outlook, mostly it was traditional symbols – lilies for purity, a palm branch for a martyr – but sometimes, rarely, she would do the unexpected.
In one depiction of the Reformation-era saint, St John Fisher, she shows him holding a severed head. This depiction – in Our Lady Church, Latchford – seems to be the one and only time in art that he is ever given this ‘attribute’. Either Marga knew something we don’t, or she went deliberately out on her own with this.
It is curiously hard at first for the observer to work out that St John F (left, in the pic) is actually carrying a head. The window’s height, and the dark colours of the severed head, mean, to the observer, it could be almost anything – a bundle of some sort perhaps?
So… is it possible that Marga is a little shy about her departure from tradition and thus deliberately makes the image obscure?
It is a peculiarly odd head too, being black-indigo in colour and looking almost like it is made of dark stone – not the usual drained, stark-white colour given to such images in art. What is going on?
Roger Hall, who is the expert in Margaret Rope’s symbology, and has written a good deal on it, has come up with a theory though, that very much seems to solve the puzzle.
Roger believes the severed head belongs to St John The Baptist. The parallels are there: both saints are called John, both were beheaded on the orders of a tyrant king, both executed for speaking out against an ‘irreligious’ marriage.
It all fits.
Now one knows that, one can just make out the platter that the Baptist’s head was presented on to the tyrant King Herod (according to the Biblical story).
If you want to read Roger’s full exposition of this idea (and his commentary on the extensive symbology in the rest of the window), click here.
But the question of motivation remains. Why did Marga choose this ‘new’ symbol for St John Fisher? The saint is not without plenty of symbols already.
A time of turmoil
This Latchford window was completed in 1939, and even behind the walls of her enclosed monastery, Sister Margaret must have heard the rumours of war approaching. Her beloved Catholic Christendom must have looked in turmoil.
Is the head simultaneously a death’s head? One discoloured by decay and signifying the end of things?
On the other hand, St John Fisher has an expression of steadfastness – he is not afraid to contemplate the apparition in his arms; by his expression, he seems to see it as a comforting inspiration. The Baptist’s face is young, beautiful and undisturbed.
So, that interpretation of despair does not work.
Maybe then – this is pure speculation (and, after all, one may speculate in a blog such as this) – was Marga perhaps commenting on a marriage situation gone wrong that she knew of – or was serving a warning on one about to go wrong?
If she is not referring to a personal situation, it could even be that she is picking up the theme of the Ss John. The question of kings & divorce (again) had only been in the news a few years earlier (1936) with the ‘scandal’ of Edward VII and his mistress, and, in a parallel to Henry VIII’s time, had threatened a split in English society.
The darkness of the head’s colouring maybe expresses her concern about that moment in English society… maybe.
Our Lady Church closed in 2010 when a new parish church was built in Latchford. If you do decide you want to see these windows for yourself, you will need to request access in advance.
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