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Making a Masterpiece: The Glazing of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge

Fig. 1. Exterior of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge.

Fig. 1. Exterior of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge.

Fig. 2. Window 15, detail of the Harrowing of Hell attributed to James Nicholson, c.1535.

Fig. 2. Window 15, detail of the Harrowing of Hell attributed to James Nicholson, c.1535.

Fig. 3. Window 4, detail of the Adoration of the Magi attributed to James Nicholson

Fig. 3. Window 4, detail of the Adoration of the Magi attributed to James Nicholson

In a year dominated by exhibitions celebrating the exquisite beauty of sixteenth-century German Renaissance glass, a riveting new book on the glazing of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, sheds fresh light on the astonishing achievements of glaziers working for the Tudor monarchy in England around the same time. Written by Carola Hicks, a distinguished art historian and former curator of the Stained Glass Museum (housed at Ely Cathedral), The King’s Glass tells the epic story of the long struggle to fund the glazing of the chapel, the resentment of English glaziers at the plum commissions awarded to ‘foreyn’ painters like Barnard Flower, Galyon Hone and James Nicholson, and how Henry VIII transformed the final scheme into a powerful propaganda statement of the royal dynasty (Fig. 1).

Fig. 4. Window 2, detail of messenger, c.1515–17

Fig. 4. Window 2, detail of messenger, c.1515–17

The book also explores suggestions that while the iconography of the earliest glass reflected conventional Catholic tastes and beliefs, the imagery chosen for the final stages of the glazing represented the growing impact of Protestant ‘reforming’ ideas. Politics and history aside, the painted and stained glass of King’s College Chapel remains one of the glories of sixteenth-century northern European art. The twenty-five windows shimmer with colour and drama, forming walls of painted light that cast kaleidoscopic glows on adjacent walls and floors (Figs 2–8). Every window includes masterly instances of glass-cutting, painting, and an awe-inspiring understanding of how to harmonize colour and translucency. Little wonder that Hilary Wayment’s CVMA study of the glass uses words like ‘brilliant’, ‘powerful’ and ‘poetry’ to describe the results.

Fig. 5. Window 6, detail of messenger.

Fig. 5. Window 6, detail of messenger.

Fig. 6. Window 10, detail of the Mocking of Christ, c.1527

Fig. 6. Window 10, detail of the Mocking of Christ, c.1527

‘It took me eighteen months to write the book,’ Carola told Vidimus. ‘I spent the summer of 2006 in the chapel, sitting and looking at every window with my binoculars. I saw how colours changed between mornings and evenings, and in different weather. At times the glass seemed to ripple with life. Every visit saw a new discovery, a new detail spotted, a new admiration for the way the painters saw how their art would be seen.’ (Fig. 9)

Before visiting King’s College Chapel, do the check opening times and admission prices on the college’s website. Details of Carola Hicks’s new work can be found on our Books page.

Fig. 7. Window 11, detail from Christ before Caiaphas. The inscription reads ‘Sic Respo(n)des Po(n)tifice(m)’ (‘Answerest thou the high priest so?’).

Fig. 7. Window 11, detail from Christ before Caiaphas. The inscription reads ‘Sic Respo(n)des Po(n)tifice(m)’ (‘Answerest thou the high priest so?’).

In addition to the splendours of the main chapel, the side chapels also incorporate an important collection of imported medieval and Renaissance glass from unrelated locations. All photographs are © Vidimus and reproduced by kind permission of the Provost and Scholars of King’s College, Cambridge.

Thanks to Revd Ian Thompson, Dean and Director of Studies in Theology, King’s College; Mr John Boulter, the Chapel Administrator; and to the staff and guides of King’s College for their help.


