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Tom Denny

The Wisdom Window, 2012, Stained glass, The Chapel, St Catherine's College, Cambridge , © Thomas Denny; Photography by James O. Davies

Mary S. Watts

The Tree of Life, interior of the Watts Cemetery Chapel, 1898, Coloured plaster, Watts Cemetery Chapel, Compton, Surrey, UK, AC Manley / Alamy Stock Photo

Paul B. Kincaid

Memorial for Corporal Bombardier Samuel Robinson, 2014, Sandstone, Collection of Dennis and Alison Robinson, © Paul Kincaid

The Circle of Eternity

Comparative Commentary by

Proverbs 8 is a passage dense with symbolism and rich interpretations, a text about creation and growth, metamorphosis and rites of passage, self-awareness and responsibility. It carries precepts for how we should live with others and offers an epiphanic vision of the works of God.

We find here some of the most famous and beautiful poetry in the Old Testament. This is in part because of the images and cadences which have resonated down the centuries in many languages, but also because of other theologically important associations: the creation narrative in the first chapter of Genesis; the prologue that introduces the Word in John 1:1–5; Christ’s assertion in John 8:58, ‘Before Abraham was, I am’; and His prayer as He takes leave of His disciples at the Last Supper, ‘So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed’ (John 17:5). All these texts stress the all-encompassing nature of God’s living presence, just as Wisdom is there before the beginning of creation; they also tell us that God stands in a completely different relationship to time from that of the created universe. 

In Proverbs 8:1–21, Wisdom exhorts the people to learn from her. The pearls she offers here concern human society; by tradition prophets stood at the gates to exhort their populations to repent of sin or to warn of danger. This was the public seat both of civic government and of the spiritual life, so Wisdom has placed herself right at the moral pulse of the nation. But there is more. She is the moral pulse of the nation. Not to follow her is to reveal oneself as a vassal to evil, since from her derives the righteous behaviour which is the hallmark of walking with God (Proverbs 16:6; Daniel 2:20–2).

Thomas Denny’s Wisdom Window explores the organic nature of this process through the imagery of pilgrimage. Youth and age converse with each other in a landscape marked by the gateways, meandering paths, and flowing water emblematic of our traversal of life in time, yet all move upwards towards a representation of the transcendent cosmos by which we are contained and transformed. The crossbars of the window both remind us of Christ’s cross and support the great branches of the sheltering tree of life that is Christ Himself.

In the Christian era, Wisdom’s great paean to God in 8:22–36 has sometimes given rise to controversy. The Arian schismatics claimed it showed that Christ, so often identified with Wisdom, was a creature, not begotten. It was a view that did not prevail, in large part because the effect of stressing this is to separate God from his creation. And central to Christianity is the belief in the incarnate God, the God who participates in creation, suffering with it and redeeming it. Paul Kincaid embodies this notion in his Memorial: there is no greater challenge to humanity’s idea of self than death. Kincaid’s figure fuses lament and solace, absence and presence, body and spirit; it, too, forms the tree of the rood, a body that carries the poignant vigour of dead youth in its musculature, yet receiving from above the delicate breath of the Holy Spirit, the person of the Trinity synonymous with hope. The figure’s arms, even though stunted—and in this they symbolise Christ’s assumption of our own flesh and blood—are flung wide to reach all points of the compass and embrace all creation. They form ‘the circle of eternity with the cross of faith running through it’. 

This last phrase is Mary Watts’ own formulation of what she was trying to achieve in her mortuary chapel (Watts 2012: 4). Her temple to heaven and earth is literally made out of the soil on which it stands: it is itself a tree of life. Its floor plan is the square Greek cross superimposed upon the wheel of the universe. Exterior and interior decoration reach from the tiniest wildflowers of the meadow to the thunderous figures of the four seraphs, embodiments of knowledge and ardour for God, towering over space and time. This is Watts’ homage to Wisdom’s vision of God calling creation into being, 

When he established the heavens, I was there;
When he drew a circle on the face of the deep
… then I was beside him, like a master worker
… rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race. (vv.27, 30–31)

 

References

Watts, Mary Seton. 2012. The Word in the Pattern (1905): Facsimile with Accompanying Essays on Mary Watts’s Cemetery Chapel, Drawn from the Watts Gallery Symposium 2010 (Lymington: Society of Art and Crafts Movement in Surrey)