Friday, February 09, 2018

“Bridie and the Snowdrop: An Exploration in Flora and Stained Glass” by Heather Upfield

Heather's Snowdrops

Some weeks ago I posted an image on Facebook of a little group of snowdrops in the garden of my house on the southwest coast of Scotland. They were in tight bud and my post hoped that they would bloom in time for the Feast Day of St Brigid (or St Bride, as she is generally known in Scotland) on 1st February. This date also coincides with the Christian celebration of Candlemas (on 2nd February) in which, according to the mythology, St Bride played a leading role, and the Midwinter Festival of Imbolc or Oimelc, with its links to the Goddess Brighid. It is a time of enormous energy, whatever your perspective and at the heart of this glorious time are snowdrops!

Thus, it’s entirely natural that contemporary artists like Wendy Andrew (Painting Dreams) and Karen Cater (Hedingham Fair) would feature snowdrops in their beautiful images of Bridie and Imbolc; and that the icon of St Bridget of Kildare in St Gregory Orthodox Church, Silver Spring, Maryland (twentieth century) features snowdrops at Bridie’s feet. Whether Brigid, Bride, Brighid or Ffraed (in Wales), they and the snowdrop seem to be inextricably linked.

It was, therefore, with interest that I read a comment from Mael Brigde herself, asking me if I knew that the snowdrop was not native to Britain and Ireland but had been imported several centuries ago, by Crusaders returning from the Middle East in the 10th century - at least 500 years after St Bride! This was news to me - I had assumed they’d been here for ever - and it set me thinking about snowdrops in general and the iconography of Bridie. It took me on a little journey, firstly into the history of the snowdrop and then into images of St Bridget/St Bride in stained glass windows and I am delighted to share what I found with you here.

I went online to search, firstly, for the history of the common snowdrop in Britain (Galanthus nivalis). From Google searches, it showed there are currently around thirty-two varieties of snowdrop available and it appeared that snowdrops were not native to Britain. However, I could find no mention whatsoever of a link with the Crusades, although I found evidence that Crusaders were responsible for importing spices and hollyhocks! Mael Brigde’s information had come from BBC4 Gardener’s Question Time - a popular radio programme - and although she gave me the names of the presenters to follow up, I did not receive an answer.  Trawling through various sites, I discovered from Kew Gardens that they had first been recorded in Britain in the mid-15th century in a garden, and it is supposed that they were originally planted in gardens, eventually escaping to the wild, where they became naturalized in woodlands and glens.

By the nineteenth century they were well established and appear in Circle of the Seasons and perpetual key to the Calendar and Almanack by Thomas Ignatius M Forster (1828). In his text, he reports that the snowdrop was known as “Our Lady of February”, “Fair Maid of February” and “Purification Flower”. This clearly shows it was at one time linked to St Mary, Mother of God. Candlemas celebrated the Purification of Mary in the Temple under Jewish law. Also, a local folk name for snowdrops is “Mary’s Tapers”. I have always believed that there is a very close bond between St Mary and St Bride (which is supported in Hebridean mythology of St Bride) and I don’t find it problematic in any way, that the snowdrop flowers between the two.

Later, Florigraphia Britannica, by Richard Deakin MD (1845), which was the seminal text on British Flora at the time, lists snowdrops, and Deakin quotes a lovely poem by Anna Laetitia Barbauld, poet, (1743-1825):

“Already the Snowdrop dares appear,
The first pale blossom of the unripened year;
As Flora’s breath, by some transforming power,
Had changed an icicle into a flower:
Its name and hue the scentless plant retains
And Winter lingers in its icy veins.”

My next discovery about the snowdrop, moves forward to the Crimean War (1853-1856), which (simplistically) was fought by Britain, France, Austria and Turkey against Russia, over disputed lands at the west of the Mediterranean. According to British History in Bloom 25/5/2016, native snowdrops (Galanthus niger) grew in Crimea, as widely and commonly as poppies grew in Flanders fields in WW1, and soldiers returning from war brought them home with them. It was also common for soldiers’ graves to have the bulbs planted on them. Thus, we have an influx of one of the many different varieties of snowdrop at that point.

