Spin Doctoring in Fifteenth-century Stained Glass
CVMA (GB) author David King has contributed a fascinating article on political propaganda in stained glass to a new collection of essays on fifteenth-century English history published by the Boydell Press. Looking at case examples from late-medieval Norfolk, David argues that while the primary purpose of stained glass windows was always to provide appropriate religious imagery for their liturgical or devotional context, some schemes contained an additional layer of meaning, promoting the political interests of those involved. This might include symbols of factional loyalty, reconciliation, and virulent enmity. Over time these extra aspects have been largely forgotten, but the study of individual schemes and in particularly the choice of subject and unusual iconography can throw new light on the use of stained glass for political propaganda.
Two of the most interesting discoveries narrated by David concern windows in St Peter Mancroft, the most prominent parish church in medieval Norwich. The first window constituted part of the glazing of north chancel chapel. Given by Robert Toppes, mayor, MP and the wealthiest merchant of the city in 1453, its main lights depicted a two-part Marian cycle, the first part showing incidents from the Infancy of Christ, the second the Death, Funeral and Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The propaganda elements appear in the Funeral panels. The window follows the same story as told in Jacob de Voragine’s Legenda Sanctorum or Golden Legend, an anthology of saints’ lives compiled around 1265 and widely circulated thereafter. According to de Voragine’s account, when the Apostles were carrying the funeral bier of the Virgin Mary, the cortege was attacked by an angry Jew, ‘a prince of priests’ who attempted to disrupt the event. But as he tried to push the coffin over, his hands were miraculously stuck to it. In desperation he pleaded to St Peter for mercy, but while his hands were released they were withered. Only by converting to Christ was he saved.
At first glance there is little to distinguish the St Peter Mancroft window from other depictions of this scene found elsewhere – except for the costume and heraldry worn by the Jew. He is dressed in full armour with a fifteenth-century style surcoat, a tight fitting tunic, sleeveless and ending at mid-thigh, which, in turn, is enriched with three leopards’ heads in yellow. For many in Norwich the symbolism would have been obvious. Just as in the story of the Funeral of the Virgin, the Jew who began as a villain was eventually converted and reconciled to Christ, the first panel of the sequence would have reminded viewers of clashes in the 1440s between civic leaders like Toppes and William de la Pole, the powerful Duke of Suffolk, who had died just three years earlier. Not only had the Duke’s coat of arms also included leopards’ faces, the final panel in the funeral sequence showed the Jew holding the same palm from heaven as was carried by St John during the funeral procession, signifying reconciliation and forgiveness for past offences, possibly an important gesture, as Henry VI and his wife Margaret had visited the city earlier in the year and de la Pole had been a great favourite of the queen’s.
Another example from the same church survives from the same north chancel chapel (dedicated to St John the Baptist). Probably made in the 1480s the window depicted scenes from the life of St John the Evangelist, including his legendary exile to the island of Patmos, where he is supposed to have written his Book of Revelations. The political significance of the windows lies in the depiction of one of his jailors. Instead of the usual ugly roughneck type, he is shown as a richly dressed mean with a pig’s head. Although this may be an artistic device to depict the awfulness of the person, it is equally possible that it represents an allusion to Richard III whose badge was a boar. This interpretation is given support by the colours of the figure’s tunic, which match those of the Yorkist king’s livery colours. Contemporary propaganda elsewhere attacked the king as a ‘hog’. When Henry VII, who had seized the crown after Richard had been killed at the Battle of Bosworth in1485, visited Norwich the following year, he was accompanied by John de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, a virulent opponent of the former king. It is possible that the earl, who was an influential figure in East Anglia, may have been the inspiration for this anti-Ricardian piece of propaganda in a window devoted to his name saint.
David’s essay also includes examples from churches at Salle and East Harling and is an important contribution to wider debates about symbols and signs in medieval art and their sometimes multi-functional meaning. Certainly an ability to understand historical contexts such as patronage and the dates when windows were made can help to reveal extra layers of meaning beyond the obvious, especially to modern viewers unfamiliar with the politics of the period.
Apart from David King’s contribution, the same book also includes other essays of interest to stained-glass enthusiasts and medievalists in general. These include a chapter by Prof. Carole Rawcliffe on ‘The Guild Almshouses of Later Medieval England’, institutions created by wealthy merchants and guilds for the care of ‘poorer persons’, some of which had glazed chapels. Perhaps the dedications of these guilds may provide clues as to some of the subjects depicted in the window glass. From this possibility alone we can speculate that these could have included images of The Holy Trinity; the Nine Orders of Angels; St John the Baptist; St Anthony; and St Martin.
The Fifteenth Century, Volume VIII: Rule, Redemption, and Representations in Late Medieval England and France, ed. Linda Clark, published by The Boydell Press, 2008. For more information, visit the publisher’s website.
For more information about the glazing of St Peter Mancroft, see David King’s indispensable CVMA (GB) volume The Medieval Stained Glass of St Peter Mancroft, Norwich, CVMA Great Britain, V, Oxford, 2006. For more information the Oxford University Press website.
