Cumbooqueba Stained Glass Windows Restoration Project - Neo Renaissance Symbolism at its Best

Nov 26, 2019

Cumbooquepa Stained Glass Window Restoration Project

Unlocking the meaning of the symbols in the Cumbooquepa Dining Room windows

Described by experts in the field as ‘compositionally superb’ and ‘technically dazzling’, the stained glass windows of Cumbooquepa are treasures the Somerville House community can be proud of.

A remarkable combination of architectural detail, numerous impossible cuts, acid etching, painting, silver staining, fine enamels, mouth blown and hand spun roundels, they are highly skilled and beautifully crafted.  Although the windows are not signed, there is strong evidence in the aesthetic and style to suggest they were made by William Montgomery (1850 – 1927) of Melbourne who is regarded as Australia’s finest stained glass designer and painter. The Cumbooquepa windows rank among his best work.

What is less known is that the windows in the Cumbooquepa Room (formally the Boarders’ Dining Room), are considered to be better examples of Neo-Renaissance stained glass than the highly esteemed window in Switzerland’s stained glass museum, Vitromusee.  The fame and value of the windows is expected to increase further with age.

Last year the School was advised that all the Shakespeare and Cumbooquepa Dining Room windows needed to be removed, repaired and, in some cases, repainted if they are to be preserved and protected.  The Somerville House Foundation agreed to fund the urgent restoration work on the Cumbooquepa Dining Room windows and raise the additional funds to for the restoration of the Shakespeare windows in Fewings Foyer.

Whilst many borders will have memories of the windows, not all Somerville students have had the opportunity to view and appreciate the stunning Cumbooquepa windows.  As the restoration proceeds we have become intrigued and enchanted by the symbolism in the windows and the stories that they tell and the more we look, the more we discover.

The Cumbooquepa Dining Room Windows – Neo Renaissance symbolism at its best

Viewed in their entirety the windows are stunning.

But it is only when you delve a little deeper, look more closely at the imagery and artistry that you can truly appreciate the extraordinary craftsmanship at play. The image below is a close up of the detail under the flower urns in the very top panels of the window.  When viewed up close the detail in the painting of the glass can fully be appreciated, as well as, sadly, the significant damage to the bottom left of the panel.

The Green Man

This image (present in all three panels), is a brown version of Archimboldo, more commonly known as The Green Man, his face surrounded by leaves to represent re-birth.  The Green Man is believed to have begun as a pre-Christian entity, a spirit of nature personified as a man and versions of the image pre-date the coming of the Christian religion, depictions dating back before the days of the Roman Empire.  

 

As well as a being a symbol of human’s close relationship and reliance on nature, The Green Man represents the on-going cycle of the seasons and the life of person.  Included in the fruits in this panel is a pomegranate which symbolises both death and abundance, fertility and good luck.

 

The School is fortunate to have leading Australian stained glass artists and restoration experts Gerri Cummins and Jill Stehn advising us on the conservation of the windows.  With their personal connection to Somerville House through the design and creation of many of the Chapel windows, this project has become more than just a ‘job’ to them as they uncover some of the windows secrets and mysteries.

 

The mysterious ‘spaghetti’ symbol

This panel has become the most intriguing of all the panels in the Cumbooquepa Dining Room windows. The bow and quiver most likely refer to the activities of the cupid figure in the central window, symbols of love and the flaming torch refers to Life. But what is the swirling smoke/rope mass on-top of the stick?

Initial research in neo-Renaissance symbolism suggested that the symbol could be a Celtic knot or lovers knot. These knots were a romantic notion of the time as the knot loops around on itself and travels in an eternal twist, symbolizing the undying love between two people.  Subsequent to further enquiry an expert in neo-Renaissance symbolism advised:

‘The rope/worms/smoke/spaghetti in the mystery object is a visual trick. If you look at a true Celtic knot any line goes over the next, then under, over, under ......and is continuous and endless. If you follow the “smoke” from the “cigarette” it twirls under and over, for a while, but then gets lost – semi-circles added at random to give an impression of continuity without the logic to support it. Interesting!!’

Recently at a Foundation morning tea in the Cumbooquepa Dining Room, Naida Haxton (Class of 1959) posited that perhaps the symbol could be interpreted as a Tree of Life symbol. In the Celtic tradition the Tree of Life is a representation of harmony and balance in nature which reflects the other images in the windows, particularly The Green Man directly above the panel. This ancient symbol also represents strength, long life, and wisdom, themes which are abundant in the windows through the use of vines and oak leaves which symbolize strength, growth and faith.  Or it could be spaghetti…

Eros and Psyche

The centre window is the most important window in the Dining Room and the cherub figure in the centre ties all the symbols together within the presiding themes of Love and Life.  When examined closely the figure is depicted as an adolescent male, not a cherub, leading to the conclusion that the figure is Eros, not Cupid, the Greek god of love and sexual potency.  This makes him an unusual choice for a window in the dining room, where ladies would be present. 

Note that Eros in this depiction has butterfly wings, a direct reference to his wife Psyche, which is the ancient Greek word for ‘butterfly’. Psyche also means ‘life or animating force’ which correlates with the rest of the symbols in the windows.

Mythical beasties..

The imagery of griffins being seated either side of an object like a tripod or an incense burner date from the reign of Hadrian.  Legends stated that griffins mated for life, so one interpretation of this image is that the griffin is a symbol against re-marriage and given that Anne Stephens never re-married after TB’s death….

 

A different interpretation that fits better with the rest of the panels is that as the griffin was perceived as a powerful and majestic creature and symbol of loyalty and fidelity. Cupids represent love and playfulness so this imagery perhaps represents the perfect relationship balance of romantic love grounded in fidelity.

 

The beautiful green ‘dragons’ stare longingly up at the lush fruit above them which is perpetually out of their reach…

 

The Cumbooquepa Dining Room windows have been restored thanks to the support of Somerville House Foundation donors. If you would like to view the windows or contribute to the on-going restoration project please contact Anna Coles, Foundation Development Manager on (07) 3033 9289 or by email foundation@somerville.qld.edu.au


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