Fig. 8. Carola Hicks in King’s College Chapel

Fig. 8. Carola Hicks in King’s College Chapel


Further Reading


Catherine H. L. Smart, The Great Windows, London, 2005

Hilary Wayment, The Windows of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, CVMA (GB), Supplementary Volume I, London, 1972

Idem, King’s College Chapel Cambridge: The Side-Chapel Glass, Cambridge, 1988.

Michelmersh Revealed

Fig. 1. The window

Fig. 1. The window

Fig. 2. The prophet Ezekiel, by Thomas of Oxford, from Winchester College Chapel, c.1393

Fig. 2. The prophet Ezekiel, by Thomas of Oxford, from Winchester College Chapel, c.1393

The recent cleaning of a little-known ‘made-up’ window (Fig. 1) incorporating fragments of early fifteenth-century glass at St Mary’s church, Michelmersh (Hampshire) has revealed similarities with work associated with Thomas of Oxford, one of England’s better-known medieval glaziers. He worked for William of Wykeham (d.1404), Chancellor of England, in nearby Winchester (in the chapel of Wykeham’s school, Fig. 2) and in Oxford (at New College).

The window is essentially a Victorian composite, possibly assembled around 1845–46, when the church was substantially rebuilt by the Winchester based builder/architect, William Gover. In 1894, the glass was moved from its position in the east window to its present location in the south wall of the chancel. Unpublished (and undated) notes in Hampshire Record Office, written by John Le Couteur (d.1925), assumed that the fragments originally came from more than one window in the church.

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The ‘window’ incorporates a border consisting of medieval canopy fragments, enclosing a Victorian foliate quarry ground leaded with six inserted fragments (Figs 3–8): four heads, a section of ecclesiastical vestment, and the remains of a blackletter inscription. All employ various shades of yellow stain on white glass. Evidence of the quality of the Michelmersh fragments emerged during cleaning at the Salisbury Cathedral Stained Glass workshop. ‘The panel had suffered from years of condensation,’ senior conservator Sam Kelly told Vidimus, ‘but there was very little paint damage.’ The Michelmersh panel will be reinstated before Christmas 2007, and protective isothermal glazing will also be installed.

Light a

‘… quor(um) a(n)i(m)ar(um) pr[opitietur Deus]’ meaning ‘… on whose souls may God have mercy’. This comes from a donor inscription. It is not clear whether the text refers to the donors of the glass, or to those in whose memory the glass was installed (such as their parents), but it poses an interesting question as to whether the original windows also included ‘portraits’ of the donor(s).

Fig. 3. Fragment of blackletter inscription

Fig. 3. Fragment of blackletter inscription

Fig. 4. Head of St Paul with the tip of his sword

Fig. 4. Head of St Paul with the tip of his sword

Fig. 5. Head of a male figure

Fig. 5. Head of a male figure

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St Paul is shown in the usual way, bald and bearded, holding the sword of his execution as an attribute. The roundel format is relatively unusual, although earlier examples can be found. Kerry Ayre’s CVMA study Medieval English Figurative Roundels (Oxford, 2002) includes two Apostle’s heads with attributes, c.1335 –45, now in the collection of Liverpool Museum (cat. nos. 186–87).

This may be an Old Testament prophet, wearing a soft cap. He shares similarities with figures formerly in Winchester College Chapel (cf. Fig. 2). Le Couteur thought that both roundels were too large for tracery-lights and wondered if they had once stood in main lights, against a quarry ground. He differentiated them from the right-hand fragments, on the basis of shading technique and the different backgrounds.

Light b


Part of a white mantle bordered with yellow over a white undergarment, the latter enriched with a reticulated pattern enclosing foliate devices.

Fig. 6. Fragment of garment

Fig. 6. Fragment of garment

Fig. 7. Head of a bishop

Fig. 7. Head of a bishop

Fig. 8. Head of a sainted archbishop.

Fig. 8. Head of a sainted archbishop.

