Christ Church College and Cathedral, Oxford

During the recent Art and Theology conference in Oxford, in which we visited Christ Church Picture Gallery, there was a natural pause during which I visited the cathedral. The cathedral in Christ Church College is not only the college chapel but the Mother Church for the Diocese of Oxford.

Christ Church was founded amidst the religious changes of Henry VIII’s reign and while Henry was re-establishing the college as Christ Church in 1546, he was also carving out a new diocese in Oxford. When releasing funds for Christ Church, Henry decided to save money and turn the chapel into a beautiful cathedral.

Christ Church Cathedral choir stalls

When Cardinal Wolsey began the building of his college on the site, the western end of the building was removed to make space for what is called ‘Tom Quad’. Wolsey’s plan to replace it with a larger chapel on the North side of Tom Quad would have caused its demolition but when he fell from power the building of the new chapel stopped, thus, the cathedral still stands.

St. Frideswide the Patron Saint of Oxford, detail from the Burne-Jones window detailing Frideswide’s life (1859, Christ Church Cathedral)

St. Frideswide, the patron saint of Oxford, died on October 19th, 727. She was buried on the site in the eighth century, when a convent church once stood in the cathedral’s place. During the reign of Mary Tudor, St. Frideswide’s bones were kept in two silk bags.

In the ninth and tenth centuries a group of priests lived there and then in the twelfth century, further alterations were made and the monastery became an Augustinian priory. By the thirteenth century it was a major site of pilgrimage. The interior was redesigned in the nineteenth century by the Gothic revivalist architect, Sir George Gilbert Scott, and the window of interest in the church is the St. Frideswide window by Edward Burne-Jones which I will come onto shortly.

van Linge, Jonah window (1630s, Christ Church Cathedral)

The first thing one sees on entering the cathedral is the organ rising above them, although this was only installed in 1979. To the left of the main entrance is one of the college’s most interesting stained glass windows, the Jonah window by Abraham van Linge. This window was one of the ones to survive the Civil War. A lot of the van Linge windows (Abraham and his brother Bernard both produced stained glass for the cathedral) were destroyed by a canon’s boot heels in 1651. The shards of these windows were included in the 2013 Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm at Tate Britain. The detail below shows a surprising range of fresh and vibrant colours and a wonderful architectural landscape.

Detail from Jonah stained glass window

The Christ Church website tells us that if one walks to the back far left of the cathedral you will reach the Latin Chapel where you can see the reconstructed shrine to St Frideswide; ‘The shrine was installed in the church in 1289 but broken up in 1538 during the Reformation when devotion to saints was heavily criticised. Parts of the shrine were found in a well in the nineteenth century and restored to the church, a second reconstruction was then made in 2002.’

It is above the shrine that you will encounter Burne-Jones’ St. Frideswide window. The subject is a perfect choice for an Oxford church with Frideswide being the patron saint and the window shows her story is shown in detail as it attempts to retell the medieval narrative of her life. There are three accounts of her life all written in the twelfth century (so approximately four hundred years after she died). As with any such time lapse, there is a likelihood the stories have been merged and details altered or missed out but the essence of the story is as follows:

Frideswide, whose Germanic Saxon name means ‘Bond of Peace’, was said to be a beautiful and devout Princess, daughter of King Didan.  In her youth she was looked after by nuns due to being motherless and as one would expect, she was taught to read and write and to play music as is inevitable of such narratives about women of the court.

When Frideswide reached a marriageable age it was agreed she would marry (Burne-Jones opts for the version which references Algar, King of Leicester), but Frideswide was opposed to the idea of marriage altogether, preferring instead to become a nun and continue with her religious life. The story says that Frideswide was warned by an angel that Algar’s men were coming to claim her as his bride and armed with confidence in this divine protection Frideswide flees, as the window illustrates.

Burne-Jones, St. Frideswide – rowing away from Oxford (1859)

Gathering her missal and food, Frideswide rows up the river away from Oxford. The next scene depicts Frideswide in a pigsty at Binsey (although some versions of the story suggest she went to Bampton for sanctuary) where she waited for dawn to break. Although pursued, Frideswide was not found.

Burne-Jones, St. Frideswide – praying in a pig sty (1859)

As the sun broke, she continued on with her journey continued until she came upon a group of nuns who offered her shelter. Remaining with the nuns Frideswide was at last able to fulfil her role as a devout woman, even though she had disobeyed her father and caused a scandal.

