Birtsmorton appeal… and unique puzzles
An urgent appeal to conserve rare and important medieval window glass in the fourteenth-century church of St Thomas of Canterbury (with St Peter and St Paul) at Birtsmorton (Worcestershire) has been launched. At its heart is the protection of one of the most interesting images in English stained glass; a seemingly unique depiction of the Christ Child baptising St Christopher. [fig.1]
More than £25,000 is needed for the appeal. Information about how to donate can be found at the foot of this article.
First some background.
Birtsmorton church was built in the fourteenth-century. When the antiquary, Sir Thomas Habington or Abington (1560–1647) visited it around the time of the English civil war he recorded large amounts of heraldic glass in the church; much of which seems to have been lost by the time another local historian, Treadway Russell Nash (1724 -1811) followed in his footsteps two hundred or so years later. The heraldry included the arms of the Ruyhall family, their successors as lords of the manor from the 1450’s onwards – the Nanfans- and a number of other local and related families. It was not until the early nineteenth century that the few surviving figural elements were drawn and described by yet another Worcestershire antiquarian, Dr Peter Prattinton (1776-1840), whose records survive in the library of the Society of Antiquaries of London. At that time the figurative glass, which is the subject of this article, was in the east window but when the church was restored and the former perpendicular east window rebuilt to a new reticulated tracery design in 1877, it was removed and given for safe-keeping to the owner of the adjoining fifteenth/sixteenth century moated manor house, Birtsmorton Court.
It was in this location when the eminent medievalist and classical scholar, Gordon McNeil Rushforth (1862-1938), wrote about the glass in 1926, focusing on the image and hagiography of the St Christopher scene. This article is indebted to his research. [fig.2]
In 1940 most of the previously removed glass was returned to the church and a collage of the figural fragments arranged in the easternmost south chancel window, sII, above an inscription at the base: “This glass removed from the church in 1877 was replaced here in 1940 by Francis Bradley-Bradley Birt of Birtsmorton Court in memory of his Father and Mother”.
The medieval glass in the church now survives in the tracery lights of eight windows in the nave, windows sV, sVI, sVII, nIII, nV, nVI, nVII and WI, and in sII.
The tracery light glass is notable for its in situ arms of the Ruyhale family; argent two bendlets gules and vert, in both grisaille and pot metal glass. Some of the tracery lights also include infilling fragments from displaced figurative scenes. sVII, for example, contains a fine head of the Virgin from a Coronation of the Virgin.
The most interesting collage of fragments, however, can be found in the two-light, sII, and consists of whole and part figures, faces, architecture, borders and background designs. The most significant pieces are two male kneeling figures, the upper part of a depiction of the Christ child baptising St Christopher, parts of the Virgin Mary and angel from an Annunciation scene together with a band of script AVA MARIE, and the face of God the Father. [fig. 3]
The glass has been dated to 1385-1400. Liberal amounts of white glass and yellow stain are used in the figural schemes. The glass is painted in what Professor Richard Marks has called the ‘second figural style’ of late English Gothic with characteristic facial features such as strongly emphasised eyes and arched brows. It was almost certainly commissioned by a member of the Ruyhale (Ruyhall) family, most probably either Richard Ruyhale, the Worcestershire escheator of 1375-6 and 1379-80 (a local official responsible for ‘escheats’, or upholding the king’s rights as feudal lord) or his son and namesake.
Richard senior probably died around 1396/97 as his son was described as the ‘younger’ in 1395 and is known to have presented to the church in his own right in 1398/99. The younger Richard held the manor of Birtsmorton until his death in 1408. His arms and those of his second wife, Elizabeth, survive in the south window of the chapel of St Anne at Great Malvern Priory where Elizabeth’s will of 1428 directed that she be buried.
The remainder of this article discusses the kneeling figures and the St Christopher figure in sII.
