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New window in memory of Durham University student is unveiled at Durham Cathedral

17 April 2019

The Illumination Window, Durham Cathedral’s newest feature, was revealed yesterday in memory of Durham University student Sara Pilkington.

Having been cladded in scaffolding since mid-March, the public have for the first time been able to see the full extent of the window, which was specially created by Chichester based glass artist Mel Howse to serve as an enduring memorial to Sara. A student in her final year at Collingwood College, Sara passed away suddenly in 2012.  

Sara’s parents, Jonathan and Jools Pilkington, who generously funded the new commission, said: ‘Illumination means to bring in light and our beautiful daughter, Sara, brought so much love and light into our lives.  Her smile lit up the world of those around her. The Illumination Window is a fitting memorial to her.’

With the strategic placement of the window on the north side of the cathedral, it looks out onto Durham University, providing a physical link to the student community and emphasising the strong connection between academic and spiritual learning.

Canon Chancellor of Durham Cathedral, Charlie Allen, said: ‘I am thrilled that this astonishing piece of art is now housed within the walls of Durham Cathedral. Its vibrancy illuminates the medieval fabric of the church and it is the final piece of stained glass to surround the Shrine of St Cuthbert, a fitting location given Cuthbert’s presence in the work. It reminds us of the commitment to academic learning which is deeply entrenched in our Christian heritage, but most of all, the work reminds us of Sara, one of God’s children, whose beauty and youth is now forever encapsulated in permanent form within the Cathedral.’

As the first ever winner of the Queen Elizabeth Scholorship Trust (QEST) Award for Excellence in 2013 and the 2016 winner of The Building Crafts Award from the Sussex Heritage Trust, the compositional qualities of Mel's work are breath-taking, brilliantly capturing the elements of spirituality, beauty and vibrancy contained within the design brief. 

While the window is open to interpretation, a natural landscape has been used as a vehicle for Sara’s story. The journey of learning is represented by the physical and ethereal presence of St Cuthbert and Jesus, with rising forms signifying the tangible link between the spiritual journey and life in the current age.  

With the flashed glass of the window allowing more than one colour and shade within each piece, visitors will notice kaleidoscopic patterns projected onto the Shrine of St Cuthbert as light passes through.

Mel Howse, said: ‘The window is about a young vibrant person who was here one day and not here the next and that is a very strong story which remained at the forefront of my mind as I worked on the piece. Given its poignancy, the story runs like a thread through my design.

 ‘I worked with hand applied colour, which freed me up in a way that isn’t possible when you work with a leaded design. I also think that when you make a piece of work with your own hands that passion cannot help but be passed through into the materials.

‘I’ve worked very hard to achieve synergy between the architecture and glass work. What I didn’t want to do was to create a piece of very contemporary work that would not chime and respond to this absolutely incredible building.’

The salience of the work lies in its ability for all to find meaning and personal interpretation. It is hoped that the transcendent beauty of the work will enhance and embellish the experience of all who visit Durham Cathedral, especially the student community.