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The January issue of Vidimus has a double features section, with a fascinating article by Dr Marie-Pierre Gelin on stained-glass images of St Thomas Becket in France, and the third installment of our four-part celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the York Glaziers Trust.
In the first half of the thirteenth century, stained-glass windows narrating the life of St Thomas Becket were created for four French cathedrals: Sens, Chartres, Angers and Coutances, as part of extensive programmes of rebuilding and redecoration of these churches. Although these windows all concentrate on the violent opposition between Becket and King Henry II and on the dramatic events of the martyrdom of the archbishop, their different sizes, structures and scopes reflect distinct approaches to the events of St Thomas’s life and death.
That Thomas Becket should have been chosen to feature in iconographic programmes in locations as diverse as Normandy, Anjou or Burgundy, should not surprise us. Although canonized a few years before, in 1173, the martyred Archbishop of Canterbury had seen his cult rapidly become very popular in Western Christendom, his tomb in Canterbury attracting scores of pilgrims. In July 1220, his relics were solemnly translated into a sumptuous shrine in the lavishly rebuilt eastern end of Canterbury Cathedral, an event attended by ecclesiastical and lay magnates from all over Europe, as well as by an impressive crowd. At the request of Archbishop Stephen Langton (1207–1228), who had organized the ceremonies, the pope had furthermore agreed to grant generous indulgences to those visiting Canterbury on this occasion, no doubt heightening the fame of the saint.
While the iconography of St Thomas had from the early 1170s been rather profuse in many media, narrative accounts of his life and death have not survived in large numbers; in particular, the windows that depicted the life of St Thomas in Canterbury Cathedral have disappeared. The story of the quarrel between Henry II and his archbishop – about the relations between Church and king – afforded the opportunity to comment on, and take a stand about, recent, almost contemporary political events. An examination of the scenes selected for these windows and of the way they are organized can help understand how the cult of St Thomas spread in France at the height of the popularity of the martyr. Beyond, or in addition to, questions of patronage, the differences between the four windows suggest that the cult of St Thomas itself was substantially different in these locations.
Numerous historical and personal links with the Archbishop of Canterbury can account for the choice of his life to adorn windows in prominent locations in the choirs of Sens and Chartres cathedrals. Stylistic similarities between the two windows indicate furthermore that they were created relatively close to each other (c.1210 for the Sens window, perhaps as early as 1210–20 for Chartres), and maybe by artists who had worked at both locations. The archbishopric of Sens had been the refuge of Thomas Becket for most of his exile in France, and Archbishop William (1168–76) had been an extremely vocal advocate of the cause defended by Becket. A close associate and intimate of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Herbert of Bosham, who was to write a biography of St Thomas, remained at Sens until 1184. The Sens chapter could besides boast it possessed precious relics of the martyr, in the form of liturgical vestments used by St Thomas during his exile in the diocese. In 1176, another close friend of Thomas Becket, John of Salisbury, was elected Bishop of Chartres. He brought with him some of the blood of the martyr, collected after the murder and soon responsible for some miracles in and around Chartres. A prolific and gifted writer, John also wrote a life of the archbishop, which formed the basis of some liturgical texts used on the feast day of the saint.
In both these locations, the windows offer extremely specific representations of the people, places and events in the life of Becket, to the extent that it has been possible to propose relatively secure identifications for most of the events depicted. By referring to very specific times and places, such as a meeting between Becket, Pope Alexander III and King Louis VII in 1165 (Fig. 1), or the sermon Becket preached in Canterbury Cathedral on 2 December 1170 (Fig. 2), the designers of the windows anchored the narrative in an identifiable historical past. These narratives have often been seen as commentaries on the handling of the crisis by King Henry II, and have been seen as clearly pointing out the heroes and traitors of the story. The conciliatory attitude of the French king, repeatedly presented as a mediator between the different parties involved in the quarrel (Fig. 3) is thus contrasted with the uncompromising stance of both Henry II and his son, the young king (Fig. 4). Such criticisms of the English king were hardly surprising in areas that had long been under the authority of the King of France.
The descriptive approach adopted in the Sens and Chartres windows give, in many ways, a historically accurate picture of the crisis. Although it has not been possible to identify any single textual (hagiographical, literary or liturgical) source for the glass narratives, the level of detail exhibited by these representations seems to indicate a greater reliance on written sources. The close links between these two churches and Thomas Becket make the availability of such sources quite likely. These narratives do, however, rely to a large extent on viewers’ having a previous knowledge of the story of the archbishop. The lack of inscriptions in the Chartres panels, the complexity of the compositions, as well as the repetition of relatively similar scenes (such as meetings between a king and a bishop) that are not always clearly identifiable, mean that the internal logic of the narrative is sometimes not sufficient to follow the progression of the story.
