Cathedral Blog

Search all blog posts

Christ Church Cathedral in 25 Objects: Vyner Memorial Window

Written by Janet Proudman, posted on Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Vyner Memorial WindowWhile on duty as a day chaplain in the Cathedral and spending time among its many glorious treasures, I was always particularly drawn to this window. Even though I was quite unaware of its history and significance, I noticed the moving portrayal of holy men who are very much in their youth. In ecclesiastical art we mostly see the saints and prophets depicted as ancient, shown to express their wisdom, experience and lives of faithfulness. Here, in contrast, blond or red-headed holy boys are brought to our gaze.

In the bottom left corner, Burne-Jones shows us the chubby boy Samuel, in his little tunic woven by his mother, entrusted from when he was weaned, to the care of Eli in the Jerusalem Temple. He has gone to ask his master why he called, when Eli explains to him that The Lord himself was calling. In the panel above, Samuel is shown as an active young prophet.

Next David as a powerful young shepherd is shown dynamically overcoming the huge Philistine champion Goliath. He has stunned and wounded him on the forehead with a pebble from his slingshot and, drawing Goliath’s own sword from its scabbard, is striking the fatal decapitating blow. Goliath’s elaborate armour contrasts with David’s simple clothing. David had refused the heavy armour offered by the King Saul. In the panel above he is shown as a young harpist king, probably singing the Psalms which normally resound daily in the Cathedral.

The cartoon or preparatory drawing of David and Goliath is held in the sacristy.

The disciple whom Jesus loved best is believed to be the young disciple St John, regarded as the gospel writer or Evangelist. Reclining on Jesus’s bosom in the emotional turmoil of the Last Supper depicted in the lower panel, John is then shown above confidently holding a chalice, his traditional symbol. This is a cup of suffering and of salvation.Preparatory Drawing

St Timothy, a companion and co worker with St Paul, is seen in the last square panel learning from his mother, Eunice. She and his grandmother Lois, were active members of the congregation in Lystra. Her closeness and tender care for Timothy is clear. This mother affectionately teaching her son struck me as unusual, as I had only remembered seeing this depicted in church art with a girl and her mother -  St Mary and her mother St Anne. Timothy became the first Bishop of Ephesus, but is shown in the panel above as still a young man, studying a book.

Two angels play their harps amid the natural beauty of the detailed vines, leaves, flowers and fruits adorning the window’s tracery. The subtle and lovely detail of the gold decoration of the white textiles worn in the four large panels is best appreciated on the spot.

I later learned the history of the Vyner memorial window, which makes these themes startling clear. It was designed by Burne-Jones to commemorate the life of Frederick Grantham Vyner, an undergraduate student of Christ Church, tragically killed in 1870 at the age of only 23, after being kidnapped and held captive for ten days for ransom by Greek brigands. The youths, the vines and the nurturing teacher and mother in the stained glass take on a new, tragic significance. Vyner’s    heartbroken mother and sister also used the unspent ransom money to commission William Burges to build the gothic revival St Mary’s church at Studley Royal in the grounds of Fountains Abbey, Yorkshire.  

Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. 

1 Timothy 4:12


Janet Proudman


Janet Proudman is the Cathedral’s first Licensed Lay Minister, commissioned here in January 2018, and was a Day Chaplain in the Cathedral for 5 years before that. She previously served as LLM in a parish for 28 years and is a retired Senior Lecturer at Oxford Brookes University and former Honorary Hospital Chaplain at the John Radcliffe and Churchill Hospitals in Oxford.