Christ Carrying the Cross to Calvary:
east window, church of St Mary, Fairford, Gloucestershire (c.1500-1515)
Each month, Vidimus show-cases 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 can be found in the east window of Fairford parish church. It portrays the Christ’s progress to the site of his Crucifixion following his condemnation by Pilate and subsequent scourging and humiliation. It has been chosen for inclusion in this issue of Vidimus primarily as an example of one of the country’s best-known and best-preserved stained-glass schemes. Retaining ancient glass in all of its twenty-eight windows, the church presents a rare opportunity to appreciate the original aesthetics of a fully-glazed late medieval English church. The panel also illustrates an element of one of the most enduringly popular iconographical choices of the medieval church, that of Christ’s Passion and his Crucifixion in particular. Stylistically, it demonstrates the achievement of glass painters in England in the decades prior to the Reformation and the subsequent decimation of the craft that endured for centuries.
There has been a church at Fairford since at least the twelfth century, but the building as it appears today dates almost entirely from the very end of the middle ages (Fig. 1). The antiquary John Leland visited Fairford in the 1540s and recorded that ‘John Tame began the fair new chirch of Fairforde and Edmund Tame finishid it’. John Thame, who belonged to that group of fifteenth-century entrepreneurs who made their wealth in the wood and cloth industry, had been granted custody of the manor of Fairford, in conjunction with his father-in-law, in 1479. By January 1497, the chapel at the east end of the north aisle, at the very least, was presumably complete, as John directed in his will that he should be buried in it. He died in 1500 and was succeeded by his son, Sir Edmund, who almost certainly witnessed the installation of the church’s magnificent glazing scheme prior to his own death in 1534 (Fig. 2).
Although built and glazed by Tame and his son, Fairford was by no means a private place of worship. Rather, it is one of a number of examples of parish churches being built and glazed entirely at the expense of a single individual or family, usually the lord of the local manor – despite the tradition since the early thirteenth century of the division of responsibility for the upkeep of a church’s fabric between the rector, who looked after the chancel, and the parishioners who were responsible for the nave.
Fairford is one of what appears to be a relatively restricted number of medieval institutions where the stained glass presents a coherent iconographical programme. This is almost certainly related to the fact that it was instigated by a single, father-and-son team and did not, therefore, have to accommodate the divergent interests or concerns of different individuals or groups. The glass divides neatly into two parts, according with the church’s major structural divisions, the chancel and the nave.
The glass in the chancel is devoted to the lives of the Virgin and of Christ, and takes the form of pictorial narrative. It begins with four Old Testament scenes prefiguring events from the Virgin’s life: the Burning Bush, for example, in which God appeared to Moses and which was not consumed by the fire, prefigured the body of Mary who, although she bore Christ, remained a Virgin. These images are followed by episodes from the life of the Virgin itself, beginning with the meeting of her parents Anna and Joachim at the Golden Gate, and terminating with imagery that related to events after the birth of her son: the Flight into Egypt, Christ with the Doctors in the Temple, and the Virgin’s Assumption. The east window of the chancel is devoted to Christ’s Passion. Images of his Entry into Jerusalem, the Agony in the Garden, Christ before Pilate, the Scourging, and the Carrying of the Cross are depicted in the lights below the transom, whilst a dramatic image of the Crucifixion itself is spread through the five main lights above the transom (Fig. 3). The Passion sequence continues in the windows of the south chancel aisle, narrating the events from Christ’s Deposition from the Cross, through his Resurrection, to the eventual Descent of the Holy Spirit (or Pentecost) following his Ascension into Heaven.
The majority of the nave glazing differs in both form and content. Series of standing figures, apostles and prophets, Doctors and Evangelists, face each other across the church’s aisles. In the clerestory, twelve saints, on the south, side confront twelve historic persecutors of the faith, including Judas, Herod and Caiaphas on the north. This battle between dark and light is extended into the windows’ tracery openings, where figures of angels hover above those of the saints, whilst demonic images accompany the figures of Christianity’s enemies. The three windows of the church’s west wall echo the narrative and typological form of the chancel glass. A spectacular image of the Last Judgement (the best surviving in the country) fills the main opening, flanked on either side by its Old Testament types, the Judgement of Solomon, and the Judgement of David on Amalekite.
The choice of Christological imagery as the focal point of a church’s iconographic scheme, filling the windows at the church’s east end, had a long history in medieval England, as was appropriate to a religion that had at its heart the sacrifice of Christ’s crucifixion, re-enacted in each celebration of mass. Series of figures depicting the ancestors of Christ, for example, were installed in the clerestory of the choir at Canterbury Cathedral after the fire of 1174, and in the great east window at Wells Cathedral, in the form of a Jesse Tree, in the first half of the fourteenth century. At fifteenth-century Great Malvern, the great wall of glass at the priory’s east end was filled not with sequences of large figures, as in these earlier schemes, but with a narrative account, similar to that at Fairford, of Christ’s Passion (although it included in its row-upon-row of images a far greater number of scenes than the parish church of later date, ranging from Christ’ Entry into Jerusalem through his Crucifixion and Resurrection, to his Ascension, and culminating at the moment of Pentecost). The early sixteenth-century the glazing of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, replicated the iconography of the Fairford east window very closely: the episodes of the Ecce Homo (where a brutalized Christ was presented to the people), of Pilate’s washing his hands, and of Christ’s Carrying the Cross filled the lower half of the window, whilst the cross-focused events of the Nailing to the Cross, the Crucifixion, and the Descent from the Cross, were arranged above the transom (Fig. 4).