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Inserted next to the head of this unknown bishop is a white rose surmounted by a golden crown, one of the badges of the House of York.
The archbishop is nimbed, wearing a decorated amice around his neck and holding an archiepiscopal cross. Le Couteur believed that Figs 6 and 7 probably came from the same window scheme.

Vidimus is grateful to Sam Kelly and the staff of Salisbury Cathedral Stained Glass for their help with this article. Special thanks are also extended to Rodney Hubbock, stained glass advisor to Winchester DAC, who kindly provided Vidimus with a copy of John Le Couteur’s unpublished notes, Hampshire Record Office: 91M72/PZ13/1-5

The glass at Michelmersh was cleaned as a result of the continuing concern of the PCC of St Mary’s that the fabric be maintained, and the project was supported financially by the congregation and the Friends of St Mary’s.

Further Reading

For more information about Thomas Glazier see the following.

J. Le Couteur, Ancient Glass in Winchester, Winchester, 1920 (2nd edition, 1928)

Idem, ‘Ancient Glass in Timsbury Church, Hants.’, Journal of the British Society of Master Glass Painters, i/2, April 1925, pp. 36–37

J. Harvey and D. King, ‘Winchester College Stained Glass’, Archaeologia, ciii, 1971, pp. 149–77

R. Marks, Stained Glass in England during the Middle Ages, Toronto/Buffalo, 1993

C. Woodforde, The Stained Glass of New College, Oxford, Oxford, 1951.

Vitrail et arts au temps des Réformes: L’exemple normand dans le contexte européen

STUDY DAYS OF THE CORPUS VITREARUM, 29–30 NOVEMBER 2007

The publication of the CVMA France Récensement volume for Upper Normandy has revealed the amazing richness its stained glass, particularly that of the sixteenth century. An important contribution to the understanding of the material has been made by Laurence Riviale, a member of the French CVMA team, in her new book Le Vitrail en Normandie: entre Renaissance et Réforme, which reveals for the first time the ways in which Catholic donors of windows in Normandy used stained glass as a powerful medium to react to and oppose the ideas of the Lutheran and Calvinist Reformation. To celebrate the publication and further interest in this theme the French committee of the Corpus Vitrearum, with the generous support of the regional government of Haute-Normandie and the départements of Eure and Seine Maritime, organized two study days on 29–30 November (English local governments: please take note!).

Fig. 1. The Virgin with biblical symbols, bay 11, Sainte-Foy, Conches-en-Ouche, c.1540

Fig. 1. The Virgin with biblical symbols, bay 11, Sainte-Foy, Conches-en-Ouche, c.1540

On the first day two coach-loads of participants went first to the church of Sainte-Foy in Conche-en-Ouche, where Michel Hérold and Laurence Rivial expounded the almost complete set of sixteenth-century windows dating from c.1500–10 to 1553. The windows of the north aisle are unified around the theme of the Virgin Mary, using an allegorical rather than narrative approach, with windows such as the Virgin with biblical symbols, and the Triumph of the Virgin (Fig. 1). The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, anathema to Reformist sensibilities (and to some Catholics) is here given strong visual support. On the south side, a Eucharistic focus, with subjects such as the mystical wine-press and the collection of manna by the Israelites, encourages belief in transubstantiation. After lunch in Evreux at the departmental council offices, accompanied by an exhibition of photographs of stained glass by Thierry Leroy, the party moved on to the church of Saint-Valentin at Jumièges, a little-known building with glass mainly of the second half of the sixteenth century, including a largely grisaille window with Old Testament scenes (popular with both Catholics and Reformers at this period) and the Apocalypse, and one with the Death, Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin, both of c.1570, as well as fragments of a window of 1569 depicting the story of Susanna and the Elders (Fig. 2), symbolic of the Protestant attack on the Catholic church. After a visit to the ruins of the abbey at Jumiège, the party returned to Rouen for a visit to the Musée des Antiquités de la Seine-Maritime to see its fine collection of medieval and Renaissance stained glass, including the rare panels from the Chapelle des Trépassés of the Saint-Maur cemetery at Rouen depicting Ezechiel in the valley of the bones (alluding to the iconoclastic destruction of 1562), and Moses descending from Mount Sinai with new tablets of the Law, denouncing idolatry (here symbolic not of the misuse of images but of Calvinism).

