This thesis examines the portrayal of the army nurse in commemorative stained glass windows commissioned between 1919 and 1951. In doing so, it contests the prevailing understanding of war memorialisation in Australia by examining the agency of Australia’s churches and their members – whether clergy or parishioner – in the years following World Wars I and II. Iconography privileging the nurse was omitted from most civic war memorials following World War I when many communities used the idealised form of an infantryman to assuage their collective grief and recognise the service of returned menfolk to King and Country. Australia’s religious spaces were also deployed as commemorative spaces and the site of the nurse’s remembrance as the more democratic processes of parishes and dioceses that lost a member of the nursing services gave sanctuary to her memory, alongside a range of other service personnel, in their windows.
The nurse’s depiction in stained glass was influenced by architectural relationships and socio-political dynamics occurring in the period following World War I. This thesis argues that her portrayal was also nuanced by those who created these lights. Politically, whether patron or artist, those personally involved in the prosecution of war generally facilitated equality in remembrance while citizens who had not frequently exploited memory for individual or financial gain. Regardless of motivation, and unlike the Digger – who evolved from a tradition of using soldier saints to allegorise death during battle – the nurse’s portrayal in stained glass occurred without precedent following World War I. Hers reflected prevailing social and cultural attitudes towards women at war while simultaneously contesting the ascendant masculinity developing around civic remembrance.
This thesis also challenges the belief that the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, is a secular space. Analysis of a complex series of symbolic relationships in its stained glass reveals that artist M. Napier Waller allegorised Devotion – the nurse in the South Window – as the Virgin Mary. Subverting his patron’s brief for realism, he equated the nation’s sacrifice with that of Christ’s and created a religious scheme of glass. Drawing on a commitment to tradition, architectural relationships and his own philosophical beliefs and life experiences, Waller also embedded other aspects of sacrifice and loss in the form of the nurse. In doing so, he covertly contested prevailing societal attitudes about women and war to rectify a significant omission from the Australian commemorative landscape.
Her experiences during World War II endowed the nurse with a greater commemorative presence than her World War I forbear. Elevated from a position of passive femininity a generation earlier, a greater public awareness of her experiences and the increased agency of women in Australian society also contributed to a more central and prominent position in commemorative windows commissioned in the first five years after the war. Artisans of trade firms created windows that reflected a community’s desire to recognise the active sacrifice of the nurse in its memorial but used existing expressions of remembrance or the work of others to do so. However, artists – men with an academy education – drew upon the philosophical as well as the applied underpinnings of their art and designed windows in which the nurse became an active participant in war alongside the Australian serviceman. For M. Napier Waller, combat was not an experience to be valourised but an opportunity for atonement and enlightenment. Drawing again on the medieval foundations of his art and using the nurse as a powerful symbol for man’s resurrection and redemption, Waller cemented her status as Australia’s Martial Madonna – allegorical Virgin Mary and mother of the nation – in stained glass.