Bri­tain's ex­ten­sive stained glass her­itage has been with us since Saxon times, hav­ing de­clined and flour­ished at dif­fer­ent pe­ri­ods in our his­tory, man­i­fest­ing new and bril­liant ex­pres­sions each time.

Exclusively British - - CONTENTS - Words | AI­DAN MCRAE

Bri­tain's stained glass her­itage has been with us since Saxon times, with many you can still see to­day.

MOST CHURCHES ACROSS THE coun­try will con­tain coloured and painted win­dows of some sort, but, of the thou­sands that ex­ist to­day, only a rel­a­tively small per­cent­age date back to the Mid­dle Ages, so much hav­ing been lost at the Re­for­ma­tion that few of our an­cient churches re­tain any of their orig­i­nal glass. What lit­tle sur­vives of me­dieval glaz­ing makes us weep for what was lost, and a visit to the cathe­drals of Can­ter­bury and York or St Mary’s church in Fair­ford (the only com­plete pre-Re­for­ma­tion scheme left) will vividly il­lus­trate how griev­ous this loss must have been. The Re­for­ma­tion ush­ered in a long and hard win­ter for the medium in this coun­try, with so much re­li­giously - mo­ti­vated de­struc­tion and lit­tle new work pro­duced be­sides a brief flow­er­ing of work in enam­els in the early 17th cen­tury, in se­lect places. The fol­low­ing cen­tury saw more work in enamel, but gen­er­ally this en­tailed colour ap­plied to glass like a can­vas, sur­viv­ing Ge­or­gian win­dows of­ten sug­gest­ing lu­mi­nous oil-paint­ings rather than evok­ing the jewel-like rich­ness of the me­dieval tech­nique. Ap­prox­i­mately 70% or more of the stained glass we see to­day dates from the resur­gence and mass pro­duc­tion of the Vic­to­rian era, swathes of coloured glass be­ing pro­duced again in the tra­di­tional man­ner on an un­prece­dented scale. It is easy to be dis­mis­sive about much of this ‘in­dus­tri­ally pro­duced’ glass, es­pe­cially given the failed at­tempts to im­i­tate a me­dieval id­iom, but there is nonethe­less much to ad­mire in fine crafts­man­ship and del­i­cate artistry in the work of some of the ma­jor stu­dios. There were teething trou­bles though, and some of the ear­lier at­tempts have not aged well, of­ten re­stricted by ma­te­rial of rather harsh colour­ing. The in­flu­ence of Wil­liam Mor­ris and the Pre-raphaelites her­alded a fresh move­ment in stained glass to­wards the end of the Vic­to­rian pe­riod and be­yond, a re­ac­tion against so in­dus­tri­ally made win­dows, and the work of Ed­ward Burne Jones com­prises some of the most beau­ti­ful win­dows ever made. The early 20th cen­tury saw artists of the Arts & Crafts Move­ment cre­ate fur­ther work of daz­zling rich­ness, as a re­ac­tion against the com­mer­cial main­stream, for the first few decades of the cen­tury. The post war cli­mate called for a rad­i­cal change of direc­tion, which em­braced the mod­ern, and much strik­ing work was pro­duced, of­ten in a purely ab­stract style that ex­ploited the medium’s po­ten­tial for light and colour to the full, at last lib­er­ated from the straight­jacket of pic­tural rep­re­sen­ta­tion. The re­build­ing of Coven­try Cathe­dral re­mains the most im­por­tant tes­ta­ment in glass to the mod­ern move­ment in Bri­tain, but, whilst oth­ers fol­lowed its un­com­pro­mis­ing bold and new aes­thetic, the 20th cen­tury drew to a close in a less cer­tain place, as wit­nessed by the di­verse range of styles com­mis­sioned to com­mem­o­rate the Mil­len­nium. To­day ab­stract art lives on, of­ten in sec­u­lar pub­lic art projects, whilst some artists find new and sat­is­fy­ing ways to com­bine the pic­tural ap­proach with con­tem­po­rary vis­ual flair. In or­der to gain a win­dow on this world of stained glass art, let us con­sider ten of the most sig­nif­i­cant win­dows (or schemes) across the coun­try that best il­lus­trate the devel­op­ment of the medium and the range of styles pos­si­ble within it.


Amongst our very ear­li­est com­plete win­dows, the late 12th / early 13th cen­tury glaz­ing of the east end of Can­ter­bury Cathe­dral can­not fail to im­press with the beauty of its colours (pre­dom­i­nantly blues and reds) and the in­tri­cacy of its de­signs, with en­tire win­dows com­posed of rel­a­tively small, jewel-like vi­gnettes set amongst richly pat­terned bor­ders and or­na­ment. The clos­est Eng­land ever got to the magic of Chartres.


One of our ear­li­est and most com­plete me­dieval rose win­dows, this stun­ning work dates from the first half of the 13th cen­tury and echoes the glo­ri­ous sym­phony of blues and reds seen at Can­ter­bury. This win­dow in the north transept is bal­anced by the Bishop’s Eye on the south side, a mas­ter­piece of 14th cen­tury stonework filled with a kalei­do­scope of an­cient frag­ments.


