God in Majesty
11h, east window, York Minster
Each month, Vidimus will show-case a different panel from the wealth of medieval stained glass in England. The panels are chosen with the aim of providing, collectively, a sense of the great range of surviving window glass, in terms of date, subject matter and the kinds of institutions 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 is taken from the Great East Window of York Minster, and is dominated by a scene of God enthroned within a golden mandorla, surrounded by symbols of the four Evangelists (the eagle, angel, lion and calf). The window ranks among the key glass monuments of the Middle Ages: in size (roughly that of a tennis court) it is the largest surviving single expanse of medieval glass in the world; in quality and ambition, it is the masterpiece of one of Great Britain’s best known and most accomplished medieval glaziers. For these reasons, and for the prominence of the cathedral church that houses the glass, it has been chosen for presentation in this month’s issue of Vidimus.
By the time work began on the glazing of the Great East Window in the early years of the fifteenth century, a church had been on the minster site for more than three hundred years, albeit a building in an almost continual state of construction and reconstruction. Four centuries earlier, in 670, Bishop Wilfred of York had rescued from ruin the foundation (of c.627) of Edwin, the first Christian King of Northumberland. Although descriptions of Wilfrid’s Saxon church are vague, it has been suggested that the importance of decorative window glass in the church’s appearance, as a fitting embellishment for churches of Rome, dates from this early period (Brown 1999). Danish incursions into the north-east in the years prior to the Conquest and social unrest in those following it, caused Thomas of Bayeux, the new Archbishop of York, to rebuild the church on its current site, completing the task around the time of his death in 1100. Little more than fifty years later, work began on the construction a new eastern arm and crypt and the addition of towers at the west end. This time the work was prompted not by ruin and neglect, but by a desire to assert the prestige of the cathedral as the seat of the leader of the northern province and to overshadow its southern rival at Canterbury.
Similar motivations fuelled wave after wave of subsequent construction at York: the transepts and crossing between the 1220s and c.1250; the chapter house and its vestibule in the 1280s and early 1290s; the nave in the years either side of the year 1300 and the 1330s; and, finally, the replacement of the cathedral’s eastern arm in two phases: the Lady Chapel, including the frame for the great east window, 1361 – c.1373, and the western choir, c.1394 – c.1420.
The Production of the Panel
The Chapter Act book into which the contract for the glazing of the minster’s Great East Window was copied has long been lost, but summaries of its contents survive in the notes of two seventeenth-century antiquaries. ‘John Thornton of Coventry, glazier’, they record, was indentured by the Dean and Chapter of York in December 1405 to make the window ‘according to the best of his skill & Cunning’, within three years. Although he was himself was apparently obliged to ‘portrature’ (perhaps, design) the window, and to paint those portions of it the Dean and Chapter instructed, he was also responsible for the sourcing of materials and the recruitment of a team of men to ensure the window’s timely execution. He was to be paid each week, at the rate of 4s, and incentivized to meet the terms of his contract by annual bonuses (100s.) and a large reward of £10 of silver on the successful completion of the project.
The painting of the window was funded by Walter Skirlaw, Bishop of Durham 1388–1406, who appears as a kneeling figure in episcopal garb centrally at the base of the window (fig. 1). Kneeling before an altar decorated on its frontal with his coat of arms, in a now-damaged inscription he offers up ‘this remarkable work’ to God. It is possible that Skirlaw was not only responsible for donating the money to pay Thornton and his team, but also served as the route through which the name of Thornton became known, and was recommended, to the Chapter. As French (1995) noted, although the decision to bring Thornton to York is usually attributed to Archbishop Scrope (1398–1405), who had been Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield between 1386 and 1398, Skirlaw himself had also, briefly, held the same position in 1385.
The Great East Window is our only certain example of Thornton’s work, but the close similarities in painting style between it and a number of other windows in the minster have led to the conclusion that he was almost certainly responsible for much additional work under the patronage of the Dean and Chapter. Thornton’s influence on the glass-painting industry in the city more generally was also sufficiently strong that the painting style associated with him has traditionally been termed the ‘York school’ of glass painting. The similarities of painting style and design can be seen in glass such as that at the church of St Martin-le-Grand, Coney Street (fig. 2). Whilst the city’s glaziers did adopt Thornton’s style and traits, however, more recent research has suggested that Thornton maintained his connections in Coventry, and that he most likely operated workshops concurrently out of both cities.
