In addition to the ones we’ve looked at so far, Saint Mary’s has a set of eight windows along the sides of the nave. Depicting various events in Our Lady’s life, these windows were unveiled in 1931 – a gift from Archbishop Curley of Baltimore and Washington, USA, whose cousin, Father Hughes, was parish priest here at the time.
Unfortunately, we can’t ask the artist who designed these windows to explain them, nor (so far as I know) was a guide ever published – so I can only offer here my personal reflections. I hope I get it right.
The first of the nave windows depicts Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception. It includes some features (though not all, and not exactly) of the vision of Our Lady granted to Saint Catherine Laboré.
Catherine Laboré was a novice in the community of the Daughters of Charity in Paris. In 1830, Our Lady appeared to her three times. On the third occasion, Our Lady was seen standing on the globe of the earth, crushing beneath her foot the head of a snake. Our Lady’s arms were outstretched with dazzling rays of light streaming from her fingers, and she was framed by an inscription: ‘O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee’. The vision slowly turned to reveal, among other things, a large ‘M’ (representing ‘Mary’), surrounded by twelve stars. Catherine was asked to have medals struck depicting the vision she’d seen – which we’re all familiar with as the ‘Miraculous Medal’.
That Our Lady was ‘conceived without sin’ is the Mystery of her ‘Immaculate Conception’. Adam and Eve, our first parents, were created by God in a state of blamelessness. But enticed by Satan, who had taken the form of a serpent, Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s injunction not to eat of the fruit of a particular tree (Genesis 3). Consequently, each of us is now born a sharer in the guilt of their sinful disobedience – each of us is born, as we say, in ‘Original Sin’. But when, in Jesus Our Lord, the Son of God became Man, the human nature he took to himself was not the fallen nature of Adam, but the nature of Man as it had first been created. And by his sacrifice upon the Cross, Our Blessed Lord atoned for Adam and Eve’s sin – so that through repentance, faith, and baptism in his name, we are saved from Original Sin’s guilt. We say that Our Lord is the new Adam. Though conceived by the Holy Spirit, Our Lord took his human nature and was born from a human mother – Our Blessed Lady. To prepare her to be his mother, by a special privilege, God preserved her from Original Sin from the very first moment of her conception – so that the stain of Adam’s sin never touched her even for an instant. Our Lord made the redemption he won on the Cross reach back in time, as it were, to preserve his mother from Original Sin. He not only poured grace upon Mary, but made her (uniquely) ‘full of grace’ – as the Archangel recognized at the Annunciation (Luke 1,28). This is the Mystery of Mary’s Immaculate Conception.
This truth has been handed down through the Church since the earliest times, believed by her unceasingly, upheld by the common conviction of her Bishops and faithful, and by acts and constitutions of the Holy See. At length, in 1854 (24 years after Our Lady’s appearances to Saint Catherine Laboré), Pope Pius IX declared it to be a doctrine taught and revealed by God, and therefore to be held by all faithful Christians firmly and constantly.
These aisle windows are rather larger than the ones we’ve looked at so far, making them more difficult to photograph in such a way as to reveal detail. There’s no substitute for seeing the window itself, of course. But beneath Our Lady’s feet, between the two cherubs, you might just be able to make out – an indistinct dark brown and green colour – the bottom of the globe. Coiling himself around it is Satan the serpent, in his mouth the fruit with which he tempted Adam and Eve to their – and our – ruin. In the vision Saint John describes in the final book of the Bible, he sees ‘a woman … with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars’ (Apocalypse 12, 1). This woman represents the Church, but also Our Lady – and so in our window, behind Our Lady’s ankles is a slender new moon. The serpent has even coiled himself around the right-hand end of its crescent – all creation lay under Satan’s dominion.
Yet, even at that moment of our Fall, God revealed to us the first hint of the Gospel to come in Christ: he promised that a woman, as mother of the Saviour, would crush Satan’s head (Genesis 3,15), and Satan’s dominion would be no more. Thus, in our window, as in Saint Catherine’s vision, the serpent is being crushed under Our Lady’s foot. His coils are green and yellow, but his head is bright red – as if her foot is choking him to death! The fruit in his mouth (you might just pick it out) is brown, with green leaves from its stalk.