This 14th cen­tury win­dow is alas in­com­plete, the main lights hav­ing been lost cen­turies ago, but the trac­ery lights (the mul­ti­tude of smaller elab­o­rately shaped open­ings fill­ing the arch) are an ab­so­lute joy, burst­ing with life both sa­cred and pro­fane, with whim­si­cal crea­tures oc­cu­py­ing the smaller aper­tures. The pan­els are de­light­fully rich in colour with small-scale fig­ures set against pat­terned back­grounds; it’s not a large dis­play, but a very mem­o­rable one.


John Thorn­ton’s mas­ter­piece, be­gun in 1405, is con­sid­ered to be the largest sin­gle ex­panse of me­dieval glass in ex­is­tence. It is a vast dis­play of ex­quis­ite nar­ra­tive pan­els, twenty seven from Gen­e­sis and eighty one on the theme of the Apocalypse, thus quite lit­er­ally the be­gin­ning and the end! Each of the pan­els is a work of art in its own right, though of­ten dif­fi­cult to ap­pre­ci­ate at such a dis­tance. The win­dow has how­ever just emerged from a ten year con­ser­va­tion that has re­stored much of its leg­i­bil­ity.


The en­tire glaz­ing here qual­i­fies, be­ing the only com­plete set of me­dieval win­dows to sur­vive in an English parish church, all the work of Flem­ish glaziers who set­tled in South­wark in the 1500s and ex­hibit­ing clear Re­nais­sance in­flu­ence. The west win­dow is the largest and most dra­matic, de­pict­ing the Last Judge­ment, with Christ seated amongst saints and an­gels above (this sec­tion was sadly ‘over-re­stored’ and now mostly a 19th cen­tury copy) whilst below the dead are seen ris­ing and be­ing ush­ered by an­gels ei­ther to Heaven or Hell, which with its ex­otic demons is one of the more graphic ren­di­tions of the in­fer­nal realm.


A rare and re­mark­able scheme painted by Joshua Price in 1719 and later trans­ferred to this gor­geous 18th cen­tury church (with the rich­est Baroque in­te­rior in the coun­try). Each de­picts a sig­nif­i­cant episode from the New Tes­ta­ment, all ren­dered with the­atri­cal vigour.


In­stalled as part of Ge­orge Gilbert Scott’s restora­tion of the Cathe­dral in 1874, this vast and daz­zling dis­play on the theme of Cre­ation by John Hard­man Stu­dios (who first ven­tured into stained glass at the in­sti­ga­tion of A.w.n.pu­gin) is one of the rich­est and most am­bi­tious Vic­to­rian win­dows ever made. It has re­cently been re­stored to pris­tine bril­liance.


One of four win­dows created by Ed­ward Burne Jones in the 1880s for the church in which he was bap­tised, the Last Judge­ment is one of the most sub­lime ex­am­ples of PreRaphaelite stained glass in the coun­try, a tense gath­er­ing of beau­ti­fully drawn fig­ures im­mersed in dense, glow­ing colour.


The Arts & Crafts Move­ment saw a mul­ti­tude of tal­ented artists, many taught by Christo­pher Whall, as a re­ac­tion against the more in­dus­trial stu­dios. Choos­ing from amongst so much ex­cel­lent work is al­most im­pos­si­ble, but Whall’s pupil Karl Par­sons’ spec­tac­u­lar 1918 win­dow at Porthcawl is about as rich and daz­zling as the medium per­mits (part of it fea­tured on Christ­mas stamps years ago).


The largest and most im­pres­sive win­dow in the new Coven­try Cathe­dral, opened in 1962, this vast cliff of colour rep­re­sents the light of the Holy Spirit in purely ab­stract form, mark­ing a clear break with the pic­tural ap­proach of the past. It was de­signed by John Piper and trans­lated into glass by Pa­trick Reyn­tiens, a col­lab­o­ra­tion that worked won­ders in the medium.

Stained Glass, by Ai­dan Mcrae Thom­son is an artist and re­storer who has worked in stained glass for over twenty years, giv­ing him an ‘in­sider’s per­spec­tive on the medium, in ad­di­tion to be­ing a well trav­elled pho­tog­ra­pher who has stud­ied, writ­ten and lec­tured on the sub­ject. Ai­dan lives and works in Worces­ter­shire. Avail­able from am­ber­ley-books. com.

Pic­tured above left-right: West Win­dow at St Mary's, Fair­ford; East Win­dow at York Minster and West Win­dow at Worces­ter Cathe­dral

Pic­tured above left-right: The Last Judge­ment, Birm­ing­ham Cathe­dral; Bib­li­cal & Mir­a­cle Win­dows, Can­ter­bury Cathe­dral and pic­tured left: win­dow at Worces­ter Cathe­dral

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