Stained Glass in Medieval Art
Evidence for medieval glazing schemes traditionally comes from surviving windows, fragmentary remnants, archaeological discoveries and occasional documentary sources.
However, there is also another sometimes overlooked ‘witness’: the testimony of contemporary artists who sometimes depicted stained glass in work such as panel paintings, manuscript miniatures, wall paintings, even tapestries. This month Vidimus introduces twelve examples from an ongoing research project and explores what their ‘evidence’ can tell us about medieval glazing schemes.
Whether crudely impressionistic or extremely detailed, the inclusion of stained glass in other media sheds light on how it was valued, used and seen in churches, domestic interiors and by individuals at the time. While most images are unlikely to be faithful reproductions of exact schemes, some instances point in that direction. By far the largest number of examples found to date were produced by 15th-century artists working in and around the medieval Low Countries (the modern day Netherlands and Belgium) who sought to inject unprecedented levels of naturalism or realism into their work. A preliminary conclusion is that extensive schemes in churches are shown less often than heraldry in domestic settings and that many of the latter examples have a complementary devotional, rather than descriptive or decorative, function. We would be very grateful to Vidimus readers for information about examples other than those illustrated in this article.
Made around 1320–30 by an unknown artist on the south wall of a small Italian church in the village of San Vittore in southern Lazio this painting is part of a larger scheme showing scenes from the Seven Works of Mercy. This scene – Burying the Dead – includes a depiction of the western facade of a church with a circular wheel window in the gable, complete with interesting armatures or tracery [Figs. 1 and 2]
Although we cannot be sure if the window really consisted of red pot metal glass or if the artists chose to illustrate the scene in this way for aesthetic reasons, it is still a rare depiction of in situ 14th-century Italian glazing. Round windows with stained glass were part of the fabric of the great Italian Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino by the 12th century.
This manuscript miniature was painted around c.1410–20 and was inserted into a French Psalter. It shows Dominican nuns at prayer in the choir of a church. The windows behind them have borders of alternating colours. The manuscript belongs to the British Library (Cotton MS Domitian A xvii, f. 177v). [Fig. 3]
Manuscript illuminations, 15th-century panel paintings, even tapestries, sometimes depict windows with ornamental patterns. This example goes much further. It is a panel painting by the celebrated Dutch artist, Jan van Eyck (c.1390–1441) and shows a complete figural stained glass window within the church which provides the setting for The Annunciation. The painting has been dated to c. 1434–36. It may have been made for the Duke of Burgundy’s chapel in the Chartreuse de Champmol, near Dijon. High on the wall at the back of the church, van Eyck has painted a brightly-coloured stained glass window. A close-up of this detail shows Christ standing on a globe holding a sceptre and open book. The window is flanked by wall paintings. The painting is now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington D. C., USA [Figs. 4 and 5]
Most surviving medieval windows in Belgium are large, and Renaissance in style. A panel painting depicting the Presentation in the Temple, made c.1470–1480 presents a different image. It shows the Holy Family standing in the lofty interior of a gothic church with windows filled with stained glass behind them. Although the scenes cannot be identified, the painting is a useful reminder that Flemish churches also had small panel, probably narrative, glazing schemes. The painting can be seen in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, USA. The museum attributes the painting to a Netherlandish artist known only as the ‘The Master of the Prado Adoration of the Magi’. [Fig. 6]
This panel painting of the Annunciation is one of a number of illustrations which show armorial stained glass in domestic interiors. It is included for what it tells us about how such glass was displayed. The heraldry has been identified with a wealthy merchant family based in the modern-day Belgian city of Mechelen, known as the Ymbrechts, Imbrechts or Inghelbrechts. The painting is the central panel of a triptych called the Mérode Altarpiece. It has been attributed to the workshop of Robert Campin, an artist working in the southern Netherlands (modern Belgium), who died in 1444. The painting itself has been dated to 1427–1432 and can be seen in the Cloisters Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. [Fig. 7]
Representations of armorial panels in windows can also be found in many expensive manuscript commissions of the period. Often, however, the small scale of such paintings makes it difficult to identify the heraldry accurately, although the colours and shapes may approximate to those of the person who commissioned the book. A good example can be found in the famous Bedford Hours made for John, Duke of Bedford, on the occasion of his wedding to Anne of Burgundy in 1423. Folio 256b shows the Duke praying before St George. The scene is set in a chapel. ‘Impressionistic’ armorial glass can be seen in the left-hand window. Use the Zoomify technology to see it on the British Library online gallery of sacred texts.
Other examples of armorial glass in manuscript illuminations include the early 15th-century Turin-Milan Hours, c.1440–45 ( attributed to the van Eyck workshop), and the Antiquitates Judaicae et Bellum Judaicum made by the master of the Flemish Boethius c 1460–85, for a member of the nobility.