The kneeling figures are of equal size and face in the same direction. One is more complete than the other. When Prattinton saw the glass, c.1825, the more complete figure was accompanied by a kneeling woman behind him with heraldic arms on her dress, probably three lions rampant. The men wear armour to symbolise their status in life as forming part of the dominant landed and politically active second estate in society. They were almost certainly once part of an extended donor figure scheme probably arranged at the foot of a stained glass window. [Figs 4 & 5]
An important – unique – feature of the donor figures is that both men are depicted wearing contemporary armour of the period with helmets of a peculiarly German design, i.e., the visor is raised or lowered from a hinge in the centre of the brow. Known as a ‘Klappvisier’ this is the only known recorded example of this type of visor in Britain. No other glass painting, brass memorial or monumental effigy has such a feature. According to Dr Tobias Capwell, Curator of Arms and Armour at the world famous Wallace Collection in London, the painter has also depicted this detail extremely accurately; most such images are generic and lack the finesse displayed at Birtsmorton. It is unknown if this detail was taken from a real life model and was included at the request of the donor family. [Figs 6 & 7]
The second intriguing fragment at Birtsmorton is the unique depiction of the Baptism of St Christopher mentioned earlier. It is of international importance as not only is the scene unknown elsewhere in British art, nothing comparable is recorded in German or Flemish glass of the period. Leading experts in illuminated manuscript have told Vidimus that they have also not seen any comparable images.
Scholars believe that the story of St Christopher originated in the eastern or Greek Byzantine church and went through several versions before appearing in its most well known form in the late medieval Western European church. From the thirteenth-century onwards the story of St Christopher, and the way he was depicted in art, followed conventional lines. According to the widely disseminated compendium of saints’ lives, known as the Legenda Aurea or Golden Legend, a source book often used by priests and artists in this period, Christopher or Reprobus as he was then known, was a pagan giant who decided to serve the most powerful ruler he could find. At first he worked for a mighty lord but when he saw him tremble at the mention of the devil he switched allegiance to Satan only to desert him when he saw him cower at the sight of the cross. During his search for the king who could have this effect, Christopher met a hermit who suggested that he work as a human ferryman carrying travellers across a river. One day a child appeared and asked to be carried across the river. After the giant had lifted the infant on to his shoulders and entered the river, the waters rose and the child grew heavier. After reaching the opposite shore with immense difficulty Christopher told the child that he had put them in great peril as he, ‘weighed so heavy as if I had borne the whole world upon my shoulders’. To which the child replied, ‘Wonder not, Christopher, for not only hast thou borne the whole world upon thy shoulders but Him Who created the world. For I am Christ the King’.
As proof of his powers the child also told Christopher to plant his staff in the ground where it subsequently flowered. The incident has a typological parallel with the Old Testament story of Moses and the rod or staff of Aaron which flowers after it had been in the presence of God (Numbers 17:5).
Medieval Christians believed that St Christopher had talismanic powers and that they only needed to see his image to be protected from tiredness, fatigue and, most importantly, a sudden death that day without receiving the last rites.
Hence his appearance in many oversized wall paintings that could be seen easily from the church entrances, usually the south door. He also appeared in stained glass, sculpture, manuscript illuminations and in other arts. In France, statues of St Christopher were often placed next to the main entrance, usually the West portal/façade, for example, the giant statue in relief of St Christopher on the south side of the Amiens Cathedral. [figs 8, 9 & 10]
Neither The Golden Legend nor the South-English Lectionary (another compilation of saint’s lives) included the precise details of Christopher’s baptism, although the former describes him being quizzed by a pagan king during which he says, ‘Before I was baptised I was called Reprobus… but now I am called Christopher, the Christ-bearer.’
Accounts which purported to ‘fill in’ this missing gap are very rare.
