Panel of grisaille glass: chancel (window nII), Church of Sts Mary and Barlock, Norbury (Derbys.)
Each month, Vidimus showcases 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 comes from the east end of Norbury parish church, and represents one part of an extended series of grisaille glazing that filled the chancel windows there. It has been chosen for display in this month’s issue of Vidimus, not because the church itself was of particular importance in the Middle Ages, nor because it has been the subject of extensive research. Indeed, relatively little is known about the church, its glass or its patrons. The panel is, however, a fine example, from an unusually well-preserved scheme, of a type of early stained glass not yet featured in the Panel of the Month series, which has so far focused on figurative panels: that of grisaille, with its essentially monochrome, purely decorative forms. The panel also provides an opportunity to demonstrate the transformative effect of good restoration work.
The Church and Manor
Norbury Manor is recorded in the Domesday survey as forming part of the large estate of Henry de Ferrers. Henry’s son, Robert, made a gift of the manor to the prior and convent of Tutbury, who, in turn, conveyed it to William Fitzherbert in 1125. Norbury was to remain the seat of the Fitzherberts until the nineteenth century, and the family, prominent landholders in Derbyshire and Staffordshire, was patron of the church at Norbury until the family’s Roman Catholic faith required them to relinquish their position in the mid-sixteenth century. The church retains a number of memorials to members of the Fitzherbert family (Fig. 1)
As with many of England’s parishes, a church has been in existence at Norbury since at least the late eleventh century (it too is recorded in Domesday); but the current structure dates from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (Fig. 2). The chancel, constructed in the Decorated style, to which this month’s panel belongs, was put in the very early 1300s, whilst the Perpendicular tower and nave (with its aisles and chapels), belong to work carried out over the course of the following century.
The Production and History of the Panel
As a form of glazing, grisaille glass in England has received relatively little academic attention. As such, it isn’t yet possible to suggest particular glaziers or workshops that may have been responsible for surviving grisaille, as can be done with some figural stained glass. Extant material demonstrates that this type of glazing was popular from the late twelfth century until the early fourteenth, and identification of the heraldic shields that are set against the grisaille panels in the Norbury chancel (Fig. 3) enable this month’s panel to be dated to the very end of this period, around 1305–1306. The heraldic devices in the glass belong to leading families of the period who had been involved in Edward I’s military campaigns in Scotland and Wales, and include the arms of the Fitzherberts themselves, suggesting that the family wished both to advertise its responsibility for the renewal of the church fabric, and to associate themselves for eternity with leading figures of the realm.
Among examples of medieval grisaille glass surviving in England, Norbury is relatively unusual in one of its details: the different elements of the design are interlaced with one another – most visibly, the red diamond shape along the centre of the panel weaves over and under the decorated V-shapes that converge at the panel’s colourful central boss. Traditionally, English grisaille designs were composed of separate ‘layers’, which overlap and partly obscure those below. Interlacing of the Norbury kind is more usually seen on the Continent, perhaps indicating that the glaziers at Norbury were aware of traits that characterized work across the Channel, whether through direct experience or, more likely, the transmission of designs.
In common with many medieval churches in England, Norbury was not the subject of significant repair or restoration work until the mid-nineteenth century. Work at this time did involve some parts of the church’s stained glass: in the early 1840s, glass from the nave and chapels was used to create an east window for the church, the opening having previously been blocked up. The chancel glass remained essentially undisturbed, but fell into serious disrepair. A comprehensive conservation programme of very recent years, born out of a recognition of the national importance of the material, and of the serious risk that inactivity may result in the permanent loss of the scheme, has restored the glass to something very close to its original splendour (Figs 4 and 5).
Medieval grisaille glazing can be classified under two main types: plain white glass, where the designs are created purely by leading, and, as is found at Norbury, white glass painted with stems and foliage. Into both types were frequently worked coloured elements, such as borders, bosses and straps, which show that even grisaille was not entirely monochrome.
There is debate as to why a patron in the Middle Ages would choose grisaille over other, figural, kinds of stained glass. As white glass is known to have been less expensive than coloured (particularly in England, which seems consistently to have imported, rather than made, the coloured glass glaziers required), it has been suggested that economic factors may have played a part in its use and popularity. However, the variety and complexity of the surviving grisaille designs, may suggest that what was saved in materials cost may have been made up in executing the schemes: the intricacy of the cutting and combining of some of the glass pieces and, more especially, of the painted details suggest that grisaille could be a very labour-intensive option.
Furthermore, grisaille glass played an important role in the decorative schemes of numerous cathedrals and high-status churches – at Westminster Abbey, Lincoln Cathedral and parts of York Minster – and it seems to have dominated the glass scheme at Salisbury (begun in the 1220s). As such, other factors, beyond the purely economic, must also have been important considerations.
Most obviously, in contrast to the densely coloured glazing that preceded it, grisaille allowed church interiors to be flooded with direct light; architectural detail, wall decorations and sculpture all became highly visible, rather than being shrouded in mysterious shadow. That this was appreciated by those who commissioned grisaille is suggested by the shift in much contemporary architecture towards more elaborately worked mouldings, more complex surface decoration, and the creative use of new kinds of materials, such as dark marble, instead of simply stone, columns. On a more theological level, grisaille sat comfortably with the aesthetic views of one of Europe’s major religious orders, the Cistercians, whose founder, St Bernard, railed against the potential of richly coloured, figural art for distracting monks from their religious duties.
Bibliography and Further Reading
The Norbury glazing has not been subject to any major, published study. H. Lambie focused on the chancel at Norbury, addressing both architectural and glass aspects, in her master’s thesis of 1997, ‘The Chancel of Norbury Church, Derbyshire’ (Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London). Research was also carried out in conjunction with the recent restoration of the chancel glazing, which will hopefully find a publishing opportunity in the future. A brief pamphlet, The Church of St Mary & St Barlok, Norbury, Derbyshire (2002), by the Revd A. Hart, is available from the church, and the building features in J. Leonard, Derbyshire Parish Churches, from the eighth to the eighteenth centuries (Derby, 1993). As ever, R. Marks, Stained Glass in England During the Middle Ages (Toronto/Buffalo, 1993) remains the best work for contextualising this month’s panel.
The CVMA (GB) Picture Archive includes more than one hundred images and illustrations of the medieval stained glass at Norbury, including nineteenth century drawings, images of the chancel glass taken before and after restoration, and images of other, later, glass at the church. The archive can also be searched for examples of grisaille glass from throughout the country using the Form section of the Search Form.
Heather Gilderdale Scott