The Resurrection of the Dead: Chapter House, Wells Cathedral
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 presents a panel from the tracery of the main body of the Chapter House at Wells Cathedral, showing a shrouded couple emerging from their coffins at the Last Judgment. It has been chosen primarily because the glazing at Wells formed one of the most significant stained-glass projects of the fourteenth century, whilst the glass of a Chapter House, where a cathedral chapter sat and conducted its affairs, represents in many ways the heart of such projects, the space offering an opportunity for the expression of corporate identity. The Wells glass has been the subject of a recent in-depth study that threw much light on the glazing work, making discoveries and suggestions that have helped to bring the somewhat fragmentary glass remains to life. The Last Judgment iconography is also worth attention as one popular throughout the Middle Ages.
The Chapter House and Cathedral Archaeological and documentary evidence indicate the presence of a great church at Wells from as early as the eighth century, but the present cathedral building was begun around 1180. The Chapter House represented the final stage of this extensive construction programme (Fig. 1). It shares its polygonal form with other English secular and monastic chapter houses of the thirteenth century, such as those at Lincoln, Westminster and York. The details of its architecture suggest an awareness of contemporary work in the choir at Exeter Cathedral, and of fashionable London projects, with which the masons who worked at Wells may have been connected. Collectively, it has been said, through the splendour of its architecture and glazing, ‘the Wells Chapter House may be seen as a concrete expression of the Chapter’s success in the thirteenth century’ (Ayers), a success that saw the chapter become one of the largest in the land, and establish Wells, together with Bath Abbey, as the joint seat of the see.
However, completed in the early years of the fourteenth century, the chapter house is by no means the latest building at the site. Just a few years after its completion, a new phase of extensive reconstruction at the east end of the church was initiated in order to provide the cathedral with the greater amounts of space it required to accommodate its increasingly grand processions and liturgical rituals, and, it has been suggested, to provide an appropriately elaborate setting for the anticipated (but ultimately unsuccessful) canonization of Bishop March.
The Production of the Panel
The chapter house glass has been dated fairly closely to the years 1300-05, or shortly after. A donation was made in 1300 by one of the cathedral’s canons specifically towards this end, whilst a reference that money was to be raised from the Wells canons from the spring of 1299 for five years may also have been intended for the completion of the Chapter House. By 1307, work seems to have been completed, as a note refers to recent expenditure in the past tense. These documentary indications are supported by the stylistic evidence.
The figures in the Judgment panel are painted in a style found in various local manifestations, generally common to much of Northern Europe around 1300. At a national level, the glass-painters responsible for the panel worked in a tradition of monumental painting established by works such as the Westminster retable, made for the high altar of Westminster Abbey some time in the last few decades of the thirteenth century (Fig. 2). Indeed, an entry in the Issue Rolls for 1294 may suggest a direct Westminster connection at Wells. It records a payment to ‘the glazier from Wells’ for work relating to the glazing of the king’s chapel at Westminster, a situation perhaps explained by the fact that the king’s treasurer at the time, responsible for making the payment, was William March, then Bishop of Bath and Wells. In terms of relations to other stained glass, the closest surviving parallels are found in works of a later date than the Wells chapter house, at the former collegiate church at Bere Ferrers (Devon), for example, in glass probably given by Sir William Ferrers (d.1336) and his wife (Fig. 3). The similarities perhaps suggest the continued employment of one or more of the Wells glaziers locally.
The shrouded man and woman belong to a series of panels, running through the Chapter House tracery, depicting the Resurrection of a variety of figure types, including lay people, tonsured clerics, a crowned king, a mitred bishop, and a crowned Pope – designed, it seems, to reflect a broad cross-section of society. Indeed, the way in which the male figure in our panel is shown apparently raising the lid of the coffin from which the female emerges may suggest that a married couple, in particular, was intended. Marriage was of course one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic church, through which God’s saving presence is felt by man.
It isn’t clear what subjects accompanied these images of Resurrection in the main lights of the windows below. It has been suggested that they may have largely contained unrelated material: heraldic shields, and figures of canons and saints, all likely set against plentiful white glass to provide good lighting in a space in which much judicial and administrative business was transacted, although the chapter house east window may have contained Christological narrative elements, relating to Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, that anticipated Christ’s second coming. More certainly, within other parts of the tracery itself the Resurrection images seem to have been part of a wider treatment of the Last Judgment. Trumpet-blowing angels, such as that now in the Lady Chapel at Wells (Fig. 4), seem to have originally filled one of the openings above the Resurrection imagery, whilst an image of Christ in Judgment almost certainly provided the climax of the scheme, sitting, perhaps, in the uppermost oculus at the top of the chapter house’s east window.
At Wells, the Last Judgment iconography reflected, and perhaps suggested divine sanction for, the judicial function of the architectural space the glass occupied. The theme, however, with its universal implications, was one popular in stained glass throughout the Middle Ages in ecclesiastical contexts of all kinds. A number of late twelfth-century panels in the nave of York Minster (SXXIII, SXXIV) form the earliest surviving English examples of the subject (Fig. 5). In the thirteenth century, glass depicting the Last Judgement filled the north transept rose window at Lincoln Cathedral, whilst in the following century it was used in the east window of Tewkesbury Abbey (Fig. 6). The perceived fundamental significance of the subject matter in the Middle Ages is suggested by the reiteration of the theme at Wells Cathedral in the tracery of the great east window and its flanking openings, glazed in early 1340s (Fig. 7). The repetition perhaps associated with different audiences for glass in the chapter house, where the private work of the cathedral chapter was performed, and in the more public space of the cathedral church. In the stained glass of the fifteenth century, representations of the Last Judgment more commonly filled the main lights of windows, and became increasingly complex, including imagery of St Michael weighing the souls of the deceased, the saved being ushered by angels towards the gates of heaven to be greeted by St Peter, and the damned being cast down by fearsomely exotic devils into the gaping, flame-filled jaws of Hell (Fig. 8). Many of these later scenes occupied spaces in parochial churches, frequently built or glazed with the financial assistance of lay men and women, made newly wealthy by the flourishing wool and cloth trade and associated urban developments. The subject was perhaps intended as a warning by the parish priest to the materially successful against neglecting their spiritual lives, or a reassurance by the latter that they had not done so.
Bibliography and Further Reading
The key study of the stained glass at Wells is T. Ayers, The Medieval Stained Glass of Wells Cathedral, CVMA (GB), IV, 2 vols (Oxford, 2004). No single study of the iconography of the Last Judgment in medieval stained glass has been undertaken, but it is addressed generally in the iconography section of R. Marks, Stained Glass in England during the Middle Ages (Toronto and Buffalo, 1993).
Our Picture Archive includes more than three hundred images of glass throughout Wells Cathedral. It also features numerous images of the Last Judgment scenes at Lincoln Cathedral, Tewkesbury Abbey, and St Mary, Fairford.
Heather Gilderdale Scott