HERITAGE TREASURES: Stained glass window of the Annunciation

In St Joseph’s Church, Hobart, there is a particularly beautiful stained glass window depicting the Annunciation. It is the only intact Australian example of work in this medium by the famous English architect and designer Augustus Pugin, close friend of William Willson our first Bishop. (The inferior Visitation and Nativity glass panels below it are not by him.) Unique amongst the many hundreds of Pugin’s stained glass designs, this window alone ‘speaks’ to us in his own voice, for across its base it bears the request, ‘Orate pro bono statu Augusti Welby de Pugin’ (Pray for the good estate of Augustus Welby de Pugin). Pugin’s reason for incorporating this text becomes clear when we consider the intended original location of the window.

Towards the end of 1847 Pugin designed a house for Bishop Willson who intended to have it built on the site where the original St Mary’s College building in Harrington Street now stands. Interestingly, the composition and layout of this latter was ‘lifted’ by the Hobart architect Henry Hunter straight from Pugin’s house plans. On the first floor of the house adjacent to Willson’s modest apartment was to be an oratory where he would celebrate his daily Mass. The Annunciation window was destined for the wall behind the altar with its entreaty just above eye level, thus placing Pugin’s prayer request literally before Willson’s eyes each day for the rest of his life.

The endemic poverty of Catholic Tasmania prevented Willson’s house from being constructed, so in 1856 he had the Annunciation window installed in St Joseph’s, his pro-cathedral. It was placed in the liturgical south wall of the sanctuary, directly opposite his episcopal chair which stood against the north wall. In this position the window with its prayer request finished up, as intended by Pugin, facing Willson. It remained there for twenty-one years, being transferred to its present location in the nave wall on the Harrington Street side in 1877. The reason for this move was to permit an arched opening to be made in the sanctuary south wall, giving onto a choir for the Sisters of Charity whose adjacent convent is nowadays the Passionist Fathers’ monastery. In 2013 this unique testimony to the close friendship between bishop and designer was professionally restored in the South Hobart studio of leading stained glass conservator Gavin Merrington.

By Brian Andrews

Tags: Heritage Conservation