The Special Air Service has a unique relationship with our cathedral, city, county and diocese, as most communities in Herefordshire have someone who is serving (or has served) in the Regiment, has family links with it, or supports its members or its work. To honour and celebrate this relationship, the SAS Regimental Association commissioned the internationally-renowned artist John Maine RA to create a new sculpture and stained-glass window for Hereford Cathedral to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the foundation of the SAS in 1941.

Image © Tom Maine

John Maine has entitled this artistic installation Ascension to offer us a starting point for our engagement with it, as there are many levels of meaning and a range of narratives that we can find in it, which can inspire us and give us hope. As our eyes move up from the deep shadows of the base across panes of blue, flecked with red, towards the lighter yellow and amber tones in the tracery, we are taken on a journey from the depths of darkness into the realms of light. This journey is different for each one of us. As the sun moves across the sky, varying in scope and intensity, depending on the time of day and the season of the year, the window appears to change and its form becomes fluid and infinitely variable; thus, the spectator must return to contemplate it again and again.

The sculpture is formed of different stones from across the world: three of them are from Scotland. The base or pediment is Dolerite, from a quarry near Stirling, and the large sandstone recumbent comes from Clashach, near Elgin. The inscription ‘Special Air Service’ is hand-cut in a block of Caithness slate by the distinguished letter cutter Nicholas Sloan, who lives in Somerset. The ledger stones at the foot of the monument are black marble, from a mine near Mons in Belgium. The SAS badge is the work of Perthshire carver Gillian Forbes, who also cut the line of poetry ‘Always a little further’ in this very hard material. The beautiful blue apse is carved from a kind of granite from Brazil known as syenite. Taken together, the varying hues and differing textures of the stones may be thought to reflect our multi-cultural world, ever changing, always challenging, but robustly protected and defended through the commitment and dedication of the SAS.

At the same time, the window displays 21st-century technology at its most impressive. When the viewer walks along the aisle, the double-skinned parallax glazing creates kaleidoscopic patterns and shifting waves of light, with 3,000 pieces of glass in 40 different colours. Ever-changing reflections play across the stonework of aisle, pillar and nave, reminding us once again that meaning is transient, and human life is endlessly in flux.

We are the Pilgrims, Master; we shall go
 Always a little further: it may be
Beyond the last blue mountain barred with snow,
 Across that angry or that glimmering sea.

The Pilgrims James Elroy Flecker 1884–1915, from the epilogue of The Golden Journey to Samarkand.