Symbolism of the Harry Clarke Window at the Church of the Immaculate Conception
The window features three distinct panels: The Crucified Christ in the middle with St. John: His Mother the Blessed Virgin Mary on the left and St. Mary Magdalene in the right panel. Both women adopt the position associated with adoration and reverent submission before higher power. Above Our Lord’s head is the image of the Father and behind His head is the image of the Dove – the Holy Spirit. This represents the Most Holy Trinity of which Christ makes up the Third Person. All Christian action is done in the name of the Most Holy Trinity and every Sacrament of the church reflects the Trinity in some way. The Father wills the death of the Son who hands on the Holy Spirit to continue the work of salvation and to affirm the life of the church. Above the INRI inscription is the chalice. The Chalice is ready to receive the Precious Blood of Christ. It reminds us that the action of the Mass at the Consecration re-enacts the sacrifice of Calvary and Christ continues to pour out his Blood for the salvation of all.
To the left of the angel of comfort is the crescent moon and to the right, the sun. This suggests that God’s watchful care over us cover all of time: God is watching over us night and day. The large circle taking in all three panels represents the globe of the earth: All of God’s creation is redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ. The circle is mostly in golden yellow. At the apex of the left panel is the entwined letters IHS. This stands for in Hoc Signum meaning “(By this sign (you are saved)”. It can also signify Jesus, hominem salvator meaning “Jesus saviour of mankind”. At the apex of the right panel is the two Greek letters for Ch and R. They are the monogram of Christ, being the first three letters. So, these two sets of letters identity, as if that were needed, the central figure in the depiction: it is Christ.
The colour gold or yellow always represents divine grace. Christ is wrapped in golden light as He hangs upon the Cross; he is a man but also Divine, from him alone comes grace. The Blessed Virgin is wrapped in blue. The colour blue symbolises redeemed humanity. Mary is already redeemed by virtue of bearing Christ. By comparison, Mary Magdalene is clothed in green, symbolising humanity yet to be redeemed. The Virgin is depicted wearing shoes; the Magdalene barefooted. In the Old Testament, Moses is commanded to take off his shoes on holy ground. Shoes symbolises the state of worthiness and the Blessed Virgin is the only human worthy of Christ. This understanding dates to the earliest times of the church and draws on language used in Greek prayers.
St. John features in a kneeling position under Our Lord. He too holds his hands in submission before the power of the Cross. It was into the care of St. John that Jesus entrusted His Mother. At the Crucifixion, St John stands for all humanity. So, it is all of humanity that is entrusted to the maternal care of the Blessed Virgin and, in response, all of humanity is invited to consider Mary as its spiritual mother. An urn of spiced ointment stands ready at the bottom left of the main panel. This is to be used to anoint the corpse of Christ when his body is deposed from the Cross. On the bottom, right of the central panel is the skull. This stands for the first person created by God: Adam. Adam gave way to sin and so tasted death.
That is the same fate that befalls all Adam’s heirs: we will all die and face corruption in the grave. Christ is foretold in the Bible under the image of the ‘Second Adam’ whose sacrifice will undo the damage and loss incurred by the first Adam. The Second Adam (Christ) will revive all the heirs of the First Adam and bring them to the new life of heaven. He can do this by the power of his Cross. In the Creed we pray, ‘He descended to the dead’. This was so that he could bring to life again all who died waiting for the Saviour and all who will die believing in the Saviour.
Under the feet of Our Lady is the first letter of the Greek alphabet: Alpha. On the opposite panel is the last letter: Omega. This signifies the beginning and the end of all time and this language is used when blessing the Paschal Candle every Holy Saturday night: consecrating every moment of human existence to Christ and offering it all up from sanctification. We are also encouraged to remember that this life will have an end and our focus should remain on the life to come.
The two ranks or choirs of angels are represented in the window. The small faces in the bubble-like panels are the Cherubim, those innocent ones called to God before their time. They are often represented as babies in Christian art. By contrast the taller angels, near the legs of the Blessed Virgin and Mary Magdalene are the Seraphim. They are messengers of God who feature in Biblical stories of visions and visitations. The presence of angels in art points to the mysteries of the life to come: We cannot fully comprehend them here, but they invite us to reflect on what we shall be like in the new life of heaven.
The Latin inscription along the bottom of the window reads, ‘In memory of the Holy Year 1933-1934 in which I am now made’. Sacred Art works are often referred to in that way as ‘I’. They speak directly to the viewer and thus invite the viewer to fully interact with the scene before them.
Note: A very special thank you to Rev. Fr. Alan Burke who left this information on his departure to Denis Geoghegan.
Transcribed by Mary Kyne November 2016