The York east window presents a vast and iconographically complex display, combining, in its main lights, an extensive narrative of the Apocalypse of St John with scenes from the Old Testament; its tracery is filled with single figures of angels, prophets, patriarchs, saints and kings, representing the whole company of heaven (fig. 3). The panel of God in Majesty belongs to the window’s Apocalypse cycle and represents Revelation 4, 5–9, in which it is revealed that ‘out of the throne proceeded lightnings and thunderings and voices: and there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God. And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, LORD God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come. And when those beasts gave glory and honour and thanks to him that sat on the throne, who liveth for ever and ever.’ The care with which even these fantastical verses have been translated into visual form is apparent: the seven lamps are shown around the enthroned God; the four winged beasts are present, with that having ‘a face as a man’ at least having the six wings specified in the text; and the scrolls that weave around the figures are inscribed with the words that the beasts proclaim in the biblical passage: ‘Sanctu[s]’ (held by the eagle), ‘Sanctus’ (the angel), ‘Sanctus’ (the lion), ‘D(omi)n(u)s deus o(mn)ipotens’ (the calf). The sophistication of Thornton as a stained-glass designer is demonstrated by the inclusion in the bottom left-hand corner of the panel of the face of St John peering through a yellow frame, recalling his words of Revelation 4, 1: ‘I looked and, behold, a door standing open in heaven’. The detail demonstrates that Thornton’s concern was not simply the translation of text into images, but that he also wished to reinforce in the viewer’s mind the nature of the narrative itself as a sequence of John’s personal visions. By inserting John into the panel, however discretely, he achieves his goal effectively.
The combination of subject matter in the window is unusual, and the Apocalypse cycle that dominates the window surpasses in magnificence all other medieval works on the theme. As a subject choice, however, the Revelation of St John had a long history of use in art in England, across a variety of media – the result, no doubt, of its direct relation to central medieval concerns about mortality and judgement, whether of an individual or the entire world. Best known among the artistic expressions of the theme are the richly illuminated manuscript Apocalypses that became extremely popular among fashionable thirteenth-century patrons, but as early as the seventh century, Bede tells, us, Benedict Biscop, Abbot of Wearmouth, returned from Rome with pictures that included ‘images of the visions of the Apocalypse of St John’ and were used to decorate the church’s north wall. Much later, in the fifteenth century, and to quite different effect, the bosses decorating the cloister vault at Norwich Cathedral, for example, were carved with scenes from the same text. As these examples and the sequence of splendid wall paintings in the chapter house of Westminster Abbey demonstrate, York was not alone among the country’s great churches in incorporating Apocalyptic iconography into its decoration.
The appeal of the iconography, however, was by no means limited to sacred buildings. For example, the subject proved a popular one for early printed volumes, which were within the means of significant proportions of late medieval society, and which did not shy away from the more dramatic episodes of the narrative, as the example from a Netherlandish block-book of the 1430–40s shows (fig. 4). Nor was the medieval consideration of the Apocalypse limited to what was said in John’s Revelation: the theme was reinterpreted and translated into the vernacular in works such as the mid-fourteenth-century poem entitled The Pricke of Conscience. Detailing the fifteen signs of the last days of the world, the poem was almost certainly among the most popular literary texts of its time. Fittingly enough, it also found artistic expression in the stained glass of early fifteenth-century York, in the north aisle of the parish church of All Saints, North Street (see fig. 5 below). In many ways, the parish and minster windows belong to entirely different worlds: in scale, the fifteen modest scenes at All Saints contrast with almost ten times that number in the minster; in terms of donorship, local mercantile figures, rather than the Bishop of Durham, were responsible; and in the presentation of the theme, a visually complex minster scheme, laced through with Latin text scrolls, contrasts with a clear, straightforward narrative, with each scene set above clear-glass bands inscribed with the appropriate lines of the poem in the vernacular. It has been suggested, however, that the windows are intimately related, and that the All Saints window may have been John Thornton’s ‘test piece’, completed as evidence of his abilities for the Minster chapter’s approval. If this is the case, we have much to thank it for
Bibliography and Further Reading
The east window itself forms the subject of Tom French’s volume, York Minster: The Great East Window (first published Oxford 1995, now available in paperback), which forms part of the CVMA (GB)’s monograph series on major monuments. The glazing of the Great East Window is put into clear context in Sarah Brown’s recent general survey of the minster’s glass, Stained Glass at York Minster (London, 1999). The translation of the Apocalypse story into glass is considered by Jill Rickers in ‘Glazier and Illuminator: The Apocalypse Cycle in the East Window of York Minster and its Sources’ in the Journal of Stained Glass (xix, 1994–95, pp. 265–79). Modern scholarship on medieval representations of the Apocalypse has focused largely on the excellent surviving Apocalypse manuscripts, for example, N. Morgan, The Lambeth Apocalypse (London, 1990) and The Douce Apocalypse (Oxford, 2007). M. R. James’s The Apocalypse in Art (London, 1931) is still a very useful (if unillustrated) introduction to the subject’s use in other media. A good, comprehensive analysis of the book of Revelation itself is R. Mounce, The Book of Revelation (London, 1978).
Our Picture Archive includes panel-by-panel illustration of the rest of the Great East Window at York, which can be located via the Picture Archive search form. It also features detailed illustrations of the ‘Pricke of Conscience’ window (fig. 5) in the All Saints’ North Street.
Heather Gilderdale Scott