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Heaton, Clement - VM - Marleen Hengelaar

Clement Heaton: The Windows in the Saint-Clement in Bex

They who walk in the land of the shadow of death have seen a great light

by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker

In Switzerland it is always worthwhile to have a look in the old churches that are almost always to be found in the center of mid-sized towns. They are usually open to the public. It varies with each canton as to which denomination these churches belong. There are Protestant and Catholic cantons, determined by history. In the canton Vaud, in the South of Switzerland around the lake of Geneva, these churches are ‘évangelique-réformée,’ i.e. reformed. 

Recently, on a lazy Sunday afternoon, my husband and I walked into the church of Bex, a town in the Rhône Valley that looks out on the majestic Dents du Midi. Inside the 15th-century church of Bex is austere and simple. That is the case for most Swiss reformed church interiors, although they are usually well-maintained and remarkably enough they often contain visual elements in the form of wood carvings, wall paintings or stained glass windows – medieval, from the 19th or 20th century, or contemporary. You would not expect that in Calvin’s Switzerland!

What is immediately noticeable in Bex is the double row of 19th-century pews in the front of the church, placed in a half-circle, so that the congregation forms a community around the pulpit and the Word. The windows are conspicuous in this church that is otherwise void of visual elements. Meaningfully enough a poster at the back of the church announces: ‘The five windows were created in 1911 by the glass artist Clément Heaton. They confer on the church the religious character that had been totally lacking.’  

The maker of the windows is Clement Heaton, an Englishman who married a Swiss woman and settled in Neuchâtel. That explains the English character of the windows. As far as style is concerned, Heaton belonged to the Arts and Crafts movement, which is akin to art nouveau and the Pre-Raphaelites. The latter – as the name indicates – oriented themselves to the art of the early Renaissance, with one big difference however, namely that their art suffers from a certain sentimentality.

The five windows in Bex attracted my attention because of their original character. Underneath each picture is a Bible text. Apart from ‘I am the Light of the world’ on the central window, I have never before seen those texts pictured on windows. They are original texts in an original combination. As usual the windows on the left contain Old Testament pictures and on the right New Testament ones. On the left we see Adam and Eve and Moses, in the middle Jesus, on the right Paul and an image based on a text from Revelation.

The first window contains this Bible text: ‘Les hommes ont préférés les ténèbres à la lumière parce que leurs oeuvres étaient mauvaises’ from John 3:19: ‘This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.’ An angel with a flaming sword expels Adam and Eve from paradise, which is located behind a wall behind them. Adam and Eve are conscious of guilt. A red thistle is growing at their feet. Humanity is leaving the land of light.

The second window carries the text: ‘Le peuple qui marchait dans les tenèbres voit une grande lumière’ from Isaiah 9:2: ‘The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.’ A few verses further (v. 6) a link is made to Christ: ‘For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.’ Moses is walking through the desert with his ten commandments and his staff. The people of Israel are following him. The Torah contains the promise of liberation, the announcement of the light, of Christ.

The text on the middle window states: ‘Je suis la lumière du monde’ from John 8:12: ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’ In the window we see Jesus in a white garment, surrounded by light, as if it embraces him. With his one hand he makes a gesture of blessing, the other one rests on his heart. He is surrounded by golden-yellow wheat (Lord’s Supper) and white lilies (purity): Christ as a source of new life and light.

On the fourth window with Paul the text is from Acts 9:3: ‘Une grande lumière venant du ciel resplendit autour de Paul.’ ‘As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.’ We see here Paul overpowered by the light. Traditionally, in this scene he falls from his horse. Strangely enough, his companions here are Roman soldiers, perhaps to emphasize that in Paul’s later preaching the heathen or the nations will also be part of the children of light.

On the fifth window a text from Revelation 7:14 is displayed: ‘Ceux qui sont vetus de robes blanches | qui sont ils et d’ou sont ils venue? Et il me dit: ce sont ceux qui sont | venues de la grande tribulation.’ ‘These in white robes – who are they, and where did they come from? And he said, These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’ We see here a family of four or five people looking at five people in white garments, surrounded by light, singing, dancing, and making music. It is not John who is pictured here, but an ordinary Swiss family, who are looking, as if in a vision, at themselves in the golden-yellow light of heaven. Heaton concludes with the promise of a radiant future that is accessible to us all.

This series of windows pictures salvation history as a way out of darkness to the light. Initially I was struck by the words ‘tenèbres’ and ‘lumière,’ which also appear in the motto of the Reformation: ‘Post tenebras lux,’ after darkness light. Perhaps Heaton himself was a Calvinist, or perhaps he just considered it a suitable theme for a reformed church. Anyway, the result is an original series of windows that puts Christ in the centre as the light for the world, who came and will come again.


Clement Heaton: Five windows in the Saint-Clément Church in Bex, Switzerland, 1911.

Clement Heaton (1861-1940) was the son of the founder of the well-known London firm of Heaton, Butler & Bayne, who made stained glass windows. Initially he set to work with his father as stained-glass artist, but in 1886 he left the firm after disagreement with his father’s partners. When travelling through Switzerland in Val-de-Travers in the Jura, he met the daughter of a watchmaker, whom he married. In 1888 they settled in nearby Neuchâtel. Here he applied himself to working with enamel and making hand-painted wallpaper. In 1895 he collaborated with the painter Paul Robert (1851-1923) on the decoration of the walls around the monumental staircase of the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Neuchâtel. Paul Robert did the wall paintings and Heaton took care of the decorative elements around it. After his name was thus established, he received many commissions from Swiss churches. In 1914 his workshop burned down, and he decided to emigrate to America. He provided many churches with windows there also. He wrote a number of books, among others about the windows of Chartres Cathedral. In 1924 he gave a lecture at Princeton University, where his materials and notes are now housed in the special collections of the library. 

Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker is chief editor of ArtWay.

ArtWay Visual Meditation 22 November 2020