In striking contrast, the designers of the Angers and Coutances windows chose considerably simpler layouts; as a result, the stories they tell appear more linear and straightforward. Neither church had any direct link with the martyr, nor did they possess a relic of the saint. Although Thomas Becket’s family was originally from Normandy, neither the archbishop nor anybody from his entourage had ever visited Coutances or Angers, both of which, at the time of his exile in France, were still under the rule of the King of England, and therefore out of bounds for them. By the time the windows were created, however, both regions had come under French rule, in 1204 and 1214 respectively. In view of this recent change, it was maybe inevitable that the question of the political allegiance of the bishops of Coutances and Angers should have come under particular scrutiny. Although losses and restorations have made the Angers window difficult to read, unusual scenes open up the possibility that the patron, Bishop William of Beaumont (1203–1240), whose arms are displayed in the border of the window, tried to represent his complex set of family and political allegiances. The scene in panel 4, now convincingly identified as the young king refusing to meet Thomas Becket (Fig. 5), seems to point, as in the Chartres window, towards a criticism of the attitude of the English monarchs during the crisis. Yet, two panels (out of an original eight) show the journey of the four knights from the court of Henry II in Normandy to Canterbury in December 1170 (Fig. 6). This attention devoted to the murderers may have been for the bishop an opportunity to underline discreetly his continuing allegiance to England, and in particular his links with the knights, and beyond them, the English ruling family. This allegiance is however carefully hidden within what is apparently a straightforward hagiographical narrative, and the reversal of roles between heroes and traitors would have been apparent only to those intimately connected with the bishop, and maybe even only to him.
The structures of the Angers and Coutances windows, however, did not allow for the same degree of complex political exposition and explanation as those of Sens and Chartres. Located in the upper walls of the churches, they had to adopt simpler structures: Angers originally had eight panels and Coutances only six. Contrary to Chartres and Sens – where the universal import of Becket’s tale is mitigated by precise temporal, geographical and personal identifications – the narratives of the Coutances and Angers windows present an image of the archbishop much more detached from its specific context, much less historical and at a greater distance from their subject; they are already subscribing in large part to the more hagiographical, legendary aspects of the story of St Thomas. The slightly later Angevin and Norman windows (created in the 1230s and 1240s) strike the viewer as being less specific, more formulaic, and more reliant on generic hagiographic topoi (commonplaces) leading to sanctity – the quarrel, the persecution, the martyrdom. The absence of any close direct link with the martyr may account for it, as the details of the quarrel may not have been known as well as in Chartres and Sens. As the crisis seems to fade into the background, what remains is the universality of the tale of an archbishop who gave up his life for his faith and his Church.
Whereas the English cult, centred on the shrine at Canterbury, focused first and foremost on the miracle-working and healing powers of the saint, episcopal and ecclesiastical patrons outside England chose to foreground the quarrel with the king and the martyrdom of the archbishop for the defence of the Church. If issues of political allegiance could thus be expressed, what looks like the gradual simplification of the story of the archbishop and its reduction to its most notable episodes allowed the designers to bring out the similarities between Becket’s story and that of other saints, whose lives were depicted around it.
The success of the cult rested in part on the remarkable compression of events into a brief series of symbolic vignettes and the transformation of historical figures into easily recognizable hagiographical archetypes (‘heroes and traitors’), as can also be seen in other representations of the life of St Thomas. Stripped of its historical particulars and of political partisanship, the story could truly be presented as a universal tale of the triumph of the Church over its secular enemies.
Dr Marie-Pierre Gelin
Honorary Research Fellow, University College London
. Anne Duggan, ‘The Cult of Thomas Becket in the Thirteenth Century’, in M. Jancey (ed.), Saint Thomas Cantilupe, Bishop of Hereford: Essays in his Honour, Hereford, 1982, pp. 21–44.
. As recorded for instance in the account of the Translatio beati Thome martyris appended to the Quadrilogus, a collection of lives of St Thomas (J. C. Robertson (ed.), Materials for the History of Thomas Becket, IV, Rolls Series 67, London, 1879, pp. 426–30).
. The history of the Canterbury Jubilee and the indulgences attached to it has been studied in detail by R. Foreville, Le Jubilé de saint Thomas Becket du XIIIe au XVe siècle (1220-1470), Paris, 1958.
. Madeline Harrison Caviness, The Early Stained Glass of Canterbury Cathedral, c. 1175 –1220, Princeton, 1977, pp. 84–85.
