All Saints’ East Window
By John Mackinlay
Next month, precisely at 11 am on Sunday 13th November, many readers will be standing in East Meon’s main street, in front of the war memorial by the bridge at the George. Traffic will be halted and in respectful silence after the wreaths are laid on the steps below the cross, the words of Laurence Binyon “….. they shall not grow old…” will rise above the sounds of the valley. We treasure our memorial, it is a twofold record of war and the community. The names on it represent some of the families who in the last century were the backbone of East Meon; they energised the village – the shops, the pub, the garage, the smithy and also provided the individual tradesmen who made a living in the parish.
Although we cherish our stone cross by the river, in the Hampshire list of war memorials, it is not a spectacular affair and there are many similar stone crosses mounted on three stepped bases, against which red-poppy wreaths are laid year after year. The irony of this is that less than two hundred paces from this spot beside the river, East Meon has another unique and visually stunning war memorial, which is largely unnoticed and under- celebrated. It stands nearly thirty feet high, glittering with colour each morning behind the altar in the Church.
The east window of All Saints Church is perhaps unnoticed because the caption “in memoriam 1914-1919”, which is the vital clue to its theme and reason for being there, is obscured from the congregation by the top edge of the altar screen.
From a distant seat in the pews, all you can see is the familiar shapes of a church window, stained glass saints in rows framed in perpendicular stone. Move closer and the details reveal a rather mysterious and secular work by the great British architect and designer Sir Ninian Comper, which has more to do with war and grand political alliances than God. The saints and the countries they represent, which you can identify by the national coat of arms above them, are the victorious side in the First World War, not a parable from the Bible. Saints Vladimir, Methodius and Adrian are for Russia, Serbia and Romania, they stand alongside the more familiar patron saints of England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Belgium, France and Italy. On the top row in smaller scale are the Royal arms of UK (left) and the seal of the President of the United States (right)
Three unexplained saints on the bottom row are (centre) St Nicholas for the Royal Navy, right of him St George for the Army and left St Michael (with the wings) the patron saint of the newly created Royal Air Force.
From a closer position directly below the window there is much to admire, Comper’s design has clarity, elegance, rich colours and some great detail. Symbols help to identify each saintly figure – St Catherine holds a lily, St Joan stands ambitiously looking upwards in her armoured leggings, St Adrian carries an anvil and a hammer.
The figures are graceful, the drawing is tremendous, but Comper’s overall message is obscure. Without reading the terms of his commission, it is hard to understand what this huge window is trying to say. Except for peaceful St Catherine with her lily, the saints are mostly armed, swords, spears, lances, pikes thrust in every direction. Two dragons are being killed violently and a lion has been subdued. Is this a celebration of allied victory, good over evil, peace after war? All of these post war issues were certainly raging in the public debate of the early 1920s. But perhaps the unresolved theme gives the window another dimension, compels us to keep looking, thinking and even returning for another look.
The east window may be an undervalued memorial because, unlike the stone cross beside the river, it seems to stand aloof from the village, physically by its position in the church and socially because its content seems to relate more to grand strategy and moral debate than to the people of East Meon. But this was not the intent of Sir Ninian or the Nicholson family who were instrumental in its commission. In the 1920 planning request the then vicar, Reverend T.H. Masters∗. emphasised that these things “are being done in memory of East Meon men who fell in the Great War”. To make his point a stone tablet was also carved (you will find it below the HMS Mercury bell) to connect the window to the people of the village. But by a misfortune of positioning the tablet is too far from the window to make this connection in a compelling manner. The window and the tablet face in different directions and it is hard to relate them.
Nevertheless the east window is by national, perhaps even international standards, an interesting memorial and certainly worth turning from your path to see at close quarters. So three cheers for Sir Ninian and three more for the Nicholsons and Reverend JH Master and the East Meon team who between them, nearly a hundred years ago had the vision and generosity to create this work of art that we continue to enjoy in the 21st Century.
∗ In World War 1 Reverend T.H. Masters had served as a Red Cross Ambulance Driver and then as a chaplain in France (including the Somme), was twice mentioned in dispatches and appointed CBE subsequently Vicar of Petersfield and Provost of Portsmouth Cathedral. He. He is buried against the west wall of the churchyard alongside Frank Partridge, second Bishop of Portsmouth.