Strong associations between images of stained glass and donor figures are discernible in the next three images which show how the inclusion of armorial stained glass served to commemorate donors in a devotional sense. This window shows a panel painting that was originally part of a diptych or triptych altar with the central panel perhaps displaying the Virgin and Child. It has been attributed to the well-known Netherlandish painter and manuscript illuminator, Simon Marmion (c.1425–1489), and shows the donor, dressed as a canon, with St Jerome behind him. The donor is looking up from a richly decorated manuscript which itself seems similar to those produced by Marmion’s workshop. Its interest to us, however, lies in the window behind the donor figure which depicts a well-drawn coats of arms, azure a I fess or between 3 cinquefoil or, surmounted by a cardinal’s hat and tassels, a fragment of a motto Placet in a banderole, and the initials JB at lower right. The museum to which the painting belongs has assigned the coat of arms to the French Baradat family. The initial J and the inclusion of St Jerome may be significant, as indeed may be the relationship between the depiction of cardinal’s hat in the window and the choice of St Jerome who was frequently depicted as a Cardinal in late medieval iconography. The painting is discussed by Dr Maryan Ainsworth in Thomas Kren and Scot McKendrick, Illuminating the Renaissance, 2004, pp. 204–205. It can be seen in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, USA. [Fig. 8]
This example also comes from a panel painting that was probably part of a devotional diptych. The armorial in the window to the right of the Virgin Mary has a partly legible motto, Qui….de son divin salvoir vestu and has been identified as the arms of Martin Reyngout, a Bruges apothecary and his first wife Barbe van Rockaringen, who founded the Carmelite convent and church of Sion in the city. Barbe died in 1494, Martin in 1507. The painting is thought to depict the Virgin Mary within the couple’s own home. It may have been given to one of the religious foundations they supported in which case their donation and names would always be remembered in prayer. The painting has been attributed to a Netherlandish artist working in the style of the artist Rogier van der Weyden (1400–1464) and is dated to the final quarter of the 15th century. It is now in the Royal Museum of the Fine Arts of Belgium, in Brussels. [Fig. 9]
This example shows a representation of stained glass within a larger stained glass panel. It comes from the cloister of the Cistercian nunnery of St Apern in Cologne, Germany. Made around 1524–6, it shows St Peter with eight unidentified male donors. Heraldic shields are also visible in the windows behind the kneeling figures. The combination is particularly significant in the context of a monastic cloister where nuns are known to have said intercessory prayers on behalf of donors. According to contemporary documents, such as the Letters of Katerina Lemmel (extensively reviewed in this month’s Books pages), the nuns were especially minded to do so when they could ‘remember’ donors through images such as stained glass armorials. What we may have here is specific ‘double imagery’, the first image showing the donors who gave the glass to the monastery and then, behind them, another reminder of their benefaction via the armorial depictions. As with other Rhenish monasteries dissolved by Napoleon, the glass from St Apern was sold in the early 19th century and much of it exported to England. This displaced panel can now be seen in the church of St Mary the Virgin, Shrewsbury (Shropshire) in England. [Fig. 10]
This image is from a manuscript Book of Hours made for the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500–1558) and shows him kneeling before a prie-deu attended by an angel. It was painted in Brussels or Mechelen around 1547 and is attributed to the Master of Morgan M.606 and assistant. Although only suggestive and difficult to see, the window behind the angel contains stained glass images of a kneeling figure facing a saint – perhaps intended as a further assertion of Charles’ catholic piety. The book is now in the Morgan Library, New York (MS. M. 696). [Fig. 11]
This manuscript illumination shows Thomas à Kempis (c.1380–1471), a well known author and scribe, copying manuscripts in his cell at the monastery of Agnietenberg, (St Agnes’ mount) at Zwolle (modern Netherlands). It was made in Bruges sometime after 1481. It is now in Vienna, at the Österreichische National-Bibliothek (Cod. 1576).
The windows in Thomas’ cell include centrally-placed roundels depicting single figures, probably saints. We do not know if it is a faithful reproduction of his living quarters, or an idealised picture of a religious figure at work. It can be compared to earlier, stylised depictions of scribe saints in manuscripts who are shown working at desks against plain or decorated backgrounds or in apparently unglazed rooms. The image may throw light on the use of stained glass in domestic interiors within monasteries as well as suggesting how painted glass was shown and the subjects chosen for such settings. [Fig. 12]
Although marred by a lead repair, the impressionistic representation of a yellow roundel in an English stained glass panel of the early 16th century at the parish church of St Michael, Cumnor (Berkshire), provides additional evidence of how such panels were displayed in domestic settings and private chapels. The panel is in the lancet window to the left of the figure of a woman in a gable headdress shown kneeling in prayer at a prie-dieu. The concept of a roundel within a roundel may be symbolic. It could be an attempt to depict the kneeling figure (probably a donor) within her own domestic space, possibly along the same lines as the panel painting discussed above as Window 7 which is believed to show the Virgin Mary present within the private parlour of Martin Reyngout and Barbe van Rockaringen’s home in Bruges (see: Rogier van der Weyden 1400–1464: Master of Passions, exhibition catalogue, Leuven 2009, pp. 408–410). [Fig. 13] The Cumnor roundel has a circular border with black-letter inscriptions. Some of the fragments are reversed. Two words are recognisable: ‘q (ui)bus’ (English ‘by/for/to etc. whom/which’) and ‘Alicie’ (reversed) a name probably connected with the donor. For more information about this panel, see: Kerry Ayre. Medieval English Figurative Roundels, CVMA (GB) Summary catalogue 6, 2002, p. 5.
Our final example comes from an oil-on-wood painting made for an early 16th-century altarpiece by the Nuremberg-based artist, Hans von Kulmbach (c.1485–1522). It shows a wing of the altarpiece, St Katherine Disputing with the Philosophers Before the Emperor Maxentius. The arms of the Krakow merchant, Jan Boner, who presumably funded the commission and the dates 1514–15 appear in the painting. It belongs to the church of St Mary, Krakow, Poland.
The painting shows the saint standing in a room with windows behind her. The left light includes a small panel depicting the Virgin and Child within a quatrefoil.
This subject was extremely popular in the circle of the German artist, Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), in whose workshop Kulmach is thought to have served as a journeyman until he was made a citizen of Nuremberg in 1511 and allowed to establish a separate workshop of his own. Apart from his skill as a panel painter, Kulmbach was also a prolific designer of stained glass in Nuremburg in the second decade of the 16th century. It is possible that the quatrefoil shown in the window is a copy of a design known by Kulmach from, or for, an actual window. [Fig. 14]
If readers know of other examples, please contact: features [at] vidimus [dot] org