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St Frideswide Window: Advent Doors 2018

Written by Sarah Meyrick, posted on Friday, December 7, 2018

When is a door not a door (Part 2)? When it's a window, of course. Like many Cathedrals and churches, we have lots of stunning stained glass which provide ‘windows’ into the Bible and the stories of the saints.

Detail of the Ship of Souls from Frideswide windowOne of the most celebrated is the vibrant window in the Latin Chapel that houses the reconstructed Shrine to St Frideswide, upon whose priory church Christ Church was built. Today’s ‘door’ is more doorpost than door, because Frideswide is seen taking shelter in a pigsty. She’s clinging to the doorjamb for dear life.

This window is the work of a celebrated artist, Edward Burne-Jones. But what makes it particularly interesting is that Burne-Jones was only 25 years old when he created it (in 1858), which explains why it is not exactly typical of the familiar Pre-Raphaelite style.

Burne-Jones’s window tells the story of St Frideswide in sixteen colourful cartoons. Little is known for certain about Frideswide (680-727), but according to legend, she was a Saxon princess who became a nun and founded the first church in Oxford. She had to run away when a local prince tried her to force her into marriage. A #MeToo moment?

Frideswide is said to have fled to a local wood, where she hid for three years, before returning to Oxford only to discover the prince was still waiting for her. But the prince was stopped in his tracks by a bolt of lightning which blinded him. Frideswide took pity on him, and prayed for the prince’s sight to be restored. In gratitude for the miracle of regaining his sight, he finally left poor Frideswide in peace.

Of course, it may not have happened quite like that. But what we do know for sure is that her Anglo-Saxon name translates as ‘Strong Peace’. And it appears that she founded a church in the early eighth century to serve a community of women dedicated to the worship of God, around which Oxford grew up. Today the City, the University and the Diocese of Oxford hold her as their Patron Saint, and we honour her in the Cathedral each year on her feast day (19 October).

We could have chosen another doorway in the window, a favourite with the schoolchildren who visit us. In Frideswide’s death scene you can just make out a wonderfully en suite loo behind a curtain in the bottom right corner. But instead, we’ve shown Frideswide being transported to heaven by the Ship of Souls. I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In...