Still searching for the definitive answer to whether snowdrops were native to Britain, or naturalized, or where they might have come from, and not finding the answer no matter how many Google searches I did, I decided to go the Highest Authority in the Land: The Royal Horticultural Society of Great Britain! I was delighted when I received an email from Neil Lancaster, Senior Botanist, within the week. This is the substance of his response, where I have added additional text in square brackets:

“It is not quite certain whether Galanthus nivalis, the common snowdrop, is an introduced or native plant in the UK.

“Clapham, Tutin and Warburg, in the second edition of their Flora of the British Isles (1962) - for long the standard flora - say ‘probably native in some places in Wales and Western England but very commonly planted and usually only naturalized’. In the third edition (paperback 1989) they modify this to ‘probably introduced [..] possibly native in some places in Wales and Western England but very commonly planted and usually only naturalized.’

Galanthus nivalis is native in Northern France according to Flora Europaea. [Tutin, Heywood et al, published in 5 volumes between 1964 and 1980]. However, Bishop, David and Grimshaw’s Snowdrops monograph (reprinted 2006) states flatly that Galanthus nivalis is not native in northern Europe.

“Stace, in the third edition of his New Flora of the British Isles (2010) - which has arguably become the new standard flora - gives it simply as introduced/naturalized, which appears to be the view most commonly held today.

“Clearly it was not known to have been first introduced by returning Crusaders [in publications since 1989] (although even if native here they still might have brought some back from Palestine) and one would think that if this story had been discovered since then, it would be easy enough to find convincing references on line. I would suggest therefore that the answer to your question about the Crusaders is ‘might have done’.”

And that is where we have to leave it, a great unknown, until new evidence turns up!

Bridie in Stained Glass
I have always loved stained glass, and it is the first thing I am drawn to when visiting a church or cathedral. It has a wonderful mysterious quality, for like Schrödinger’s Cat, stained glass is both alive and dead at the same time! From outside the building, the glass appears lifeless, opaque and black. It is only when you step inside, that you find that light pouring through the glass has brought it all to glorious and colourful life.

The subjects of the windows are interesting, in that they very often contain recognisable symbolism connected to the person they are depicting. For example, St Columba of Iona is invariably depicted with his symbol the dove; St Fiacre, Patron Saint of Gardeners, is depicted with a garden spade; and St Cecilia, Patron Saint of Music, is depicted with a primitive hand-held keyboard.

With this in mind, I decided to look at St Bridget/St Bride windows to see what was revealed about the iconography, and also whether the snowdrop was included in any of them. Because this had all the makings of being a life-time’s study (which would be marvellous!), I decided to keep it simple and selected twenty Bridie windows from Pinterest to investigate. Where identified, they are from churches in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, England, Canada and the USA. What follows is very much a snap-shot and possibly the beginnings of something huge, but I hope you enjoy the findings so far.

I was disappointed to find no Bridie windows prior to the nineteenth century, though this does not mean that there aren’t any. However, if it is the case that Bridie windows came into churches from the 1800s, it could be the result of relaxation in laws concerning faith in Britain and Ireland, which resulted in the huge surge in church building in the nineteenth century. Not all the windows were dated or dateable, or gave details of their whereabouts, but my selection showed them to be redolent of nineteenth century Arts and Crafts and Victorian Gothic, through to twentieth century Modernism and then beyond, to a more soft and romantic style in those from the twenty-first century.

Interestingly, in all twenty windows, St Bridget/St Bride is depicted as a nun and in ten of these, she is in the habit of a conventional nun. It is not certain exactly when the nun’s habit first came into use, but it was likely to have been in the period of great abbey and monastery building from the eleventh century. Chaucer, writing in the fourteenth century, suggests the Prioresse in his Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, is dressed in the habit of Benedictine nuns, as “Ful semyly hir wympul pynchėd was”, so it was clearly established by then. However, it is highly unlikely, that Bridie would have been dressed in a formal habit such as this, but, (as she is depicted in the other ten windows), in the simple clothing of the country girl she was.

In ten windows she is carrying a pastoral staff, whether a traditional crozier, or more simple rod, and in five she is carrying a Mediaeval abbey in her hands or is adjacent to one. In seven she is carrying a lit candle or burner, or her staff has a flame from its tip. Crosses feature in five windows, either on her clothes, in the background or in her hands; in three windows these are St Bride crosses. Across seven windows, she is shown holding a rosary, sheaf of corn, quill (in two), bell, milk pail, bible and bowl.

