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The Annunciation Window

Written by Emily Essex, posted on Friday, August 10, 2018

Behind the scenes header image


Annunciation Window

This scene is depicted in one of the beautiful 14th century stained glass windows in the Cathedral’s Latin Chapel (located in the far left hand corner as you enter the Cathedral) but the image has a number of curiosities including a random Archbishop wielding an unusual staff...

The only Gospel account of the Annunciation is found in Luke 1:26-38. It is the story of the angel Gabriel's announcement to the Virgin Mary that she will give birth to the Son of God, Jesus: a crucial moment in the development of Mary's own character and, on a grander scale, in the story of salvation.

The window itself dates from approximately 1340, and is part of a series of three windows, featuring mostly female saints, which were moved by Dean Liddell to the Latin Chapel in the 1870s. Careful inspection of the glass shows signs that they have been moved, but nonetheless the windows are a beautiful and striking example of medieval craftsmanship.

The dating of the window is believed to be fairly accurate based on a number of factors, including the distinct style of the tracery (the top part of the window at which the stone curves in, above the straight sides of the main panel; see detailed images below) and the stunning example of ‘gothic sway’ which can be seen in the figure of Mary. Her body is very bendy - ‘sinuous’ - a classic stylistic feature of this era.

A more unusual feature of the Annunciation Window is the way in which Mary and the Angel Gabriel flank a central figure of an Archbishop. A bizarre thing to have in the middle of a depiction of the annunciation, the Archbishop appears to be blessing the scene as though the church is giving its blessing to the work of God.

Even stranger than this topsy-turvy theology is the fact that the Archbishop is holding a curious combination of pastoral staff - also known as a 'Crozier', carried by a Bishop to symbolise their role as shepherd over their 'flock', the church - and archiepiscopal cross - a cross with two cross-bars which symbolises that the bearer is an Archbishop. This is a very unusual mixture seen almost nowhere else. S.A. Warner, an early 19th century historian, pointed out that part of the crozier staff is more greenish yellow than the rest, and that this combined with the damage to the glass raises the distinct possibility that this unusual combination is an accidental by-product of repairs made by an ignorant workman!

The Annunciation Window was chosen by Elizabeth Harrison, Secretary of the Friends of Christ Church Cathedral, as one of her 'treasures' of the Cathedral. She writes: “My own personal jewel in this place, which has so many treasures, is the sublime 2nd quarter of the 14th century window of the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation. Subtly coloured, in contrast to the vivid Burne-Jones picture book representation of St Frideswide’s life, is the sinuous elegant depiction of a young maid compliant and humble.”

Mary has long been considered an exemplary model of the moral life and this moment is a particularly striking example of the Christian calling. Elizabeth Harrison points out Mary’s humility, depicted so beautifully in this stained glass, and her compliance to the will of God as she embraces the role that God has called her to.

Mary is not, however, the feeble character that some have historically imagined her to be. She responds to the Annunciation with a song – the Magnificat – which is sung at every service of Choral Evensong. In this famous passage, Mary sings of God:

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty.

God’s justice is breaking into the world with the incarnation of Jesus his Son. Mary’s response: so compliant and yet so fierce, is a precious reminder to us that Christians are called to seek justice and the coming kingdom of God.

In a recent interview, which you can read here, Martyn Percy discussed the importance of what he calls ‘kingdom values’: justice, peace, integrity, equality, fairness, righteousness, and the pivotal role that they should play in the decisions of the wider church.

The Annunciation, and Mary’s response to it, remind us to be attentive to the ways in which God is calling each of us, as we seek God’s coming kingdom.


With thanks to Jim Godfrey for the use of his research and Reference File.