Burne-Jones, King Agar being blinded by lightning (1859) Note the reference to Oxford in the top right hand corner

It is said her father sickened at the loss of his daughter and it was hearing this that pricked Frideswide’s conscience and made her return to Oxford to see him. On hearing of her return, Algar rushed to Oxford seeking to claim his betrothed but at the moment of doing so he was blinded by a bolt of lightning. Burne-Jones depicts this bolt of lightning more as a joust, than something one may have anticipated.

When Frideswide heard Algar’s please for mercy and forgiveness, she prayed and as she did water appeared from a healing spring. Algar’s sight was restored to him but the cost of this was that his desire for Frideswide was gone forever: she was now safe to become a nun and to fulfil her devout duties. Close to the southern wall of Oxford, she founded her priory which is where Christ Church Cathedral now stands. In the 1980’s archaeologists found evidence of a graveyard on the site dating back to the late seventh century which suggests historical truth behind the tale.

St. Margaret’s – the healing well of St. Frideswide

Oxford held a special place in the Pre-Raphaelite mind, not just because of their interest in the Oxford Movement but because of their early formative experiences: romantic, religious and educational. Christ Church has some notable alumni, e.g. Lewis Carroll and Ruskin, who went up in 1837. Burne-Jones and Morris met in Oxford and it seems fitting they created a window for Christ Church, making this a very personal window for the artists and for the city. Reiteration of the importance of Oxford to the Pre-Raphaelites and their respect for the narrative, place, and cathedral are demonstrated via the incorporated references within the design, e.g. the city crest, Binsey, and signposts for Oxford.

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Burne-Jones, St. Frideswide with ladies – note the Oxford signpost in background (1859)

The window was produced in 1859, at the time Burne-Jones was studying illuminated manuscripts. Critics of the window suggest the final work is difficult to read due to being over crowded with figures but an alternative reading would suggest the stained glass medium suited Burne-Jones well, permitting him to utilise natural sunlight, indulge the Pre-Raphaelite desire for luminosity of colour, narrative, love of nature, and medieval myths.

The nineteenth century medieval revival demonstrate a Victorian longing to escape their own increasingly industrial and commercial world, they wished to be enchanted by the slower more charitable way of life they perceived to have existed in the medieval times. Gothic Architecture and stained glass are both indicative of these attitudes. The interest in St. Frideswide is demonstrative of this but is also indicative of a broader Victorian penchant for medieval restoration, the shrine itself being restored and put in place during this period. (There is also a dark paving stone in the floor carved simply with the name Frideswide, and it is here that the anniversary of her death is commemorated annually on 19th October).

The shrine of St. Frideswide with the Burne-Jones window behind

The scenes in the window show the Anglo-Saxon being educated, cutting her hair off to avoid marriage, fleeing, praying in a pig sty, rowing away from her home and safety and being protected by a strong group of women. The scenes are all colourful, exuberant and capture something of the drama and tenacity of Frideswide who seems to have been a most determined and intelligent young lady. Not only are we reminded of duty before God and faith in his power, but we are reminded about charity and community, suitable attributes to impress upon a body of students. The final scenes within the window capture the final moments of Frideswide’s life. She is shown dying peacefully whilst a devoted sister keeps vigil beside her. Frideswide dies among the nuns in the priory which she established at Christ Church and which remains her legacy even though the very structure and brickwork has long since changed from what Frideswide would have known. The fabric of the cathedral still centres upon much of Frideswide’s character: hard work, devotion and determination.

Burne-Jones, St. Frideswide – death bed scene (1859)

The death bed scene illustrates Burne-Jones knowledge of van Eyck and he includes what Susan Koslow describes as a ‘curtain sack’ in the background. This can be found in van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait (1434, National Gallery). The Northern European styled windows in this scene are typically Pre-Raphaelite as well and by that I mean they are typically van Eyckian. What seems to get the most conversation in this section of the window is the much discussed object on the far right above St. Frideswide’s head. It is often said that it is a modern day flushing toilet, in recognition of who funded the window. Burne-Jones was a man who enjoyed a good ‘jape’ but I am not entirely convinced this levity sits well in such a project. He was a difficult but a sincere man prone to melancholy, and Oxford was a serious place for him. Yes, the Pre-Raphaelites were young and naive when they were painting the Oxford murals and being boisterous but this toilet scene seems a little at odds with the cathedral or for a professional – controversy never sat well with Burne-Jones. One could talk oneself into or out of accepting it as being a toilet. I think the most reasonable response is to at least acknowledge it is a possibility (a) because of possible financial investors and b) because of Burne-Jones’ occasionally juvenile humour) but I think other more serious issues could also be interpreted. Could this be a reference to the all-important narrative detail of cleansing, of St. Margaret’s well perhaps which is still visited and considered by some to have healing properties? The mirror definitely held a great fascination for the Pre-Raphaelites and cleansing oneself was very much a Victorian preoccupation, so perhaps this is a basin and a mirror. Purification and expunging oneself of sin was a particular Catholic notion and it would therefore be perfectly reasonable in a panel about a woman whose story heavily involves water and notions of cleansing (herself and others) through her charitable works and pure heart. Or it could just be a toilet.

