STAINED GLASS - A GLITTERING LEGACY
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.
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.
BIBLICAL AND MIRACLE WINDOWS CANTERBURY CATHEDRAL
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.
DEAN’S EYE LINCOLN CATHEDRAL
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.
LUCY CHAPEL WINDOW OXFORD CATHEDRAL
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.
EAST WINDOW YORK MINSTER
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.
WEST WINDOW ST MARY’S, FAIRFORD
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.
NAVE WINDOWS ST MICHAEL’S, GREAT WITLEY
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.
WEST WINDOW WORCESTER CATHEDRAL
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.
THE LAST JUDGEMENT BIRMINGHAM CATHEDRAL
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.
EAST WINDOW ALL SAINTS, PORTHCAWL
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).
BAPTISTRY WINDOW COVENTRY CATHEDRAL
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