Fig. 2. Susanna and the Elders, bay 4, Saint-Valentin, Jumièges ,1569

Fig. 2. Susanna and the Elders, bay 4, Saint-Valentin, Jumièges ,1569

The second day consisted of a series of papers given at the Hôtel de Région. The first, by Marc Venard, outlined the historical context in the dioceses of Rouen and Evreux in the sixteenth century, characterized by a powerful and wealthy Catholic church at the start, falling prey to Reformist attacks from the 1520s, culminating in the iconoclasm and massacres of the 1560s and 1570s, followed by recovery aided by the Council of Trent, new religious orders, and internal reform. Denis Hüe talked about the special devotion of Rouen to the Immaculate Conception and its manifestations in both poetry and glass. Catherine Vincent looked at how the lighting provided by windows was augmented by that of candles and lamps in churches in the late medieval period. An analysis of accounts for the purchase of wax from Rouen Cathedral reveals that there was a strict hierarchy of use of such lights according to liturgical space and time. This official practice was modified and extended by private donations of lights for reliquaries, statues, and other images, often provided for the celebration of anniversaries. These marks of honour and recognition for the divine presence were strongly criticised by reformers. The morning concluded with contributions from Laurence Riviale and Rita Ramberti on the window at Allouville-Bellefosse depicting the Last Supper and its possible allusions to the opposing views of the church and Luther on the question of free will.

In the afternoon, three colleagues from the CVMA in other countries talked about the Reformation and stained glass from their national point of view. Brigitte Kurmann-Schwarz from Switzerland concentrated on the situation in Berne, which adopted Zwingli’s Reformation programme in 1528, while the collegiate church was still under construction. While some of the existing glass was destroyed, that of the choir survived, and other panels of glass were set on white glass. Heraldry was also installed in the nave. Elsewhere, new forms of glazing appeared, often secular, such as the 1560 depiction of the Schützenhaus banquet and others of William Tell. Surprisingly, where medieval glass survives in Switzerland, it is in the cantons that adopted reform. Zsuzsanna van Ruyven-Zeman surveyed the situation in the Netherlands, where the glazing of St John’s church in Gouda takes pride of place. Here, earlier reformist influences, such as the Devotio Moderna and the biblical humanism of Erasmus, are reflected in the inclusion of uncommon biblical scenes. After the liberation of the county of Holland from Spanish rule in the 1570s and the adoption of Protestantism, St John’s received new glazing alongside the existing Catholic glass. Contemporary events, biblical and allegorical scenes, and armorial glass formed the subject matter of other new glazing made by Dirck and Wouter Crabeth, working to designs from prints by Maarten van Heemskerck, depicting among other subjects Old Testament accounts of the destruction of idols. David King’s contribution focused on Norwich and the ‘long’ Reformation up to 1700. After outlining the various stages in the programme of legislation and iconoclasm that led to the destruction of so much glass, King examined how these affected Norwich, citing payments in churchwardens’ accounts for the removal of glass. The glass at King’s College and Fairford was re-interpreted to give it a more acceptable Protestant significance; at Norwich the evidence shows that selective preservation occurred. Many glass-painters still worked in the city after the Reformation, and as well as the ubiquitous heraldry, they also made small-scale work with moralizing texts and proverbs. Figured roundels are recorded, possibly imported, and one case of the importation of an anti-Catholic Kabinetscheibe from Zurich was suggested. In the Laudian period, there is some exiguous and inconclusive evidence for new glazing in two churches.

The study days were a fascinating demonstration overall of the ways in which glass does not merely illustrate history, but is the very fabric of it.

David King


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