The only known literary sources for the scene depicted at Birtsmorton, the story of the saint’s baptism mid-stream, are a few lines in two anonymous Middle High German poems of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
Rushforth’s article also cited a different account of the saint’s baptism told in a manuscript of c. 1430-50 in Lincoln Cathedral Library. Rather than occurring mid-stream this account describes the event occurring on the shore immediately after Christopher had carried the Christ child across the river. The Thornton Romances, (Lincoln Cathedral MS 91) consists of various secular, religious and medicinal texts compiled by Robert Thornton, a Yorkshire landowner, between 1430 and 1450. Among these texts are ten Middle English romances, including a Life of St Christopher, Vita Sancti Christofori , which Thornton had obviously copied from an otherwise unknown source. The text has 1013 lines in couplets (folios 122v-129v) and is signed by Thornton. The poem is reproduced in C. Horstmann, Altenglische Legenden, while Thornton’s manuscript is discussed in Robert Thornton and His Books: Essays on the Lincoln and London Manuscripts, edited by Susanna Fein and Michael Johnston.
According to the Thornton Vita Sancti Christofori after Christopher had, ‘ sett… . [the Christ child]‘ down and asked how, ‘ you arte so littill & ynge… be so heuy of wheghte’ and been told that he had carried the ‘makere of alkyns thynge’, the Christ child continued :
‘In my Name I crystyn thee
Christofere in Criste I calle be here’. [fig.11]
The survival of this variant suggests the possibility that other versions of the story or conflations of this story into a single image might have been circulated in fourteenth-century England. As a hugely popular saint it is not unreasonable to suppose that at least some of his devotees would have enjoyed hearing or ‘learning’ about his baptism.
The Birtsmorton scene shows the Christ child sitting on the shoulders of St Christopher who is striding sideways through the water. The child has one hand raised as if speaking or giving a blessing and using the other to pour water from a jug onto the forehead of the saint. This was a common way of depicting baptism in medieval art and a fragment in the so-called ‘Museum window’ at nearby Great Malvern Priory Church shows Christ being baptised by St John the Baptist in this way. The Prattinton drawing shows the fragment attached to a border with a (probably recurring) R design – almost certainly for Ruyhale. [fig. 11]
Who suggested that St Christopher’s baptism should be depicted in this way at Birtsmorton, the source of the story textual or visual, whether the glass painter had had a model to copy from and if so, from where, are as yet unknown. Perhaps it was an oral tradition, a scene enacted in drama … for dramatic effect.
Hopefully the campaign to restore the glass, which has suffered acid attack from lichen and needs to be protected in a purpose-built isothermal glazing system, might provoke further research which could provide some answers to these fascinating questions. If any Vidimus reader can help we would be delighted to hear from you.
The appeal is being led by the Revd Anthea Elston, the vicar of Birtsmoton church. The Parochial Church Council has already promised a major contribution but tens of thousands of pounds are still needed. To contact Rev Elston or to donate, please email: email@example.com
Kees Berserik; Dr Tobias Capwell ; Steve Clare ( Holywell Glass); Dr Christopher de Hamel; Dr Claire LaBrecque; Ina Nettekoven( Dr Jörn Günther Antiquariats und Verwaltungs AG); Professor Nigel Saul; Dr Hartmut Scholz; Adam Schuch-Des Forges; Dr Joseph Spooner; Mrs Julie Taylor, Librarian, Lincoln Cathedral Library; Dr Paul Taylor (the Warburg Institute).
Fein, S., and Johnston, M., (Eds). Robert Thornton and His Books: Essays on the Lincoln and London Manuscripts, York Medieval press, 2014.
Green, Mary A, ‘Old Painted Glass in Worcestershire’, with drawings by Elsie Matley Moore, published in eleven parts in the new series of the Transactions of the Worcestershire Archaeological Society: Part I, xi (1934), pp 16-19.
Horstmann, C. Altenglische Legenden. Neue Folge (Heilbronn, 1881), p. 459.
Marks, R., Stained Glass in England during the Middle Ages, London, 1993, pp 19, 171, Fig. 139.
Rushforth, G. McN., ‘The baptism of St Christopher’, Antiquaries Journal, vol.VI (1926), pp 152 -8
Rushforth, G. McN., ‘The Painted Glass of Birtsmorton Church,’ Transactions of the Worcestershire Archaeological Society, NS, IV. 1926, pp. 91-99.