The theme of the window is ‘Praise and worship’ and the imagery is based on the early Christian hymns of praise, the Te Deum and the Sanctus. The Sanctus is said or sung at every Mass and is still a very familiar text, but the Te Deum (so called from its opening words in Latin) is not so well known now that Matins has largely fallen into disuse, at least, as a form of public worship.
The window vas given by Dr Leighton Davies in memory of his uncle, John Rees Davies, and was dedicated on 4 October 1925. It is the work of Archibald Nicholson (1871-1937), a well known and prolific stained glass artist of the earlier part of the twentieth century. In 1940 this and all the other stained glass windows in the church were temporarily removed to the vicarage cellar for fear of air raid damage – a wise move since the area around the church was badly affected especially in the ‘three-nights blitz’ of February 1941. They were reinstated in 1945.
J. R. Davies and Leighton Davies were both staunch supporters of the Catholic revival within the parish and great benefactors of the church. Between them they gave the rood screen and J. R. Davies also presented the church with its first set of eucharistic vestments in 1916.
When it was installed the window was described as ‘a triumph of the artist’s skill’ and Fr Williams, vicar at the time, enthused that ‘the beauty of the design, the richness and blending of the colours, the majesty of the figures, the expressions of the faces make it the grand and inspired conception of one who is at the same time a great artist and a devout Catholic’.
The window is indeed a fine piece of work but it has to be said that in 1925 its style was a little dated. Compare it to the windows on the south side of the sanctuary which were also designed by Nicholson at much the same date and which have an altogether lighter touch. The style of the east window was perhaps influenced by the preferences of Fr Williams whose tastes seem to have been rather conservative.
The whole composition contains a wealth of imagery drawn from medieval Christian iconography and it calls for a correspondingly detailed explanation. It is interesting to note that whilst some of the faces are conventional ‘identikit’ faces, many others appear to be much more characterful and may well represent portraits taken from life. In particular Stephen and Jerome seem to fall into this category.
The small panels at the top of the window contain representations of angels, all carrying scrolls on which together the words of the Sanctus are inscribed (‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts, heaven and earth are full of thy glory. Glory be to thee, O Lord most high’).
The figures in the five main lights are as follows (north to south, or left to right as you stand facing the window). Really, though, the window should be ‘read’ outwards from the centre.
Saint Peter the apostle, carrying his symbols of a key in one hand and a book in. the other. With Saint Paul in light 5 he represents the ‘glorious company of the apostles’ of the Te Deum. The key represents the keys of the kingdom of heaven, given to him (metaphorically) by Jesus (Matthew 16:9), the book alludes to the two Epistles In the New Testament which have been ascribed to him. On a scroll beneath him is the appropriate verse from the Te Deum, ‘The glorious company of the apostles praise thee’.
Beneath Peter is the prophet Isaiah. He carries, a scroll on which (in Latin) are the words of his famous prophecy ‘Behold a virgin shall conceive’ (Isaiah 7:14). He represents ‘the goodly fellowship of the prophets’ and the corresponding verse from the Te Deum appears beneath him.
The main figure in this window is our patron, the archangel Gabriel. His scroll contains words from the hymn which the angels sang at the birth of Jesus, ‘Peace on earth to men of good will’ (Luke 2:1-4). The blue of his wings is particularly fine. He also holds a lily, the symbol of the Annunciation, which alludes to Gabriel’s role in St Luke’s Gospel as the archangel who announced to Mary that she was to be the mother of the Lord.
Above Gabriel are the figures of an ox and a man. These figures together with the corresponding figures in light 4, a lion and an eagle, derive from a passage inRevelation (4:7). They have traditionally been taken to symbolise the writers of the four gospels: the ox represents Saint Luke, the man Saint Matthew, the lion Saint Mark, and the eagle Saint John.
The central light depicts the Holy Trinity using traditional iconographic conventions. At the top is God the Father, one hand raised in blessing, the other holding a sceptre, together indicating the benign authority of God.