When we looked at our window of Saint Patrick, we saw him (as he’s often depicted) sternly ordering the serpents, with pointed finger, from Ireland. Our Lady doesn’t simply send away the serpent, but crushes him completely. And she does this without even a look at the serpent – rather, her eyes are raised modestly heavenward to the source of the grace she received. Unlike Patrick with his sternly pointed finger, Our Lady’s hands are crossed over her breast in humility.
In the large panes either side of Our Lady are two angels bearing banners on which are written the words Saint Catherine saw in her vision: ‘O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee’. In the topmost pane, another (much smaller) angel holds a banner on which are written the words ‘Thou art all fair, my beloved’. These words are from The Song of Songs 4,7 – part of the Alleluia verse preceding the Gospel reading at Mass on the feast of the Immaculate Conception in its traditional form. The astounding beauty of Man as God created us, was marred by Adam and Eve’s sin. That beauty has been wondrously restored by Christ, and is seen to perfection in his Mother, the Immaculate Conception – even the Archangel hailed that beauty!
Our Lady’s robe is white – a sign of her Immaculate purity, as well as of her perpetual Virginity. But over her white robe she wears a mantle of blue. Why is blue Mary’s traditional colour? The ancient Israelites were commanded by God to wear a garment with a tassel in each corner, to remind them to keep God’s commandments. This tassel was to be coloured blue (Numbers 15,38-39). Our Lady’s garment is the same colour as that tassel, because she was always obedient to God’s will – especially when she consented to be our Saviour’s mother, saying ‘I am the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to thy will’ (Luke 1,38). Also, God’s Spirit abided in the midst of the ancient Israelites, within the Ark – the wooden box God ordered Moses to make, in which were to be kept the stone tablets on which God had written his Commandments. God told the Israelites to cover the Ark of his Presence with a cloth, coloured blue (Numbers 4,7). The Ark, enclosing God’s Spirit, foreshadowed Our Lady, within whose womb was conceived the Son of God present among us as Man. Like the Ark, Our Lady is robed in blue.
In Saint Catherine’s vision, dazzling rays of light streamed from the fingers of Our Lady’s outstretched arms. Those rays of light represented God’s grace, won for us by Christ and coming to us through the one who consented to bear him for us – his Mother Mary. Although it is wonderfully true that Mary is Mediatrix of all graces, our window shows the rays of God’s grace coming down from heaven upon Mary herself in her Immaculate Conception. Not easy to see in the photograph, but clearer in the window itself (gloriously so on summer evenings when the sun shines through that side of the church), the dazzling rays are represented by shafts of lighter and darker blue, coming down from above Our Lady’s head, behind her, and to the side behind the two angels.
Our Lady wears a crown, and her head is surrounded by cherubs representing the company of heaven – for she is Queen of Heaven. But the last of our eight nave windows depicts Our Lady’s Coronation, so I’ll reserve further comment on this topic until then.
Finally, in Saint Catherine’s vision, Our Lady turned round to reveal a circle of twelve stars – and the woman in Saint John’s vision, already alluded to, also wore a crown of twelve stars upon her head. The twelve stars represent the twelve apostles – for Our Lady is also Queen of Apostles. Our window shows twelve stars around Our Lady – though not in a circle, nor as a crown. You’ll struggle to identify them in the photograph, but four are in front of the grey clouds below the angel dressed in red on the left. Two more are under the cherubs below Our Lady’s feet, plus a brighter one between them. Another two are in front of the clouds under the angel dressed in ochre on the right, and there’s a beautifully bright blue star above Our Lady’s head. That makes ten. Then, either side of the angel in the highest pane are two tiny panes, each of which contains a star – making twelve in all.
The feast of the Immaculate Conception is on December 8th.
Our next nave window shows the Presentation of Our Lady, which I’ll comment on soon.