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Window 9: The Almond Tree

The ninth window in the Creation and the New Creation series of windows at the church of

Saints Leonard and Fergus, Dundee.

Like the previous window, this one, Window 9: The Almond Tree, honours women. The woman honoured here is Mary, the Mother of God, to whom many churches in the Dunkeld diocese are dedicated.

The beautiful abstracted almond tree made with gold-pink glass, which contains real gold. Detail from Window 9: The Almond Tree at the church of Saints Leonard and Fergus, Dundee, Scotland. Designed and made by AJ Naylor.

The beautiful abstracted almond tree made with gold-pink glass, which contains real gold.

This symbolically rich window is my Mom’s favourite. The main focus is a beautiful abstracted almond tree, made with gold-pink glass. This lovely glass represents the almond blossom, which in turn symbolises Mary. Real gold is incorporated in the making of this hand-made glass, giving it a special significance and suitability as a symbol of this most important woman. Dad has used this type of glass elsewhere in portrayals of Mary, for example in the Our Lady of Lourdes window in Dagenham. The tree is comprised of quarries (diamonds) without paint as Dad didn’t want to interrupt the beauty of the glass by painting it. It is the second of three trees in these windows representing ‘the fruit trees of every kind’ created on the third day of Creation (see Genesis 1.11), the first being the palm tree that shaded Jesus at Jacob’s well in the previous window, Window 8: The Woman at the Well.

Flowering early in Spring, the almond tree is seen as a herald of new life, and so has become a traditional Christian symbol of the Virgin Mary. The shape of an almond, called a mandorla in iconography (mandorla means almond in Italian), is formed from the intersection of two circles, each circle representing a different dimension, the human and the divine. Their intersection represents the union of these different dimensions, and it is common in early Christian iconography to see both Jesus and Mary portrayed within this shape, as Jesus’s conception is regarded as a union of the human and divine in the figure of Mary.

 

The almond itself is concealed behind an outer hull and a hard shell, which symbolises the purity of the Virgin Mary. Dad painted these three parts of the almond at the base of the trunk of the tree. The three-in-one components of the almond also call to mind the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Window 9: The Almond Tree in the church of Saints Leonard and Fergus, Dundee, Scotland. Designed and made by AJ Naylor.

Window 9: The Almond Tree.

The almond tree was also important to the Israelites in the Hebrew Bible. Because it is the first tree to flower, they too regarded it as a sign of new life. The Hebrew word for ‘almond’ has the same root as the verb ‘to watch’ or ‘to wake’ (שקד): the almond tree is the first tree to wake from Winter’s sleep. Further, a miracle involving an almond branch that sprouts into life determines that the tribe of Levi would be chosen as Israel’s priests (see Numbers 17.1-13), a story that also connects to the reason why the cups of the Menorah, the seven-branched candlestick that burnt in front of the tabernacle of the Jewish Temple, were shaped like almond blossoms (see Exodus 25.33).

The almond here also links this window to a feast scene in Window 23: The Prodigal Son (forthcoming) on the opposite side of the church. In this scene a Dundee cake, a traditional Scottish fruit cake decorated with almonds, takes pride of place on the table.

In the branches of the tree is a goldfinch. This bird is a symbol of Jesus’s Passion, the story of his arrest, trial, suffering, crucifixion, and death. On the journey to Calvary where he was crucified, Jesus was stripped, made to wear a crown of thorns, and carry a heavy wooden cross. Legend states that a small bird flew down and plucked one of the thorns from the crown. Some of his blood splashed onto the bird as it drew out the thorn, which is how the goldfinch got its red head (in some versions, the bird is a robin).

The Spring flowers at the bottom of the window. Detail from Window 9: The Almond Tree at the church of Saints Leonard and Fergus, Dundee, Scotland. Designed and made by AJ Naylor.

The Spring flowers at the bottom of the window.

Dad included three goldfinches in these windows. The first one is included in this window to represent Jesus in the womb of his mother, symbolised by the almond tree. This one is drawn and painted in an innocent, child-like way, as a way of prefiguring the next two

The coat of arms of Pope John Paul II. Detail from Window 9: The Almond Tree at the church of Saints Leonard and Fergus, Dundee, Scotland. Designed and made by AJ Naylor.

The coat of arms of Pope John Paul II.

goldfinches which are painted more realistically, to indicate the living man. The first realistic one is a speckled juvenile goldfinch, painted among stylised thistles (the food of the goldfinch and the symbol of Scotland) in Window 11: The Sun and the Planets. It is a juvenile to represent a young Jesus. The second is a mature goldfinch, complete with red head, representing a Jesus who has fulfilled his destiny. It, too, appears on thistles, only this time it is attempting to balance on a thistle head, with its wings spread, echoing the crucified Christ which can be seen above it (see Window 22: Holy Orders, forthcoming).

As in the previous window, there is a profusion of flowers from the Scottish countryside at the bottom of this window. There is gorse – abundant among the sand dunes – buttercup, nettle, lily of the valley and a few other flowers we can no longer identify. A single insect, a little moth, flutters around.

Pope John Paul II, who was pope at the time of the creation and installation of these windows (from 1978-2005), was devoted to Mary the Mother of God, and his coat of arms reflected this devotion. At Fr McInally’s request, Dad included a copy of his coat of arms in the transom of this Marian window. The design shows the ‘Marian Cross,’ in gold on a blue shield, which contains the letter M for Mary in the bottom right corner, recalling the presence of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, standing beneath the cross at Jesus’s crucifixion. Above it is the highly detailed papal tiara – a three times crowned hat. Crossed behind the shield are gold and silver keys, ‘the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven,’ (Matthew 16.19) given by Jesus to his disciple Peter who, according to Catholic theology, was the first pope.

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