. Anne Duggan, ‘The price of loyalty: the fate of Thomas Becket’s learned household’, in Thomas Becket: Friends, Networks, Texts and Cults, Aldershot, 2007, pp. 11–12.
. An alb, stole, maniple, amict and a chasuble, recently restored and still visible today in the Sens cathedral museum.
. Raymonde Foreville, « Les origines normandes de la famille Becket et le culte de saint Thomas en Normandie », Mélanges Pierre Andrieu-Guitrancourt, L’Année canonique XVII, Paris, 1973, pp. 433–78.
. Karine Boulanger, ‘Les vitraux du choeur de la cathédrale d’Angers (XIIIe siècle)’, PhD thesis, Université Paris IV-Sorbonne (France), 2000.
. Alyce A. Jordan, ‘The St Thomas Becket Window in the Saint-Maurice Cathedral, Angers’, M.A. thesis, Syracuse University (USA), 1987.
. In the south choir gallery at Angers (this church, however, does not have lower windows), and in the north wall of the transept at Coutances.
. At Sens, the parallels with the life of St Eustace are brought out quite clearly, in particular the scene of the exile.
In our third instalment of the history of the York Glaziers Trust we take an in-depth look at the Trust’s most important recently completed project – the conservation of the famous St William Window in the north choir aisle. From trial to completion the conservation process took ten years and cost around £500,000, much of which was generously donated by the seventy-seven masonic lodges of North Yorkshire and East Riding.
In terms of size, composition, draughtsmanship and glass cutting, the St William Window has rightly been called one of the greatest masterpieces of the fifteenth century. Its conservation was similarly large scale – the longest and most demanding project undertaken to date by the Trust.
Standing 78ft (23.77m) high the window consists of 95 panels chronicling the life and posthumous miracles of the city’s patron saint together with five panels in the bottom row commemorating its donor, Beatrice, the Dowager Lady Ros, and members of her family.
Researching William’s life was a pivotal part of the conservation project. Centuries of damage, including panels being taken out for repair and subsequently being reinstated in the wrong order, had severely disrupted the original narrative depicted in the glass. Before the window could be conserved it had to be properly understood. Research by Professor Christopher Norton of York University revealed the original sequencing and arrangement of the window. Professor Norton has since written a full-length study of the saint’s life (see Further Reading below).
Born between 1090 and 1100, William was the son of Herbert the Chamberlain, a senior official in the royal treasury at Winchester. Helped by family connections – he was a cousin of Stephen I (reigned 1135–54) – William eventually became Treasurer of the Minster. In 1141, his career peaked when he was elected archbishop, but any sense of jubilation was short lived, as his appointment ran into fierce opposition from the Yorkshire Cistercians. St Bernard of Clairvaux even carried their complaints of corruption to the papal Curia, alleging that William was ‘rotten from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head’.
As a result, although consecrated, William never received his pallium of office and was formally deposed by Pope Eugenius III in 1147. But after the deaths in quick succession in 1153 of Pope Eugenius, St Bernard, and Henry Murdac, William’s usurper at the Minster, William returned to Rome seeking his reinstatement as archbishop. Successful in his quest, a year later William entered York in triumph where he was met by a crowd whose collective weight caused the bridge across the river Ouse to collapse. Miraculously there were no fatalities. A week later, however, William fell ill and died. Many suspected the Archdeacon of the Minster of poisoning their hero.
Following reports of miracles at his tomb, William was canonized in 1227, and in 1284 his relics were translated to a shrine built behind the high altar. His cult received a further boost in the early fifteenth century, when supporters of Henry IV promoted his holiness in contrast to miracles said to have occurred at the tomb of Archbishop Scrope, executed in 1405 for rebellion against the crown. Although never as cherished as other English saints, such as the royal martyr St Edmund and the martyred archbishop St Thomas Becket, William’s image occasionally appeared elsewhere both in wall-paintings and in stained glass. A vidimus for a window commissioned by Cardinal Wolsey (c.1473–1530) included an image of the saint.
The York Minster window was made around 1414/1415. On stylistic grounds it has been assigned to the workshop of John Thornton of Coventry, the same master glass-painter who made the Great East Window in the Minster between 1405–1408.
A Glazing History
Apart from Professor Norton’s efforts, the Trust also compiled a detailed biography of the window itself, concentrating on previous repairs and modifications. Records from the sixteenth and seventeenth century were imprecise, but an account written in 1690 suggested that changes to at least the bottom four rows had occurred as early as 1625, when a large monument commemorating the Bellasis family was inserted below the window. The next account in 1730 by a local antiquary, Thomas Gent, was far briefer, but even so by the time the next description was written, in 1859, it is clear that further changes to the order of the panels had occurred, perhaps after panels were taken out for cleaning and repair following a fire in the choir in 1829.