It is the detail of this complete and beautifully coloured window which is impressive: the ducks, the lilies, the sunflowers, the pigs, the dresser full of plates and even the nun’s habits. All of these finely considered details are wonderfully executed and show Burne-Jones’ talent at creating working fresh designs for an audience (congregation) who were highly literate and increasingly high in their style of worship.


The influence of the Oxford movement can be detected in this depiction of a saint, for the nature of the story was more in keeping with Catholicism than Anglicanism at that time. Designs and architecture which reflected saints, martyrs or generally embraced Catholic iconography show how the Anglican Church was becoming increasingly Catholic in look and feel. This suited the palate of the Pre-Raphaelites and can be traced back to the earliest of their works, e.g. Millais Christ in the House of his Parents (1849, Tate). The Anglican Church began to feel more Catholic as ritual liturgy, flowers, incense and the like became part of daily worship. Notable Victorians converted to Catholicism, John Henry Newman, the Gothic architect Pugin and the Pre-Raphaelite artist Collinson.

What is delightful about the window design is the inclusion of the papist tendencies which we nowadays tend to think disappeared from Pre-Raphaelite art by the early 1850s, let alone being found in works in the late 50s. St, Catherine is a particular indicator of this papist tendency. Even allowing for the obvious and important connection with Oxford, St. Frideswide is still a more papist design for an Anglican Church than one may anticipate.

St. Catherine is another important figure, for she is a female scholar, a saint of students if you will, and educator of Frideswide as well as being a Catholic martyr. Not only does Burne-Jones depict Frideswide’s all-important education by Catherine but twenty years on from the St. Frideswide window he turned his attentions toward celebrating Catherine’s own achievements

Burne-Jones collaborated with Morris again in the production of the St. Catherine window, another for Christ Church Cathedral which can be found in what is now called the Chapel of Remembrance (dedicated to service men and women). The intervening twenty years had much altered Burne-Jones’ style and the early ‘primitive’ style of St. Frideswide has been replaced with a more classical style as apparent in the draped figure of St. Catherine.


The figure is reminiscent of Italian art and inevitably shows how Burne-Jones absorbed much from the time he spent in Italy. The model though was the then dean’s daughter, Edith Liddell. Edith was the younger sister of Alice, inspiration for Charles Dodgson’s (better known as Lewis Carroll) work Alice in Wonderland.  In the 1870s, the Liddell family moved from Oxford to the Isle of Wight where they rented Whitecliff House. The community of the isle included Cameron and Tennyson who lived nearby. Cameron used the three Liddell sisters in King Lear Allotting His Kingdom to his Three Daughters (1872, Met Museum).

Cameron, King Lear Allotting His Kingdom to his Three Daughters (1872, Met Museum)

The three girls (from the left: Lorina, Edith and Alice) are stood near the King, Cameron’s husband, Charles Hay Cameron.  The girls epitomise youth and beauty, albeit they carry a mournful melancholic look – particularly Alice. The King’s dark robes and long white beard and aged skin give him an authority that juxtaposes the youthful nubile quality of the girls.

In the chapel window at Christ Church, Edith, like St. Catherine, remains forever youthful which is rather ironic considering that Edith died when she was still young (at a mere 22).


It is said there is little historical evidence for Catherine, so she may well have been a composite drawn from fourth century oral traditions but according to tradition, Catherine was the daughter of Constus, the governor of Alexandrian Egypt. She is described as being devoted to study and became a Christian after receiving a vision of the Madonna and Child. It is said Catherine approached Emperor Maxentius about the increasing persecution of Christians and after a series of eloquent discussions, fifty of the most eminent philosophers were summoned to debate with her. Catherine was so well educated and succinct that she won the debate, even converting some of her adversaries to Christianity during the process.


