(The Guardian) - On the side of a Dorset church shaded by the graveyard trees, a window as dark and mysterious as a bog pool has just been installed. Visitors peer at the black glass – until suddenly, in shock, they see the sinister image: a man hanging from the branch of a tree, coins spilling from his hand and turning into flowers as they hit the ground.
The space is blocked on the inside by a wall monument, so the window is visible only from outside the church. It depicts Judas, the betrayer of Christ, the disciple who the gospels relate hanged himself in shame after throwing away the 30 pieces of silver he was paid for his treachery.
It is the creation of the glass artist Laurence Whistler, and it has finally been installed 14 years after Whistler's death and almost 30 years after the parishioners, appalled at the subject and the strangeness of the image, rejected his valuable gift.
The rector, Jacqueline Birdseye, who led the move to bring Judas back to the church, believes it has become a symbol of reconciliation in the parish as well as in the wider context intended by the artist.
"The parochial church council had 20 years to get used to the idea, and the gift of hindsight, so we were able to wait until the right time to make an unhurried decision about introducing the window," she said. "It was important for us that the decision was unanimous, so that we could move forward with confidence and without dissention. We have had nothing but positive comments made by visitors since the installation."
The dark window is more startling because the interior of the church is flooded with light. All the clear glass windows are the spectacular work of Whistler, depicting butterflies, birds, rabbits, wild flowers, candles, stars and planets and local scenes.
One, given anonymously by a heartbroken young widow, commemorates her husband who died in his Spitfire in a dogfight over France: the window shows a pilot's view of their home, of Salisbury Cathedral near his training base, and on the tangled wreckage of his plane just visible in one corner, the dates of their short marriage, 1939-40.
The church of St Nicholas, in the tiny village of Moreton, stands on medieval foundations but was rebuilt in the 18th century by the Frampton family, whose neighbouring mansion is depicted in a snowstorm in the church windows. Lawrence of Arabia, a family friend, died in a motorbike crash only a few miles away and was buried in the village cemetery after a funeral in the church attended by dignitaries including Sir Winston Churchill.
It had conventional stained glass windows until a direct hit from a German bomber in 1940 – believed to have been intended for a nearby military base. "It took 10 years to rebuild the church, and the windows were replaced with small panes of green glass – like a bathroom," said Carol Gibbens, a member of the parish council and chair of the friends group that has fundraised heroically to install the windows. "People couldn't get used to the change, and very much disliked them."
An architect suggested Whistler, brother of the artist Rex Whistler, renowned for his recreation of lost glass engraving techniques, might be consulted. The ones behind the altar were commissioned first, designed by Whistler but executed by a commercial firm. Gradually over the next 30 years the church or donors commissioned him to fill all the other windows as well, with designs of increasing complexity, engraved from both sides of the glass creating a spectacular three-dimensional effect that changes in every light.
They have cost the church and the 100 residents of the village a fortune: even the windows that were donated required expensive reconstruction and strengthening of the surrounding stonework. The actor Edward Fox and the local writer Julian Fellowes were among the starry visitors recruited to help. The naturalist Gerald Durrell once came and was enchanted by the wealth of wildlife depicted, and found himself roped in to give a reading.
When Whistler had completed 12 windows he offered to create and donate one last panel of Judas, the 13th apostle. In a letter to the then rector, he compared the window to the medieval carvings found outside many churches which often depict grotesque figures, "uncouth and unholy figures … in contrast with the holy scenes inside".
However, his treatment of Judas was seen as so startling that it divided the parish council and the village, with some regarding the window as unacceptably ugly, and others genuinely shocked. When it looked as though the issue would go to a church court, the whole project was shelved rather than cause further unhappiness. Whistler loaned the window to the county museum in Dorchester but insisted that if the church ever changed its mind it should go to Moreton. He dubbed it "the forgiveness window".
The window will be formally dedicated next month at a service attended by villagers and members of Whistler's family, when it will be blessed by the bishop of Salisbury, Nicholas Holtam.
"The church gradually became a memorial to Laurence himself," Gibbens said. "I often discussed the windows with him, and told him I hoped I would live long enough to see his Judas window installed. It is wonderful now to see it in its place."