The Wisdom Window by Tom Denny

Tom Denny

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

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The Road to Wisdom

Commentary by

In the right hand light of Thomas Denny’s stained glass window the female figure of Wisdom emerges from the shadows to take ‘her stand beside the gates in front of the town’ (v.3). In a tender gesture that evokes Proverbs 3:16 (‘Long life is in her right hand; | in her left hand are riches and honour’) she greets the seeker, who prepares not so much to leave the city as to enter upon a life pilgrimage that evolves upwards. Beyond the foliage, pediment and coat of arms—allusions to the architecture of St Catharine’s College—the landscape is a visionary one. It is lit by glowing pinks and ambers that link it to the pilgrim; talking figures move along a path which becomes a river, finally losing itself in a sea transfigured by a bright pale moon and stars. 

The left hand light of the window echoes this theme of imparted knowledge and revelatory wisdom. An older, balding man engages a younger in conversation; they could be father and son, tutor and student; what matters is the passing on of the eternal, whispered truths. The young man carries a staff: he too is set upon a winding road that threads past the pollarded willows and water meadows of Cambridge in a deep pool of blue, counterbalancing the warm lights on the other side. The top panel promises the radiance of the setting sun. The iconography of Denny’s windows is inlaid with the local landscape to remind us that the Christian spiritual life can only be fulfilled through the accidents of our everyday and personal histories. 

Rising up through the centre of the window are the tall trunk and spiky crown of an all-embracing tree, sheltering the searchers after knowledge and wisdom below; even the little dog thrusting his muzzle towards the young man at the gate of life is not left out. The tree’s top is in the firmament, its roots amongst bright stones and cobbles that show us how Wisdom transforms all, even base earth: ‘My fruit is better than gold, even fine gold, and my yield than choice silver’ (v.19).