The approach of Christmas brings to mind churches and the thought of churches reminds me of a visit I made earlier this year to Great Malvern Priory. This stately building is now a parish church but it began as the place of worship for Benedictine monks. Their wealth allowed them to commission rich ecclesiastical decorations, of which stained glass for the windows survives to this day. As so little glass from so long ago remains, these medieval windows are now second in importance only to those of a similar age to be are found at York Minster. In Malvern Priory’s chapel of St Annebold designs of bright red, yellow and blue tell the story of the creation of the world. The glass was made between 1470 and 1490 and the sun still catches the brilliance of its colours.
I was struck by the story’s first window, which shows God wielding a huge pair of dividers to separate the heavens from the earth. In the next panel the sun, moon, and stars are made and the next panel, more relevant to a wildlife theme, shows the creation of birds and fish. Then in the top right hand panel God creates animals. This window depicts a variety of creatures both domestic and wild. Sitting at God’s feet is a beautiful golden lion whilst in a tree behind his head a monkey can be seen. In front of him lies a deer with large antlers alongside another large cat. More mundane, but to the monks both useful and a considerable source of income, is the inclusion of a number of sheep and goats.
More curious though, is the small head of a hedgehog that draws the eye. Why was this creature chosen to fit into the creation story? Maybe the monks felt an affinity for hedgehogs or maybe they overran the Malvern Hills in those far-off days. An ancient saint called Dubricius took the hedgehog as his emblem. Indeed, in Herefordshire, four churches were dedicated to him, but I doubt that this has anything to do with the chapel of St Anne. Whatever the reason, the image is there to enjoy and to remind us that after God made plants and animals he made mankind. He gave us dominion over his other living creations and our responsibility to protect them looms large in our recent efforts to come together to secure the future for life on earth.
As rural dwellers we all know the care and attention that farmers give to their animals, but we need to take care of all our wild fellow-creatures too. The coming years and the measures needed to mitigate the effects mankind has wrought on the world provide huge opportunities to make space for our fellow life-travellers. Let us hope that the brains of mankind, the capacity of which was demonstrated so amply by the development of life-saving vaccines, can be brought to bear on the job of life-saving for the planet.