Animals feature in a total of nine windows: cows in two, and sheep in three. In the background of one, six birds flutter around St Bride, while an oystercatcher appears in a small light in another. The goose, which symbolises the start and end of winter appears in a third. In two she is depicted with her guardian wolf, and in another with her boar.

What interested me most was the vegetation and flora which appeared in fifteen out of twenty windows. In one there is unspecified vegetation surrounding St Bride, another had some little unidentifiable pink flowers, and in another blue bells! Of the remaining twelve, by far the most common symbols were oak leaves and acorns which appear in ten. They are either being held by the saint, or on her vestments, or appearing in the background, anchoring the window strongly to St Bridget of Kildare. In one, a text banner proclaims “Cill Dara”.

And finally, what I had been looking for: two windows which feature snowdrops, the only ones I found!

Window One: “St Bridget” in St Bridget’s Roman Catholic Church, Baillieston, Scotland
The first window, titled St Bridget, dates to the late twentieth century and is to be found in St Bridget’s Roman Catholic Church, Baillieston, Scotland, beside St Columba of Iona (note the dove). Here we see a thoroughly modern interpretation of Bridie, full of vitality and energy.

The window is a single panel, with a small light at the top, where an oystercatcher (the symbol of St Bride in Scotland) is to be seen. St Bridget is depicted as a nun, but in a fluid, stylised fashion, with Bridie crosses on her vestments. A brilliant sun (replicating a halo) and shining star are in the top of this light, with a abbey in the background. She is holding a quill and at her feet are two sheep beside a pail of milk. Circling the pail at her feet are six snowdrops.

As a footnote, Giles Davies, Bridie specialist and historian from Wales, informed me that in his research, an image of the sun around the head, was used to denote Saints, from the Mediaeval period till about 1830-1840, after which the halo became standard.

Window Two: “St Bride” in Church of St John the Baptist, Church of England, Glastonbury, England
The second window, titled St Bride, dates to 1925 and is to be found in the Church of St John the Baptist, Glastonbury, England.

It comprises two panels, that on the left depicting three sheep, with, in the background, a crowd of followers standing at the foot of the famous Glastonbury Tor.

The right hand panel depicts St Bride herself, dressed as a conventional nun, carrying a bell, with her guardian wolf at her side. At her feet is a cluster of snowdrops.

I visited Glastonbury in 2010 for a ceremony on St Bride’s Mound, just outside the centre of town, and fell in love with this window when I paid a visit to the church. I have kept a postcard of this window close-by ever since. However, it was difficult to see what was at Bridie’s feet, and my own memory was hazy. Thus, I am immensely grateful to the delightful Nigelle de Visme, who lives in Glastonbury, for very kindly going to St John’s (twice!) and checking this out for me! Bridie Blessings Nigelle!

In conclusion, my journey has taken me through swathes of snowdrops (whether native or naturalized!) and I encountered some superb stained glass designers along the way: Harry Clarke in Dublin in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century; Sarah Pursers, who founded An Túr Gloine (Tower of Glass) stained glass workshop in Dublin around 1905 (wonderful to see a woman at the forefront of stained glass design in that period!); and in the twenty-first century, Plamen Petrov in the USA; and Laura and John Gilroy in Canada.

As I indicated at the beginning, this article is very much an initial exploration based on a small sample of windows and the symbolism is what we might expect: cows and sheep, the nun, the abbey, fire etc but I was not expecting as many windows to have featured oak leaves and acorns. And there are so many more windows to find! I am an associate of the Scottish Stained Glass Trust, which recently gained funding to record every stained glass window in Scotland. The same has been done in Wales in a project run by Aberystwyth University and I feel sure that there are similar projects in England and Ireland and elsewhere. In time, it will be much easier to find Bridie windows online!

It might be that this exploration will encourage you to grow your own snowdrops (they do wonderfully well in tubs) or has altered, or complemented, your way of looking at stained glass. You might want to look at windows on Pinterest yourself, and make your own comparisons.  Please let me know if you have St Bride, St Bridget or St Ffraed windows in buildings in your area. It would be marvellous to have a Bridie in Stained Glass Catalogue!

Meanwhile, at this sacred time of St Bride’s Day, Imbolc and Candlemas, may the fire of St Bride and the sweet snowdrop of Midwinter Spring bring light to guide you on your own path.

Bridie Blessings
Heather Upfield
3 February 2018

"Wendy Andrew, Painting Dreams"

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