Beneath him a lamb standing on a medieval-style altar represents God the Son. He carries a banner which symbolises the triumph of the Resurrection and on the altar is a chalice: the whole is a representation of Christ as the sacrificial victim still present in his church in the Holy Eucharist. An angel kneels at the foot of the altar and swings a censer. (St Gabriel’s first used incense on All Saints Day, 1 November 1924, shortly before this window was installed.)
Finally at the foot of this light, and partially obscured by the reredos behind the high altar, a dove represents God the Holy Spirit.
The main figure in this light, which balances light 2, is the archangel Michael. He is shown in medieval armour and holding a flaming sword. This depiction of Michael, seen as the ideal of the Christian knight fighting in a just cause, is frequently found in Christian art in the years following the Great War. One suspends disbelief so far as his aerodynamics are concerned. The rich red of his wings matches the blue of Gabriel. In his other hand he holds a pair of scales: this refers to Michael’s traditional eschatological role of weighing an individual’s virtues against his vices at the Last Judgment.
Above Michael are the eagle and the lion of Revelation, the symbols of the evangelists Saint John and Saint Mark, balancing the ox and the man in light 2.
This light reverts to the Te Deum theme. The upper figure is Saint Paul who, together with, Saint Peter in light 1, represents the ‘glorious company of the apostles’. He carries a sword, the instrument by which he is said to have been martyred, and a book, a reference to the epistles in the New Testament of which he is the author.
Beneath Saint Paul is Saint Stephen, one of the Church’s first deacons and its first martyr. He wears a dalmatic, the vestment traditionally worn by a deacon during Mass, and carries a few stones, an allusion to his death by stoning. He represents ‘the noble army of martyrs’ and this verse from the Te Deum appears beneath him.
Finally, in the lowermost panels of the four outer lights are two groups of saints who can best be treated together.
In lights 1 and 2 are the four so-called Latin Doctors of the Church. These are four highly influential theologians of the 4th-6th centuries who wrote in Latin. Light 1 shows Gregory and Ambrose, light 2 Jerome and Augustine.
Pope Gregory the Great (identified by an anachronistic papal tiara) was responsible for the mission of A.D. 597 which led to the conversion of England (but not of Wales, which was already Christian!). The bird perched on his shoulder stands for the Holy Spirit and is intended to show the divine inspiration of his writings. Gregory is said to have devised Gregorian chant, hence the musical notation on the scroll which he holds.
Ambrose was Bishop of Milan in the 4th century. He was a preacher, writer and hymnographer. Legend has it that he, with St Augustine, was the author of the Te Deum, but this is not now generally accepted. He was influential in the conversion of Augustine and also active in the secular politics of his day.
Jerome, a scholar and an ascetic. He translated the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek into Latin. His version, the Vulgate, was the official version of the scriptures for the western church for the next thousand and more years. He is shown holding a large book in which he is writing his translation.
Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (in north Africa). After Saint Paul probably the most influential of all Christian theologians, a prolific writer, best known for his Confessionsand City of God.
In the panels at the bottom of lights 4 and 5 the four Greek Doctors of the Church balance the four Latin doctors. Like them, they are influential theologians of the patristic church who wrote in Greek. From left to right they are:
Basil the Great. At a time when there was much controversy in the Church concerning the exact nature of Jesus Christ, he helped to promote the doctrine defined in the Nicene Creed that the Son is ‘of one substance with the Father’.
Athanasius, best known for his vigorous defence of the orthodox understanding of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The trinitarian declaration ascribed to him, the Athanasian Creed, is still to be found in the present-day Prayer Book: it is a statement of our official teaching although rarely used. The triangle over his arm symbolises the Holy Trinity.
Gregory of Nazianzen. Like his friend and contemporary, Basil, a defender of the Nicene doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
John Chrysostom. An accomplished preacher (Chrysostom means ‘golden-tongued’) and one of the greatest expositors of the Christian scriptures. As Patriarch of Constantinople he attempted to reform the corrupt moral climate of the city and of the imperial court, which led to his premature exile and death.