Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Iffley

St. Mary's Iffley

If you visit St. Mary’s Iffley using public transportation, you will happen upon it from the back. To get there from the Oval bus stop (end of the number 3 Rose Hill line), you will have to loop through a neighborhood and then step onto a narrow, tree-lined footpath, which will spit you out at the churchyard.

This small Norman church, built in 1170, is not a popular tourist destination, but I knew it would be worth the bus ride outside Oxford’s city center because of its two modern stained glass windows, which I had seen in photographs and wanted to see in person.

When you enter the church, immediately to your right is the South Window, designed by John Piper (the late English stained glass artist, not the American Christian author and speaker associated with DesiringGod.org!) and made by David Wasley. It was created in 1982 for an exhibition in Bristol and installed in St. Mary’s Iffley in 1995 after being gifted to the church by Piper’s widow, Myfanwy. Wasley added the blue border and the bottom inscription panel at this time so that the window would fit into the church’s original aperture.

John Piper Nativity window

John Piper (design) and David Wasley (execution), The Nativity, 1982. South Window, Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Iffley, Oxford, UK. (Installed in 1995.) Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

The subject of the window is the Nativity of Christ—and it’s the most unique treatment of the subject I’ve ever seen. Instead of showing the babe in the manger, it shows a cast of animals announcing his birth in Latin, their respective utterances echoing the natural sounds they make. For example, “Ubi, ubi” sounds like the hooting of an owl, and “Christus natus est” has the same rhythm as “cocka-doodle-doo.” 

The conversation runs as follows:

Rooster: Christus natus est (Christ is born)
Goose: Quando? Quando? (When? When?)
Crow: In hac nocte (On this night)
Owl: Ubi? Ubi? (Where? Where?)
Lamb: Bethlem! Bethlem!

The inscription at the bottom—“Let man and beast appear before him and magnify his name together”—is taken from Jubilate Agno (“Rejoice in the Lamb”), a 1200-plus-line poem by Christopher Smart.

Piper did not originate the theme of animals announcing the nativity; it dates back to the Middle Ages, to a legend that says that animals became articulate on Christmas Day. Variations of this legend have been preserved in medieval carols written in Italian, Portuguese, French, and English, and in wall paintings and woodcuts. Piper based his design for this window on an Elizabethan wall painting he had seen at Shulbrede Priory in Sussex. But instead of setting the animals on rolling hills, he set them on and around a tree—the Tree of Life. The brown, withered leaves—blighted by the Fall—are now turning green once again, and the much-anticipated fruit, though in its early phases of growth, peeks out from the branches with promise.

Opposite this window, on the other side of the aisle, is Roger Wagner’s The Flowering Tree.

The Flowering Tree

Roger Wagner (design) and Patrick Costeloe (execution), The Flowering Tree, 2012. North Window, Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Iffley, Oxford, UK. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

This is the Tree of Life in full bloom, in all its paradisal glory, with Christ as its most precious, most beautiful flower. A flock of sheep finds nourishment at its base and rest in its shade, as they graze beside “the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city” (Revelation 22:1).

Wagner’s window, which was installed last year, communicates thoughtfully with Piper’s. It takes up the same Tree of Life motif but puts it in a different context: that of Christ’s death and resurrection. At the church entrance, therefore, Christmas and Easter stare face to face, each interpreting the other.

IMG_2390IMG_2391

The Flowering Tree also communicates with the baptismal font, located between the two windows: its river flows right toward this physical stone site, reminding parishioners that the waters of baptism are life-giving and that their source is Christ.

Here’s a look at the interior of Iffley Church (the windows are behind me):

St. Mary's Iffley

The Romanesque chancel arches and choir vaults are beautifully carved, with images of birds, leaves, flowers, pine cones, and grotesque faces—but unfortunately I was unable to capture this detail with my camera.

One original carving I was able to adequately capture is a thirteenth-century stone roundel depicting the Lamb of God holding a victory banner. It was originally the head of the churchyard cross outside but had fallen off and was discovered buried in the rectory garden in 1961. It was placed inside the church on the north wall in 1974.

Lamb of God (12th century)

The Lamb of God, thirteenth-century stone carving. Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Iffley, Oxford, UK. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

The only contemporary carving in the church, I believe, is Nicholas Mynheer’s aumbry, which is where the communion vessels are kept when they are not in use.

Reminiscent of the two angels of the resurrection from Luke’s Gospel (24:4-7), who flanked the empty tomb, the angels of this work beckon us to behold first the broken, bleeding Lamb of God, whose sacrificial death paved the way for victory. A light (from an electric bulb) shines through the angels’ folded wings as a sign of hope and celebration.

Aumbry by Nick Mynheer

Aumbry by Nicholas Mynheer, 2010. Limestone angels and lime-washed oak door. Church St. Mary the Virgin, Iffley, Oxford, UK. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

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One Response to Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Iffley

  1. Pingback: Rowan Williams talks Jesus art | The Jesus Question

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