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The Bible and the Visual Imagination.
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Glass by Alexander Gibbs at Elerch

An exploration of the heart of the Christian faith from the Gothic Revival

Some architects of the Gothic Revival are particularly associated with an individual stained glass artist. One such was William Butterfield (1814-1900), whose name will be forever associated with All Saints, Margaret Street in London, and the chapel of Keble College, Oxford. His best-known work in Wales is St Augustine’s, Penarth (1865-6), built at the expense of the same Baroness Windsor who five years earlier had commissioned Street to rebuild the church at St Fagans. It is here at Penarth, and at a much less well-known church, St Peter’s, Elerch, that this close collaboration between architect and artist is well exemplified.

Butterfield, as Martin Harrison noted,(1) had ‘strong, even dogmatic ideas…about stained glass’, and could be dictatorial, often interfering in the design process. It was this propensity which brought initially conflict and finally breakdown into his relationship with Hardmans which had begun well in 1849. About 1860, however, he began a collaboration with Alexander Gibbs (1832-86) which was less fraught, as the younger Gibbs was more content to act as ‘the faithful interpreter of Butterfield’s wishes’ and, it would seem, accept the architect’s ‘very specific guidelines’.(2)

Photograph of the Church of St Peter, Elerch.

At Elerch in Ceredigion Butterfield was, between 1865-8, working on a commission for a new church for the Revd Lewis Gilbertson, the Tractarian vicar of Llangorwen, where he had already provided a new west front and porch for H J Underwood’s simple, First Pointed, design of 1839. Butterfield’s design for Gilbertson’s new church at Elerch is a tribute to his skill, and a sympathetic response to a difficult site.(3) Neither inside nor out does he make use of the polychrome brickwork with which he is usually associated, and which he was deploying at exactly the same time at St Augustine’s, Penarth. The pocket of the Revd Lewis Gilbertson, though deep, was not as inexhaustible as that of Baroness Windsor. At Elerch Butterfield relies – very successfully – on ‘carefully related geometric shapes, each smaller element carrying the horizontal line a step higher in a controlled rhythm’.(4) At the completion of the work in 1868 Alexander Gibbs provided the stained glass for the three lancets in the east wall of the sanctuary. Given his somewhat subordinate role in the design process, we can be confident that the composition very closely reflects Butterfield’s wishes, and the window is an excellent example of their collaboration.

Stained glass by Alexander Gibbs.

The centre light contains a depiction of the crucifixion, the figure of the crucified Christ flanked, conventionally, by those of the Virgin Mary and John the Evangelist. Both standing figures exhibit expressions of restrained grief. Most dramatically, the crucifix itself is framed in a mandorla, the flames of the aureole, alternately white and gold, seeming, as is appropriate, to emanate and emerge from the body of Christ himself. The background of the aureole is blue, the symbol not only of Heaven, but also of truth.(5) The image therefore recalls John 14: 6, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me’. Also, as the Christ-figure seems almost to float upwards against the backdrop of the cross and mandorla, there is the suggestion of John 1: 14, ‘the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth’. The impression is strengthened by the fact that Gibbs has decked the cross itself with quatrefoil decoration and green-coloured precious stones, turning it into a royal throne. Again, it is worth recalling the symbolism of green – the colour of triumph, of spring over winter and life over death. Here at Elerch, in the words of the Vexilla Regis, Christ ‘reigns and triumphs from the tree’, and this message is clearly that which Butterfield and Gibbs wanted to convey.

This central lancet is also typological in composition. A panel beneath the crucifixion scene depicts the Nativity. The focus is upon the crib, on which, in swaddling clothes (Luke 2: 7) the Christ-child lies, his hands extended upwards towards the kneeling figure of his mother, whilst a calm and thoughtful Joseph, shown as a younger man than usual, looks on. Behind the grouped figures is a wattle fence, over which peer the conventional ox and ass. However, what is immediately striking about Gibbs’ composition is that the manger appears to be standing not in a stable (Luke 2: 7) but outside, on grass or herbage, almost in a garden-plot surrounded by a fence. It immediately calls to mind the ‘hortus conclusus’ which is symbolic of the virginity of Mary herself. The reference is to the Song of Solomon 4: 12, ‘A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed’. Here then, with considerable skill and economy, Gibbs lays out a visual affirmation of the credal clause ‘born of the Virgin Mary’.(6)

Stained glass by Alexander Gibbs.  Stained glass by Alexander Gibbs.  

The design of the two flanking lancets is equally impressive. The upper portions of both are occupied by figures of soldiers present at the crucifixion. On the right, one, leaning on his sword, holds Christ’s seamless robe in one hand over a stool on which are the dice with which lots were cast for it (John 19: 23-4). Behind him stands the figure of Longinus, holding his spear (John 19: 34). On the left another soldier stands guard, whilst behind him is the figure of the centurion, differentiated by his richer clothing, who holds out his left hand towards the crucified Christ. This is the man who glorifies Christ, proclaiming ‘Certainly this was a righteous man’ (Luke 23: 47), or, more explicitly, ‘Truly this was the Son of God’ (Matthew 27: 54). In both compositions the initials SPQR are prominently displayed: Senatus Populusque Romanus – The Senate and the Roman People – the official signature of Roman government which was emblazoned on the standards of the legions. Gibbs was making the point that even the mighty power of Imperial Rome was as nothing before the power of the Son of God.

Thus Gibbs links together Incarnation and Suffering, Nativity and Death in a moving and theologically rich composition. The window is also the principal one in the church, facing the congregation, and in direct relationship with the altar, upon which the sacrifice of Christ was re-presented in the Eucharist. Here patron, architect and artist have combined dynamically to explore the Mystery at the heart of the Christian faith.

John Morgan-Guy
March 2009


1. Martin Harrison, Victorian Stained Glass (London, Barrie & Jenkins, 1980), p.26.

2. Ibid. pp.27, 28.

3. The kind of skill he had exemplified at All Saints, Margaret Street in 1849-59, a church which Gilbertson must have known.

4. Thomas Lloyd, Julian Orbach & Robert Scourfield, Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion, (Yale University Press, 2006), pp.467-8.

5. George Ferguson, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art (Oxford, 1966), p.151.

6. The hortus conclusus (enclosed garden) was a common feature in medieval iconography, though it is unusual to find a Nativity set in it. One example, dating from c.1460, can be found in the collection of paintings at Campion Hall, Oxford. The work is attributed to the circle of Stefano da Zevio (c.1375–1451), a Veronese artist, though this painting (tempera on gold ground panel) is believed to have originated in Venice. It is very unlikely that Gibbs had seen this particular work. Cyril Barrett, SJ, The Treasures of Campion Hall (Oxford, Campion Hall, 1996), illustrated, with short discussion, on pp. 32–3.

Alexander Gibbs

Imaging the Bible in Wales Database

Crucifixion, stained glass by Alexander Gibbs.
Alexander Gibbs, The Crucifixion, c. 1868, Church of St Peter, Elerch, Ceredigion