The Illumination Window: The Design

Artist Mel Howse gives an insight into the design process and reading of our newest cathedral addition, The Illumination Window.


It has been a great privilege to be both designer and maker for the commission to create The Illumination window. It will stand as an important experience in my lifetime. As I write this in Spring 2019 this work is about to take on a new role. It will be leaving the intimacy of my studio, and travelling into the future as part of the Cathedral.

The story started in 2016, when a project to commemorate university student Sara Pilkington was generated by her parents Jonathan and Jools Pilkington. An important location was chosen by Durham Cathedral, a window in the North Quire Aisle next to the Shrine of St Cuthbert. The Cathedral came knocking on my door and invited me to put forward designs for a new stained glass window.

Image: © Mel Howse 2019

The theme for the North Quire Aisle was a gem. A series of papers written on the themes of colour, beauty and wisdom. It included notes from the late Dr Neil Moat, stained glass historian.

The north-facing window is the last clear window in the series of stained glass windows that encapsulates the high altar and the Shrine of St Cuthbert, and is approximately 26 square metres in area.

Image: © Mel Howse 2019

The purpose of the new art was to form a poignant memorial to a young and beautiful student, Sara Pilkington. Also to form a connection between the Cathedral and Durham University, where Sara had studied. The collective brief was to be both aesthetically open-minded and deeply emotional – drawing tangible links between the spiritual journey and life in the current age. It paved the way for a glorious commission for contemporary stained glass, that welcomed up-to-date views on design and the way in which the art could be made.

The Design

Three years ago, in the weeks leading up to Easter 2016, I worked to distil my scale designs in my studio. There were several pathways that opened up in those weeks but as is often my way, I worked my words alongside with my design ideas. I like to do this, especially when I know a project will be deep and complex. I was drawing on the highlights of each theme, and weaving them together. My approach to commissions is usually to harness my ideas within sets of designs but on this occasion it was one particular design that kept coming back to the front of my mind. It is this composition that developed into the glasswork that I have created today.

Image: © Mel Howse 2019

In laying the composition down, I skipped the traditional media and went straight in with my smallest spray gun  – building up some detailed areas with soft pencils – but leaving the flowing composition open enough for changes and developments. The first marks made during this small-scale composition, became the basis for the full-scale piece.

Achieving synergy with the awesome architecture of Durham Cathedral was also key for me. It is an incredible building, ahead of its time in its day, and inspirational in terms of construction and architectural expression. Its recurring textures, patterns and rhythms have lived through the centuries.

For me as an artist my portfolio thrives on the visually abstract or semi-abstract. The proximity of the north quire aisle window to St Cuthbert’s shrine was key for me. I live near the sea, and views of the Isle of Wight from the headland put me in mind of St Cuthbert’s island sanctuary – a place where the weather, the water and the bird-life were company for his contemplation. The seascape spilling with patterns, shapes and colours – changing and often physically abstracted by the tides. Smoothed, roughed, merged by the weather and light.

I spent a lot of time absorbing the space within the Cathedral and at various points during this commission; one carries the feeling of a place in one’s mind when you design for art in architecture.  My vision was to add to the spiritual contemplation present in the space, creating an intuitive work of art that would focus prayer and thought.

This was an opportunity for progressive design that would be interpreted using a fusion of glass working techniques.

Reading the Design

There is a pattern and a cycle in my design for the Illumination Window. Its structure overlays the themes laid down in the Cathedral’s brief, and which culminates in the title of Illumination.

Image: © Mel Howse 2019

The journey of learning is represented by St Cuthbert and Jesus.

These stories are interwoven, symbolic in their teaching and spiritual lives. One is earthly and physically present, the other divine and ethereal. Their connection to the sea and water flows through the window. The core of the window is a seascape.

You will find within the composition St Cuthbert’s cave, or cell, on Farne, where he lived a life of prayer amongst the beauty of the wildlife. An early vision of Cuthbert saw St Aiden carried into the cosmos. Birds rising from the land and sea represents his spirit rising. The notion of the island for me gives a feeling of personal faith, essential to spiritual awareness.

The miracle of the resurrection overlays the spiritual journey of Cuthbert. Jesus’ presence is represented by folds of land, evocative of draped linen. St Cuthbert’s cell can also be interpreted as the tomb from which Jesus is risen. 

Image: © Mel Howse 2019

The transition of the bird imagery into the tracery of the window shows their forms becoming a multitude of abstract shapes as they move towards higher planes.

Colour is a focus of the piece. The way I have worked the glass allows the transition of one colour into another; and sometimes many colours on one piece of glass. A structure of white runs throughout the window. This represents a progression towards illumination and the triumph of life over death.

Image: ©Chapter of Durham Cathedral

One could not be other than struck by the background to this project, the vibrancy of Sara, a beautiful young woman and student. Therefore I have striven to keep the art fresh and full of hope. Its contemporary approach is offered as a work of art for all; and for all to find a personal interpretation.

Written by Mel Howse, 2019

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