Each month, Vidimus will showcase a different panel from the wealth of Britain’s medieval stained glass. The panels will be chosen with the aim of providing, collectively, a sense of the great range of glass that survives, in terms of date, subject matter and the kinds of settings for which it was made. The selected pieces will also relate, in various ways, to some of the broader issues being raised in the study and conservation of medieval glass, such as fashions in window forms and techniques, or approaches to the restoration of medieval glass.
This issue’s panel shows St Anne teaching the young Virgin to read, from the north east window of the antechapel of All Souls College, Oxford. It has been chosen both because it is a particularly fine example of a frequently represented episode from the life of the Virgin, whose cult became extremely popular in medieval England, and because it provides a relatively rare opportunity to locate medieval glass in its broader social, artistic and iconographic context, since much is known about the panel’s production and patronage.
St Anne and the Virgin: All Souls College, Oxford
The College and Chapel The College of All Souls of the Faithful Departed, of Oxford, was formally established by Henry VI and Henry Chichele, Archbishop of Canterbury, on 20 May 1438. In terms of both its architecture and statutes it was modelled considerably on New College, founded by William Wykeham, the Bishop of Winchester, in 1379 in the same town. The purpose of All Souls was two-fold: to educate a body of men capable of leading the country in both church and government, and to function as a chantry, praying for the souls of the dead and, in particular, of the college’s founders and members. The chapel, constructed by Richard Chevynton of Abingdon to a T-shaped design consisting of a chancel and transepts or ante-choir, was finally consecrated at a celebratory mass offered by Chichele in the summer of 1442.
Production and Condition At the time of the chapel’s consecration, its furnishings, including the stained glass, cannot have been complete: records relating to ongoing glazing work survive for 1447, the year to which the elaborate carved reredos forming the eastern wall of the chapel has been dated. The image of St Anne teaching the Virgin, however, may have been installed by the time of Chichele’s mass. The college accounts for the end of 1441 include a payment of £12 13s 4d towards the cost of glazing six windows in the antechapel, which seem to have included each of the four east-facing windows, in the northernmost one of which our image is still, as originally, housed. The glazier to whom this payment was made is named as John Glasier of Oxford, who may have been related or associated with the innovative glass painter, Thomas Glasier of Oxford, who had been employed by Wykeham to glaze New College, as well as his collegiate foundation at Winchester, at the end of the fourteenth century. In the same accounts, however, a smaller sum, of 10s 8d, is made to ‘the servant of John Prowte glazier’, suggesting that John Prudde, the King’s Glazier until 1447, or his workshop, was also employed at the college. In attempting to establish which glazier may have been responsible for the image of St Anne and the Virgin, it has been suggested that the female saints at All Souls bear some similarities with the glazing of the chantry chapel of Sir Richard Beauchamp at Warwick, for which the contract with Prudde survives.
Even in the absence of documentary material, the high quality of the All Souls glass is apparent in its execution. The fine painting style is elevated further by exceptional technical accomplishment. Intricate patterns, frequently picked out with delicately applied yellow silver stain, decorate the silk-damask-effect backdrops to the figures, created, unusually, to represent strips of fabric. Elaborate patterning spills over into the complex decoration of the fabrics of almost all the antechapel’s figures, reaching its most sophisticated in St Anne’s cloak, where the flashed layer of red glass has been carefully etched away to create a detailed white glass design. The All Souls glass was restored in the early 1870s by Clayton and Bell, but the image of St Anne and the Virgin survived in very good condition and has been little interfered with.
