Isaiah Clerestory Window by Rowan LeCompte

Rowan LeCompte

Isaiah Clerestory Window, 2014, Stained glass, 7.2 x 3.2 m, Washington National Cathedral, S8 Window, Photo: Danielle Thomas, Courtesy of the Washington National Cathedral

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‘Here I am’

The centrepiece of Isaiah 6 is a question and an answer. God asks, ‘Whom shall I send?’ and Isaiah answers with a phrase that comes up repeatedly in the biblical story, harking back to the words of Abraham, of Jacob, and of Samuel: ‘Here I am’ (hineni) (v.8).

This phrase captures a particular spiritual attitude of availability and receptivity to the command of God, countering the attitude of Adam and Eve who hid from God’s presence. How does one capture the spiritual attitude expressed in this phrase—what the French spiritual masters called disponibilité—in visual form?

Rowan LeCompte’s depiction of Isaiah represents the attitude well. His image of the prophet in the right-hand of the two central lancets of this stained glass window is strange and unsettling. Isaiah’s diagonal ascent of some gentle steps is interrupted by a far starker vertical summons as the cherub descends with its burning coal. Isaiah’s response is to fling his head dramatically backwards. This is a man in the process of realigning himself; opening himself to being reconfigured.

The thin verticality of LeCompte’s Isaiah, as well as of the window itself, and its location on the clerestory level of the cathedral, has an anagogical (upward-moving) effect, reminding us that the self-offering attitude of ‘Here I am’ involves a willingness to be drawn upward, expanded, unmade, and remade, by the voice of the Lord. Isaiah’s elongated body, stretched beyond normal human proportions, serves as an image of what the prophet must undergo if he is to speak the words of the Lord to Israel in the crisis of its judgement and exile. Not only his words, but his very being, will have to be stretched.

But we may not forget that prior to Isaiah saying ‘Here I am’, he first said, ‘Woe is me!’ (v.5). LeCompte manages to represent not only Isaiah’s disponibilité but also his fear and trembling at the vision of God in the way he poses Isaiah’s arms and hands. One hand seems self-protectively raised above his head to shield himself from the brilliance of God’s glory, even as the other is inquisitively and receptively open to both the seraph and to his vocation.

Isaiah’s self-offering is inseparable from his humble realization that he is a ‘man of unclean lips’ (v.5) in need of purification from the seraph’s burning coal.