A magnificent book allows the story of York Minster's Great East Window finally to be brought alive for everyone to enjoy. STEPHEN LEWIS reports

THE Great East Window of York Minster tells the greatest story of them all: the beginning and end of all things.

In more than 300 glorious stained glass panels, it depicts God's creation of the earth, man's temptation and expulsion from paradise, the familiar biblical stories of Noah, Cain and Abel, Jacob, Isaac and Exodus. It's a story that begins with creation and ends with apocalypse, the end of time, and the birth of a new heaven and a new earth.

At the very apex of the window, seated in glory and looking down upon his work, as it were, sits God, the alpha and the omega, the beginning and end of all things.

The window was famously created more than 600 years ago, between 1405 and 1408, by master glazier John Thornton, who was paid £56 by the Chapter of York.

Thornton, from Coventry, probably brought some glaziers from his home town to work on the window, but may also have used some local men.

He undoubtedly painted some of the glass himself, however. His contract with the Dean and Chapter of York specified that the master artist must portray 'with his own hand' key specified scenes.

The resulting window is one of the glories of medieval European art. The size of a tennis court, it is the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in Britain. But that is not what makes it great. What makes this window supreme is the sheer quality of the art that went into making it.

The people in Thornton's masterpiece seem real, in all their human folly and foolishness. They wear the clothing of Thornton's time, not of biblical times: but when seen up close, their faces, and the expressions they bear - greed, fear, avarice, lust, pride, indifference, adoration - are universal. They could be the people of today.

York Press:

FEAR: Men 'gnawing their tongues with pain' and terror in a scene from the Great East Window depicting the coming of the apocalypse

At times, the humanity depicted here is almost too raw to bear: the haunted expression on Adam's lined face as he bites into the apple, the shadows in his eyes hinting that the full horror of what he is doing is dawning upon him even in the act of taking that bite; the twisted hate and anger on Cain's face as he looks down on his brother Abel in the moment of murder; the terror in the eyes of four men 'gnawing their tongues for pain' as they realise the world is coming to an end. This is, in the words of Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu, a 'truly timeless masterpiece'.

The window's sheer size, and the fact that ordinarily the glass is high up in the Minster's east face, mean that few people have ever had the chance to study these wonderful works of art up close.

That all changed when glaziers began the task of restoring the great window.

Over a period of more than a decade, every single panel was taken down and painstakingly, lovingly restored.

The project - part of the £18 million York Minster Revealed programme - was completed earlier this year.

But while she was leading her expert team in the restoration of the magnificent stained glass, York Glaziers' Trust director Sarah Brown was also doing something else. She and her team used state-of-the-art photography to capture, in stunning high resolution and glorious full colour, every one of the window's panels.

York Press:

Sarah Brown of York Glaziers Trust studies some unrestored glass

And to coincide with the completion of the restoration project earlier this year, she published a new book: The Great East Window of York Minster: An English masterpiece.

It is a magnificent book, running to more than 260 pages, which reproduces, in full colour and on high quality paper, every one of the window's major panels, in the correct order. Detailed captions describe exactly which biblical scene each panel illustrates.

As a result, and perhaps for the first time ever, the book makes it possible to fully enjoy the wonderful works of art that make up the great window - while at the same time following the story they tell.

We have room to reproduce only a few of the panels here. But for anyone who loves art, or stained glass, or the human struggle for life and meaning, this book is a must...

  • The Great East Window of York Minster: An English Masterpiece by Sarah Brown is published by Third Millennium, priced £20. It is available from the York Minster shop, or direct from Third Millennium at info@tmbooks.com

York Press:


The Sixth day of creation. Panel 15f, depicting Genesis 1:24-31

York Press:

"And God said: Let the earth bring forth the living creature in its kind, cattle and creeping things, and beasts of the earth... And so it was done. And God saw that it was good. And he said: Let us make man to our image and likeness, and let him have dominion over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and the beasts, and the whole earth."

The Temptation and Fall. Detail from panel 15h, depicting Genesis 3:1-6

York Press:

"Now the serpent was more subtle than any of the beasts of the earth... And he said unto the woman: Why hath God commanded you, that you should not eat of every tree of paradise?...And the woman saw that the tree was good to eat, and fair to the eyes... And she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave to her husband, who did eat."

The expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise. Panel 15j, depicting Genesis 3: 23-4

York Press:

"And the Lord God sent him out of the paradise of pleasure, to till the earth from which he was taken. And he cast out Adam, and he placed before the paradise of pleasure...a flaming sword, turning every way, to keep the way of the tree of life."

Cain Murders Abel. Panel 14a, depicting Genesis 4:1-8

York Press:

"And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and slew him."

Jacob's Ladder. Panel 14g, illustrating Genesis 28:12-15

York Press:

"And he saw in his sleep a ladder standing upon the earth, and the top thereof touching heaven... and the Lord leaning upon the ladder, saying to him 'I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father.'"

Moses discovered by Pharaoh's daughter. Panel 13a, illustrating Exodus 2:1-6

York Press:

The opening of the third seal. Detail of panel 10g, illustrating Revelation 6:5-6. The dark horse ridden by the third of the horsemen of the Apocalypse -one of many characterful horses depicted in the window.

The Fifth Angel sounds the Trumpet. Panel 8d, illustrating Revelation 9:1-11

York Press:

"And he opened the bottomless pit... and there came out locusts upon the earth. On their heads were... crowns of gold: and their faces were the faces of men. And they had hair as the hair of women; and their teeth were as lions."

The fifth vial. Detail from panel 4g, illustrating Revelation 16:10-11

York Press:

"And the fifth angel poured out his vial upon the seat of the beast; and his kingdom became dark, and they gnawed their tongues for pain: and they blasphemed the God of heaven, because of their pain and wounds."