Iconography Although it was to become a widely popular devotional image in late medieval England, the pictorial representation of St Anne teaching the Virgin to read had no basis in scripture. Indeed, the canonical books of the New Testament make no mention at all of the Virgin’s parents or her childhood, although accounts of the prayers of St Anne and her husband, Joachim, for a child, the eventual birth of their daughter, and the Virgin’s early life occur in the apocryphal gospels such as the Protoevangelium of St James and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. Though the earliest surviving examples in stained glass date from c.1330, the teaching image is first recorded in the late thirteenth century, and was a product of the flourishing cult of the Virgin in high and late medieval England. The cult prompted questions concerning the Virgin’s life, upbringing and family, and an interest in the pictorial representation of such episodes. Representations of St Anne teaching the Virgin survive most abundantly from c.1400 onwards, and this can perhaps be associated with the raising of the festival of St Anne to a feast day in 1381. They most commonly occur as stand-alone images, although the exact arrangement of the pair varies quite considerably, with Anne shown with varying degrees of tender motherliness, and the Virgin at various stages of childhood. There are, however, a smaller number of images of the mother and daughter alongside other members of their extended family. In one late example, of carved alabaster work, an adult Virgin holds her infant son whilst her mother teaches her, whilst in mid-fifteenth century glass at Ross-on-Wye (Herefordshire) and in glass of c.1480–90 at Great Malvern Priory (Worcestershire), mother and daughter are accompanied by the Virgin’s father, Joachim. The glass at All Souls is even more unusual, as the pair is placed at the beginning of a series of female saints and their children, described by medieval commentators as the subsequent children and wider family of St Anne, and also known as the Holy Kindred: Mary Cleophas, Anne’s daughter by her second husband, with her children, the apostles James the Great and John the Evangelist; Mary Salome, the daughter of Anne’s third husband, with her children, James the Less, Simon, Jude and Joseph; and St Elizabeth, Anne’s niece and the Virgin’s cousin, with her son, John the Baptist. Part of a Holy Kindred series that includes the scene of the Virgin being taught to read by St Anne is extant at the church of St Peter Mancroft, Norwich, the glazing of which is the subject of a recent CVMA (GB) monograph by David King, featured in issue no. 1 of Vidimus.
The popularity of the image of St Anne teaching the Virgin to read has been associated with the role of aristocratic and wealthy mercantile mothers as teachers of their daughters in an era of growing literacy. For other, less-literate, female groups, the image may have appealed as a trigger for other aspects of the St Anne legend (such as her representing an alternative to the standard image of virginal and persecuted female saintliness), or for the hope she offered of being blessed with children late in life. The image was not however attractive only to female audiences, as its presence at sites such as All Souls and the Benedictine priory at Great Malvern indicates. At All Souls, the representation could be interpreted as a celebration of education in its most general form, and as a symbol of the root and origin of the apostolic line with which both monastic and collegiate communities might feel kinship.
Bibliography and Further Reading For further details about this panel and other glass at All Souls College, see F. E. Hutchinson, Medieval Glass at All Souls College, London, 1949. For further reading about the cult and iconography of St Anne and the Virgin, see G. McN. Rushforth, Medieval Christian Imagery, Oxford, 1936, pp. 115–16; P. Sheingorn, ‘“The Wise Mother”: The Image of St Anne Teaching the Virgin Mary’, Gesta, 32, 1993, pp. 69–80; V. Nixon, Mary’s Mother: Saint Anne in Late Medieval Europe, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004; and R. Marks, Image and Devotion in Late Medieval England, Stroud, 2004, pp. 148–53.
Our picture archive includes windows depicting St Anne and the Virgin at St Nicholas, Stanford on Avon, Northamptonshire (c.1330–50); St Mary, Thenford, Northamptonshire (c.1400); Great Malvern Priory, Great Malvern, Worcestershire (c.1450 and c.1480–90); All Saints, North Street, York (1420s); and Sts Peter and Paul, Upper Hardres, Kent.
Further representations of St Anne and the Virgin include those at St Mary, Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire; at St Mary Magdalene, Himbleton, Worcestershire; in the tracery of the great east window of St Laurence’s church, Ludlow, Shropshire; in the chapel of Haddon Hall, Derbyshire; at All Saints, Oaksey, Wiltshire; St Mary, Stoke D’Abernon, Surrey; Thurburn’s chantry, Winchester College, Hampshire; St Mary, Norbury, Derbyshire; St Bartholomew, Blore Ray, Staffordshire; St Peter, Marsh Baldon, Oxfordshire; St Mary, Beckley, Oxfordshire; St Mary Magdalene, Mulbarton, Norfolk; and St Laurence, Queenhill, Worcestershire.