Whilst Catherine may have proved herself intellectually superior, she was scourged and imprisoned. Catherine’s faith remained resolute and as over two hundred visitors came to see her, her ability to reason, inspire and convert continued. The martyrdom she had initially spoken up for now continued to grow in her own hands, a rather bitter sweet consequence of her influence.

Catherine was then tortured, but still she did not yield. Finally she was viewed by Maxentius as unbeatable and he desired to make her his bride; Catherine declined his marriage proposal, claiming Christ was her only spouse. Inflamed by this further rejection and overriding of his authority and position, Catherine received a death sentence. She was to be broken upon a spiked wheel. Maxentius was further disappointed when Catherine’s mere touch broke the wheel and saved her. At Maxentius’ order, Catherine was beheaded.


An early tradition states the angels carried St. Catherine’s body to Mount Sinai, where a monastery was established in the sixth century. Angels are a significant feature of the Burne-Jones window and are not only integral to the narrative but to Burne-Jones’ Italian influences. The angel on the left is reminiscent of mannerism, it has a certain Michelangelo quality to its posture. The drapes and the position of the angel are in fact so classical that we could be forgiven for being reminded of such ancient sculptures as Winged Victory of Samothrace (circa 220-185, Louvre).


The angels feature in both the main panels of the window on either side of Catherine as well as in the lower section.  Their positioning is relative and is part of the affirmation of Catherine’s character e.g. the angel on the left is above the scene of Catherine debating with Pagan scholars (and as we have already noted, winning). The whole composition of the panels is very obviously literary in function, and our eye is drawn from left to right, from the angels’ robes. It is the angels who deliver the narrative, the message of Catherine’s story, of the window itself. The angels’ function is part of divine affirmation and allows us to feel Catherine was already revered in celestial spheres. Theologically speaking this is important because it demonstrates that her life was not in vain, that her pain was not in vain, and that her soul would have meaning beyond the flesh of her body. Even in the retelling of her story, Burne-Jones does not reiterate the torture of Catherine’s physical body, he instead gives the wheel to the angel. That bulky, wooden spiked wheel becomes less menacing under the feet of an ethereal being. The pagan instruments of torture, like the pagans themselves, are physically underneath the heavenly. Not only does the angel stand upon the wheel, but he remains above the pagan scholars. They are smaller and of less significance in the overall story of Catherine’s life: it is her faith and her mind which is key to the narrative. Considering the angel on the left in these terms, we can describe it as being representative of ‘Victory’. What then of the angel on the right?

This angel appears to have kept vigil over Catherine’s body, and he now watches from above as she is carried to her final resting place in Sinai. His expression is mournful and in contradistinction to the other main angel, he signifies ‘Sorrow’. Once again we are met with classical layering in the design of the angel but as is the norm with Pre-Raphaelitism, it is layered with mediaevalism and their own Victorian tastes. Sorrow carries a shroud in his arms, with which it seems he will embrace Catherine. The wheel of her martyrdom has now moved into an arc, perhaps reminiscent of the annunciating rainbow: the rainbow being another angelic type messenger of the Lord’s word.

An interesting link between the two windows is the concept of charity. Charity of heart, charity of religious institutions (such as monasteries and priories, both historically and narratively) was important theologically and socially speaking. Frideswide pursued charitable activities through tending the poor and healing the sick and her devotion led to the formation of a priory on the very site of the window which commemorates her. Likewise, Catherine was the figure head of the charitable monastic tradition of St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai. In both life and death, both women were intelligent, educated and motivated by charity and faith, Not only did St. Catherine educate St. Frideswide, but she became patron saint of female students. This modern saint defies the conventions of the very cathedral and college she inhabits. It was not until 1980 that women were allowed to read at Christ Church. At the time the window of St. Catherine was made, the first women’s colleges were being founded. It makes it apt that Burne-Jones gave the Cathedral such a strong woman to keep watch over them, and one can only help that is a constant reminder of that institutions slow adoption of recognition of feminine scholarship.

Other window designs of interest include Burne-Jones’ angelic St. Cecilia window and David and Goliath (1872 – 1873, Christ Church Cathedral).

Burne-Jones, detail of St. Cecilia (1879, Christ Church Cathedral)
Morris and Burne-Jones, David and Goliath (1872 – 1873, Christ Church Cathedral)