In 1895, all of the glass was removed by J. W. Knowles (1838–1931), a local glass-painter and pioneering photographer, and reinstated according to a scholarly plan drawn up by James Fowler, a nineteenth-century local historian, who had published a possible reconstruction of the original iconographical sequencing of the window in 1874 using photographs taken the previous year. Fortunately, Knowles also took photographs of the windows and wrote detailed matching descriptions of the panels as he worked. Another of his innovations was to commission watercolour drawings of the panels.
In 1940, the window was removed for safe storage during the war. Further alterations were made when it was reinstated in 1955. Minor repairs were carried out in 1967 and 1971, and two panels were damaged by scaffolding in 1995.
The Condition of the Windows
When the window was removed for conservation in 1997, the Trust discovered major problems with the lead-work: poor materials and craftsmanship combined with natural deterioration had produced buckling, failure of solder joints, cracks in the glass and the protrusion of glass edges from the lead. Corrosion was also widespread, mainly in the form of craters and micro-pitting. The glass of some panels was also desperately thin and paint had suffered. Crude lead repairs had also criss-crossed the panels with heavy lines and made them virtually illegible. As part of the conservation process conservators and glaziers inspected every panel of the glass under microscopes.
From the outset, the Trust adopted a new approach to the conservation of the window. The Dean and Chapter formed a specialist advisory panel to supervise the work combining clergy, architects, scientists, art historians, and glaziers from the Trust. A list of members is given below. The St William Window Advisory Group (SWWAG) met on forty occasions over ten years. It agreed principles for conservation, commissioned research, examined evidence, studied individual panels, examined different options, and paused for reflection and further thought.
As a result important changes were made to the ordering of the panels, and conservation guidelines were adopted that transformed the appearance of the window, returning it to something like its original splendour. Each panel was cleaned with soft brushes and the heavy lead repairs removed. After extensive consultation, cracks were repaired with epoxy resins or silicone, and the types of circumstances identified where the use of new painted glass might be justified: to match a missing area; to replace stippled or unpainted insertions; and finally to replace patch glass re-used from other windows, where it was found to be ill-fitting or inappropriate once the original glass was repaired and correctly positioned.
New painting itself was also based on a clear set of principles. Where evidence existed within a panel, such as broken pieces of drapery or backdrops, the new insertions continued the design. Where no firm evidence existed and it was necessary to replace an area, the colour of the new glass was chosen to match that of the old with pigments toned down to make them recede visually. Exceptions to these rules included replacing missing heads, which previous restorers had filled with either stippled glass or alien fragments, both of which detracted from the medieval narrative. In these rare instances, replacements were painted using existing heads within the window as models.
Every change was fully documented and photographed. Every new piece of painted glass was individually signed and dated. In addition to the conservation of the window, new protective isothermal glazing was fitted behind the glass to protect it from weathering and to prevent build-ups of condensation on the stained glass surfaces. The results of these efforts have proved stunning. When the window was unveiled in 2007 the Dean of the Minster, Keith Jones, rightly described it as marking an ‘epoch in the art of conservation’.
Members of the St William Window Advisory Group were Canon Glyn Webster (representing the Dean and Chapter); Andrew Arrol (Surveyor to the Fabric of York Minster); Sarah Brown; Professor Richard Marks; and Professor Christopher Norton. Others who served before their deaths or retirement were CVMA author Tom French; Canon John Toy; and Richard Carr-Archer, Andrew Arrol’s predecessor as Surveyor to the Fabric of the Minster. Following on from Penny Winton, the senior conservators who led the glazing teams were Lucy Rutherford and Nick Teed.
Thanks to Amanda Daw, Peter Gibson, Louise Hampson, and Nick Teed. Photographs are reproduced with the permission of the Dean and Chapter of York Minster.
James Fowler, ‘On a window representing the Life and Miracles of S. William of York, at the north end of the eastern transept, York Minster’, Yorkshire Archaeological and Topographical Journal, xi–xii (1874), pp. 198–348
Tom French, York Minster, The St William Window, CVMA (GB), Summary Catalogue 5, Oxford, 1999
Tom French, ‘The Glazing of the St. William Window in York Minster’, The Journal of the British Archaeological Association, cxl (1987)
J. A. Knowles, ‘Additional Notes on the Saint William Window in York Minster’, Proceedings of the York Architectural and Archaeological Society, i/2 (1934), pp. 5–55
Christopher Norton, St William of York, Rochester/New York, 2006
The CVMA (GB) Picture Archive contains hundreds of images from York Minster.
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