Saturday, June 2, 2018

Martyrs in Stained Glass: The Work of Margaret Agnes Rope

Since I grew up Catholic, stained glass has been part of my life since childhood: nearly all the parish churches I've attended or visited in this Wichita diocese have stained glass windows: Bible stories, saint's lives, the mysteries of the Rosary, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and other religious images. Then traveling to Europe gave my husband and me the opportunity to see the glorious stained glass of Chartres Cathedral, in Notre Dame de Paris, and many other churches and basilicas. While looking for an illustration of an English Reformation Catholic martyr, I discovered this website about two women artists. They were cousins, sharing the same first and last names: Margaret Agnes Rope and Margaret Edith Rope.

Both were great stained glass artists, but I am more interested in Margaret Agnes because she created windows honoring the England Catholic Reformation martyrs, including this one in Holy Name of Jesus, Birkenhead in the Diocese of Shrewsbury. She, four of her brothers and sisters, and her mother converted to Catholicism and Margaret Agnes became a Carmelite nun in 1923 under the name Sister Margaret of the Mother of God. Her sister Monica also became a nun and her brother Harry a priest. One sibling, Denys, remained an Anglican.

In 2016, there was a major exhibition in her honor, displaying many of her works in Shrewsbury:

‘Marga’, as she was called, was an instinctive rebel – known for smoking cheroot cigars, riding a motorbike and wearing her hair short – in an era when women were largely suppressed. Without backing from a patron, rich family or husband, she made her own way in her career, one of a new generation of artists as much at home in a workshop as in a drawing-studio.

Her work – influenced by the ‘Later Arts & Crafts’ style – soon became well-known for its jewelled dazzling colours, its personal stamp, its startling modernism, and its sense of spiritual vibrancy.

Yet, within barely a decade of her first success, she chose to become a Catholic nun, moving into an ‘enclosed’ convent. However, even then, shut away from the world, she continued to work, in a small studio provided by the other nuns.

An intensely private person, she left barely any records behind her, and even asked that some of her remaining works be destroyed after her death. Art historians, perhaps frustrated by this lack of information, have since marginalised her achievements.

Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery has sought to right this wrong by mounting this major exhibition bringing together works and artefacts from all over the country. Many of these works have never been seen in public before.

The Tyburn Nuns feature her works (20 roundels depicting individual martyrs) in their shrine to the English martyrs near Marble Arch, and the Mother General of the Tyburn Nuns paid tribute to Margaret Rope's great West Window in Shrewsbury Cathedral:

As with all creative artists, Margaret left her indelible mark upon her work. Increasingly, a special “image of God” – the reflection of God’s creative gift to her – shines through her artistic creations.

So let us pursue and ponder the inspired imprint of Margaret’s creativity in stained glass in two of her finest gifts to the Shrewsbury Catholic community.

The height and depth, the length and breadth of Margaret’s spiritual vision is revealed in the West Window of the cathedral. It is a window on to the universal dimensions of our holy religion, portrayed on several distinct but inter-related levels. At the apex is the symbol of Christ as the Lamb, slain yet standing above the heavenly Jerusalem, in the heavenly firmament. Below the entire universe is found – the vast oceans, celestial lights – sun, moon and stars; dry land, plants, seed-bearing trees with fruit; song birds and flying birds. Then too the angelic choirs and heavenly song: this is the full chorus of creation praising God.

The ever-present witness of the Church follows on the next level below with the depictions of the 11 English martyrs. They are the witnesses and fruits of the holiness gathered from the earthly – and English – Church as seen in glory with their halo-crowned heads. They are men and women from every walk of life, radiant with holiness, gazing upward to the unveiled divine glory.

Sister Margaret of the Mother of God died, age 71, on December 6, 1953. See more of her works here.

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