Flanders in the Round
In February 1412, five stolen consecrated hosts were recovered, untouched and in perfect condition, from a rabbit warren in Poederlee, near Antwerp. That they had not been eaten was seen as nothing less than miraculous, and sand from the burrow was subsequently thought to have healing powers for ailments such as headaches, toothaches, fever and neuralgia. Some rabbits were even said to have been born with white crosses on their foreheads. A depiction of this charming story survives on a rare early seventeenth-century painted glass panel dated 1614, now in the Begijnhofmuseum in Herentals (Belgium) and serves as a vivid reminder of the importance of roundels and unipartite panels in the Low Countries (modern-day Belgium and the Netherlands) between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries.
Roundels and unipartite panels were produced in enormous quantities by glass-painting workshops in the Low Countries. Nearly all were inspired by drawings or engravings created by famous artists such as Jacob Cornelisz, Lucas van Leyden, Jan Gossaert, Dirick Vellert, Jan Swart and Lambert van Noort. Early examples often combined extremely delicate glass-painting techniques with the clever use of silver stain, but by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries fashions had changed and the use of coloured enamel paints had become widespread.
The range of subjects depicted also changed over time. Initially, they seem to have been confined to religious stories, mythological and allegorical legends, and a few secular themes, such as seasons and months, together with heraldic displays. But by the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, iconographical tastes like fashion had also changed, and the range of subjects became more secular, with a greater emphasis on heraldry, inscriptions and folklore type imagery. These changes in subject and technique are comprehensively charted in the lavishly illustrated English text only Silver Stained and Unipartite Panels before the French Revolution. Flanders, Vol. I: The Province of Antwerp. This volume, the first in a series, is the first major study of roundels since Timothy Husband’s catalogue of examples in the United States of America and William Coles’s catalogue of panels in Great Britain published by the CVMA (GB) in 1993. This book has the advantage of focusing on collections (past and present) in Antwerp itself, historically one of the key centres of roundel production before its economic decline in the mid-1500s following disastrous wars and religious disputes.
The book begins by examining the market for roundels and explains how they were often used as gifts between upper-class people and as donations by the wealthy to religious orders and establishments. With the use of contemporary paintings of household interiors, it shows how the panels were frequently displayed in the upper rooms of the wealthy, where the painter’s skill could be admired at close quarters and the moralizing messages they represented digested and reflected upon. The authors also discuss the use of roundels in religious settings, explaining that while common in domestic settings, such as an abbot’s private quarters or chapel, they were rarely employed to fill large window schemes. An important exception to this rule seems to have been a sixteenth-century choir window in the church of Saint Genevieve at Steenhuffel (Flemish Brabant), where roundels were integrated into the composition as part of the initial design. An in-depth study of this particular scheme will appear in a later volume.
The volume begins with an extended chapter on the purchase of roundels and their export to Great Britain after the French Revolution. ‘From flourishing trade to clearance sale’ draws on early nineteenth-century auction records and other primary documents to show the size of this trade and, in some, cases, prove the original locations of some of the roundels now in British public and private collections. A list of where some of these collections can be seen at the foot of this article. The book has nearly 1000 illustrations spread over 436 pages, including 470 in colour. In common with other studies of stained glass, references are often made to comparative examples of the panel under discussion, and this volume is notable for the inclusion of every comparative panel mentioned, a very helpful resource for anyone interested in seeing how a same design was interpreted by different artists to produce individual versions. Other highlights of the book include a catalogue of heraldic and inscribed panels, the latter often overlooked in conventional accounts of roundels and unipartite panels. The next volume in the series will focus on roundels and unipartite panels in East and West Flanders, including the cities of Ghent and Bruges. Volumes on the other provinces of Flanders and on the present Netherlands are also foreseen.
Joost Caen and C. J. Berserik, Silver Stained Roundels and Unipartite Panels Before the French Revolution, Vol. 1: The Province of Antwerp, Brepols. XX + 436 pages, 510 b&w ills, 470 colour ills, 230 x 315mm, hardback, price €95. Available via Amazon.
J. M. A. Caen is a member of the Flemish Corpus Vitrearum and Professor at the Artesis University College of Antwerp (Antwerp University Association). C. J. Berserik is a member of the Dutch Corpus Vitrearum and an art historian.
Where to See Roundels in Great Britain
Small collections can be found in many churches and stately homes. Good examples can be seen in churches at Addington (Bucks); Berwick-upon-Tweed (Northumberland); Bradford-upon-Avon (Avon); Bramley (Hants.); Bristol, St Marks (Lord Mayor’s Chapel); Llanwarne (Hereford & Worcs.); Malpas (Cheshire); Nowton (Suffolk); Preston-on-Stour (Warks); and Shrewsbury St Mary (Shrops.). If you cannot visit these sites in person the CVMA (GB) Picture Archive contains a wealth of examples to explore.
There are also permanent exhibition of roundels in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; the Louvre, Paris; the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (currently closed); and the Royal Museum for History and Art, Brussels.