The Production of the Panel
The similarity between the Fairford and King’s College windows extends beyond their subject matter to the ‘pictorial’ way in which they were painted. Ignoring a window’s architectural divisions, this new approach to stained glass gradually emerged in work by indigenous craftsmen in the second half of the fifteenth century, with perhaps its earliest manifestation the windows showing the Apostles seated in groups at Ludlow parish church. In the first decades of the sixteenth century, however, the form became associated with the work of immigrant craftsmen, from Germany and the Lowlands in particular. The landscape settings and realistic interiors reflected the work of Netherlandish painters such as Van Eyck and Memling, and revolutionized the stained-glass industry, turning it from a craft that created images through the skilful leading together of many pieces of painted glass into compositions that were tied closely to the architectural frame provided by the window, into one that was, essentially, an offshoot of painting, denying the association between stained glass and its architectural frame, using ever-larger pieces of glass that minimized the use of lead, and adapting the designers of painters and engravers for use in a transparent medium.
On its completion, the glass at Fairford was, as Marks noted ‘the most positive statement of the new Netherlandish mode of glass-painting yet seen in England’. The skill of the Fairford glaziers is evident in this month’s panel, of Christ’s Carrying the Cross, in the sensitive way in which the glass is painted, setting the serene beauty of Christ against the blank-eyed violence and ugly grimaces of his tormentors. It is witnessed too in the sophistication of the panel’s composition, setting the main subject matter, delineated in relatively full colour, against grisaille background scenes, here of the two thieves who were crucified alongside Christ being shown on their way to the spot at which the executions were to take place – itself depicted, at the top of the panel, in the process of being prepared. As such, the window’s narrative was structured not only between lights, showing the sequence of the Entry to Jerusalem, Condemnation, Flagellation and Carrying the Cross, but also within the scenes, building up layers of narrative by using the foreground and background as different pictorial spaces.
No documentation survives relating to the glazing of the church, but after studying the glass closely, Hilary Wayment made some observations about how the glaziers responsible for it operated on site. He noted variations in the quality and facility with which the scheme was executed, and suggested that a number of individuals were employed on the project; indeed, the difference is sometimes so marked that it prompts the question whether Continental glaziers employed English assistants trained according to different glass-painting traditions. Wayment also noted the occurrence of glaziers’ marks scratched into the back of many of the pieces in two of the church’s windows and felt that this suggested that one glazier may have been instructed to send his work to the master glazier at Fairford in a painted and fired state, but free from it leads, so that some quality control might be exercised if necessary before the panels were leaded up for installation.
It also seems probable that the glaziers at work at Fairford included Barnard Flower, later Royal Glazier, and, perhaps, Richard Bond, individuals named in the contracts for the glazing of King’s College, Cambridge in subsequent decades, and who seem to have been associated with work at Winchester Cathedral and at Henry VII’s chapel in Westminster Abbey. These glaziers’ employment at Fairford is a good reminder that, in the middle ages, innovative art and architecture of the highest standard was not inevitably associated with ‘great institutions’ or ‘central’ locations if a project’s patron was sufficiently wealthy or well connected. However, the early date of the Fairford glass in comparison with other known manifestations of the work of Flower and associated figures may suggest that their work their was something of a ‘test case’ before moving on to royal commissions.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Dr Hilary Wayment long made the stained glass at Fairford a special focus of his attention and produced a variety of articles and texts on the glass, including, most recently, The Stained Glass of the Church of St Mary, Fairford, Gloucestershire (Society of Antiquaries of London Occasional Papers, new series, V, 1984), and a piece from which details on the glaziers’ marks in the Fairford glass cited here are taken, entitled ‘The Glaziers’ Sorting Marks at Fairford’, in P. Moore (ed.), Crown in Glory: A Celebration of Craftsmanship-Studies in Stained Glass (Norwich, 1982), pp. 23–28. He also contributed to the more extensive volume devoted to the church, recently republished in paperback as S. Brown and L. MacDonald (eds), Fairford Parish Church: A Medieval Church and its Stained Glass (Stroud, 2007). The Fairford glazing is contextualized in terms of English medieval stained glass generally in R. Marks, Stained Glass in England During the Middle Ages (Toronto and Buffalo, 1993).
Our Picture Archive includes over two hundred images of the glass at Fairford, and includes a number of images of drawings made in the mid-nineteenth century by Charles Winston, an early pioneer of modern stained glass studies. It also features images of the glass of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, here compared in style and iconography with the Fairford glass, along with those of Great Malvern Priory, suggested as an example of stained glass of comparable status and of similar subject matter in some respects, but belonging to a more thoroughly medieval tradition.
Heather Gilderdale Scott