Tower house, Tree of Life window

The brief

Sophia and her family were renovating a 1930’s Californian Bungalow with cutting edge architect Andrew Maynard. His intension was to create small comfortable spaces which flowed from one to another and which integrated the old part of the house with the unique new areas. He designed a home that moved from loud areas, the entrance, the tower room (for the two boys to enjoy, complete with stair case leading to second level with rope netting floor),and the living/TV area, to quite areas like the parents bed room with bathroom, to the sunken study beyond. The different areas in the house were linked together with glass corridors (both walls and celling) so that garden and water features were present as one walked through the house. This created a wonderful play between outside and inside. My part in the project was to design the front door leadlight sidelights and the corner window in Sophia’s private study. 

The front door leadlights were simple to envisage, by utilising the art deco cornice pattern in the entry to create a contemporary design and reusing the old confetti glass from the sidelights with crisp, clear, customs designed bevels, windows were created that maintain the history of the original house and complement the new interior beautifully. The study however, required a thought provoking window that asked the viewer for silence and time to explore the rich visual tapestry before them. The design process of the Tree of Life window extended over the five month build of the window with alterations continuing throughout the process. 

The only design request from both Sophia and Andrew (her partner), was that the tower room must be seen through the stained glass window when Sophia was sitting at her desk, so she could keep an eye on her boys whilst they played in the tower room.  At our first meeting, when I asked Sophia why she was drawn to stained glass she said that she loved the symbolism of the book, candle, skull, owl and star in glass.  She was a little embarrassed by her answer, worried that she was sounding a little kitch.  But it was at that moment I knew we would get along because it was that same l idea that drew me towards stained glass 20 years earlier. 

The symbolism

The ‘Tree of Life’ is depicted throughout many religions, theologies and mythologies worldwide, most notably Christianity, Buddhism and Judaism; as well as in biology and philosophy. It represents the interconnection of all life; and can also be referred to as the ‘sacred’ or ‘cosmic’ tree. In Christian religious references the ‘tree of knowledge’ connects heaven and the underworld; while the ‘tree of life’ connects all forms of physical creation and holds the wisdom for transcending the limitations of earthly life. 

In designing a ‘Tree of Life’ image, I wanted to capture the divinity, spirituality and wonder of all of these mythologies, using a combination of intricate images which when seen as a 


whole would evoke a meditative state in the onlooker and therefore allowed them to transcend their everyday thoughts. It was important that the visual references did not refer to any one particular religion. It was clear that my ‘Tree of Life’ must be secular in concept, using nature and it’s diverse life forms and cycles to create a visual dialogue that speaks directly with the spirit. Some inspiration for ‘The Tree of Life’ came from Klimt’s oil painting triptych of the same name. The triptych image is both beautiful and elegant, whilst the subject matter is particularly evocative. I believe that within Nature can be found the answers to our questions and understanding of the experiences in life, and therefore I decided to use the elements, plants and animal symbols to create this piece. 

It was important to incorporate the four key elements, three of which are in the panel itself - water, earth, and air; and the fourth, fire, is observed within the brilliance of the panel when sunlight moves across and through it.
Being a symbol of ‘life’, a constantly evolving and changing state, it was also important to incorporate a strong sense of movement, growth and change, to evoke a sense of wonder in the observer. 

The choice of glass colour is intended to capture the broad range of colour in nature as well as the intangible, magical quality of the rainbow. The fine patterned detail within the tree depicts microscopic cell structures, representing the beginning of evolution; and the oxygen bubbles throughout represent the movement of creation. The design of horizontal lines within the tree hint at sedimentary layers of the earth, representing time and space and how new life is born from the old, literally ‘built atop’ the foundation of the life that has gone before. 

Flowers are used as a symbol of the fleeting beauty and transience of life. Skulls, moths and the rat represent the end of life, disease and change; this is all part of the natural life cycle, which some people have a tendency to resist or reject. The cycle of life and death is represented by the spiral motif which re-occurs throughout the art work, in the branches of the tree, the legs of the octopus, the ammonite (fossil shell), the tails of the seahorses, and other subtle places throughout the window. 

There are many aquatic references in the piece, being that ‘water is the bringer of life’. The creatures such as the fish, seahorses, octopus and water weeds are of the ocean which links to to concept of life coming from the ocean before emerging onto land. 

There is symbolic meaning in all of the animals and objects featured; the rat, the rabbit, the snake, the apple, the octopus, the owl, the fish, the seahorse, and the nightingale. The more you look at the window, the more complexity there is to see, a smiling carrot and a frowning stick (a visual depiction of the old saying about the two ways of motivating a donkey), the three mushrooms of life (the brown is nourishing, the red is poison and kills, the blue is mind/ conscious altering). The owl - represents wisdom, intuitive knowing, learning and life within darkness; the nightingale symbolizes love, poetry and song; the rabbit - creativity and fertility; the rat - ingenuity and assertiveness and also disease - which is a catalyst for change; the moth - night, darkness, death, change and chrysalis; the seahorse - patience, contentment and persistence; the octopus - will, focus, magic, potential, and intelligence, the Snake - healing, rebirth, transformation, primary energy, and the renewal of life. 

As mentioned earlier I felt no need to reference directly any one particular religion, the cycles and power within nature I believe capture the same themes represented in many religious motifs; however the Snake and the Apple were included in the window, which is a of course reference to the Biblical ‘Garden of Eden‘ story. In this story, after eating from the ‘tree of knowledge of good and evil’ and being thrust into a world of duality and separation, it was through ‘The Tree of Life’ or rather, living life that Adam and Eve again find unison with the divine and oneness with each other. 

The stained glass is full of hidden, fine detail, to allow the viewer to see new elements and aspects each time they spend time with the window; and this hopefully evokes a deeper sense of questioning and appreciation of life itself.