YORK Minster’s stained glass windows are a wonder – a celebration in light and glowing colour of our longing to find something greater than ourselves in which to believe.
One window – the Great East Window, the restoration of which is expected to be completed by the end of this year – famously tells the story of the whole of creation.
Its 81 panels take you from God’s creation of the universe and his separating of light from darkness through man’s expulsion from Eden and the stories of the Old Testament to the life of Christ and ultimately the Day of Judgement.
Quite an ambitious story arc that, to capture in just 81 scenes. But the medieval master glazier John Thornton pulled it off in triumph, creating what must be one of the greatest medieval stained glass windows anywhere in Europe.
Another of his windows – the St William Window, completed a few years after the Great East Window in the early 1400s – tells the story of the Archbishop of York who was canonised as St William. A third window, the so-called Pilgrimage window, finished in the early 1300s before Thornton was born, tells the story of pilgrims coming to York Minster to venerate St William’s shrine.
St Edward the Confessor from the Great East Window at York Minster. Photo: Nick Teed, York Glaziers Trust
All of these – and in fact all 128 of the Minster’s stained glass windows – are works of stunning beauty. They are expressions of the medieval Christian belief in the sacred quality of light, according to Sarah Brown, the director of the York Glaziers’ Trust. “When God created the universe, he said, ‘let there be light’” she points out. These windows are light as theology, light as belief in God and his works.
For the casual visitor, however, the problem has always been how to get a proper look at these remarkable works of art. Occasionally, when they are being restored, panels are put on public display so that visitors can get up close.
But most of the time they are high up in the cathedral’s walls. On bright days they permit a rainbow of colours to pour into the great building: but it remains very difficult to appreciate the detail that makes them so very special.
A new book aims to put that right. Stained Glass at York Minster – it is actually an updated version of a guide first published in 1999 – has been written by Sarah to mark the glazier’s trust’s 50th anniversary this year.
Glazier's Trust director Sarah Brown at York Minster with her new book on the cathedral's stained glass
The book includes an account of the history of the use of coloured and stained glass at the Minster, before going on to explore in detail many of the cathedral’s most famous windows, including the Five Sisters, the Pilgrimage window, the St William Window, and the Great East and Great West windows.
It is a scholarly, well-informed book, which offers real insights into the building of the Minster itself.
But the book’s real beauty lies in the more than 100 glorious colour photographs of the Minster’s many windows and panels it includes. Taken by the glaziers’ trust’s own Nick Teed, some of the photographs seek to capture the full sweep of certain of the windows. Others, however, home in on individual panels, allowing readers to see them up close in all their glorious detail.
God divides light from darkness on the first day. Photo: Nick Teed
One panel in the Great East Window reproduced in the book (above) shows the first day of creation – the scene in which God divides the light from the darkness. God is portrayed as a bearded man in long white robes, his hands raised to the heavens. Rays of blinding light radiate from his head. Beyond him, Lucifer and his rebel angels, depicted in blood red, are seen plunging to hell. Above them are three of God’s loyal angels, their hands held before their chests as though they’re about to pray.
Another panel shows a scene from Revelation: the dragon and the beast. “The dragon stood on the shore of the sea,” says Revelation 13:1-3. “And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on its horns, and on each head a blasphemous name.” And there, leaping off the page (see below) is the beast – surely a metaphor for the corrupting effect of power? – with its seven heads and ten crowns.
The dragon and the beast. Photo: Nick Teed
One of the features of the earlier Pilgrimage window, made in the 1300s, was the way in which, when designing the window’s borders, the medieval glaziers allowed their imaginations to run riot. It’s almost the medieval equivalent of scribbling in the margins – and the results are sometimes quite surprising.
One scene, Sarah says, shows a wife grabbing her husband by the ear, as though he were a naughty schoolboy. Another whole border shows a row of monkeys seeming to mimic human behaviour. It is a subversive interpretation of the funeral of the Virgin Mary, Sarah says.
The monkey as a doctor examining a vial of urine. Detail from the Pilgrimage window. Photo: Nick Teed
One animal (above) is pictured peering intently into a glass glass vial. “He’s got a urine flask in his hand,” Sarah explains. “He’s aping the doctors of the middle ages. Examination of urine was considered important.”
A panel from the later St William Window, meanwhile, shows a pilgrim kneeling at St William’s shrine in the Minster (below). He’s making an offering of what seems to be a disembodied leg. “The practice of adorning shrines with models of afflicted and cured body parts in wax or precious materials is well attested,” Sarah says.
A pilgrim at the shrine of St William, from the St William Window. Photo: Nick Teed
The book, in short, brings you up close to some of the greatest medieval artworks in Britain – with an expert on hand to guide you through what you’re looking at.
One of the very last plates in the book is a reproduction of perhaps the smallest but most poignant piece of stained glass in the Minster. This is a tiny panel in the Zouche Chapel which shows a wren hunting a spider. The spider perches on its web while the wren stalks forward, its eyes fixed on its prey with deadly intent. Nature red in tooth and claw, captured in the same coloured light which elsewhere in the great cathedral tells the story of creation and the world’s end.
Wren hunting spider, from the Zouche Chapel. Photo: Nick Teed
This tiny piece of glass was rescued from the “glaziers’ bank” of discarded Minster fragments at the behest of Dean Eric Milner-White in 1952.
He deserves our thanks for that alone.
- Stained Glass at York Minster by Sarah Brown is published by Scala Arts and Heritage, priced £15. It is available from the York Minster shop, or online from www.yorkminster.org or www.yorkglazierstrust.org/shop