The Scourging of St Katherine in the Chapter House of York Minster (6c CH nIV)
Description of the panel
In the middle of the scene, St Katherine stands with her hands tied to a green pillar or stake which bisects the panel from top to bottom. She is wearing a red robe, and may perhaps be shown stripped to the waist. On either side of her stands a male figure brandishing a whip. One has a short beard and wears a delicately painted ochre tunic, while the other has yellow shoes and the head of a cleric (this is a later insertion). Like all the scenes in the window, it is surrounded by a cusped medallion frame of ruby and white glass and has been heavily re-leaded. It is almost certainly in its original position, however, where it was recorded by the antiquarian James Torre in the early 1690s and the Minster glazier, John W. Knowles, in the late 19th century. Torre’s description of the panel suggests that its composition also remains largely unaltered:
‘a man habited or with a white whip in his hand, scourging a woman tyed to a green pillar habited argent and murry. By him stands another man habited argent, legs sanguine’.
Our panel, which dates from the last quarter of the thirteenth century, is one of twenty narrative scenes contained in the north-west window of the Chapter House of York Minster [fig. 2]. Arranged in four rows across five lights, and alternating with bands of grisaille, they tell the story of one of medieval England’s most popular saints: Katherine of Alexandria. Our panel (CH nIV 6c) appears in the centre of the second row from the top of the window, immediately below the iconic image of the saint being miraculously rescued from the ‘Katherine Wheel’ [fig. 3].
The Scourging of St Katherine and the Iconography of Debate
St Katherine was one of the most popular saints in late medieval England. Throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries she proved particularly appealing to lay communities, as the large number of lives, sermons, manuscript illuminations, wall-paintings and windows from this period attest. The majority of recent scholarship has focussed on her reception amongst these groups, and particularly on her relevance for educated women. CH nIV, however, participates in rather different discourses. The primary audience for this version of Katherine’s life and martyrdom would have been the Dean and Chapter of the Minster, whose meetings the elaborately decorated, polygonal Chapter-House was built to hold. This audience – selective, largely clerical, and almost exclusively male – has meant that the window tends to be mentioned briefly, if at all, in surveys of Katherine’s cult.
It should not come as a surprise, however, to find a window depicting Katherine in a space that was designed as a statement of clerical power, for there was a long tradition of clerical responses to the saint. In England, where her cult arrived in the mid-eleventh century, it was initially confined to ecclesiastical communities, only later attracting the patronage of laypeople. Moreover, the appeal of Katherine, patron saint of scholars, to educated clerical communities is readily apparent: she was not only a royal saint, appealing to the high social status of many canons at York, but she also provided a model for the use of learning and scholarly debate in the service of God. As John Capgrave was to observe some 200 years after CH nIV was put in place: ‘Because thou were so lerned and swech a clerk/ Clerkes must love thee- resoun forsooth it is’.
The way that Katherine’s narrative is told in CH nIV, however, suggests that the saint’s relevance to the chapter-house was more than emblematic. Katherine’s life is by-and-large structured around a series of confrontations, discussions and debates. The young woman confronts the pagan emperor Maxentius, whose arguments fail to persuade her to renounce Christianity. In his cells she is visited by Christ, who, in a neat inversion of her previous encounter, reinforces her faith and promises to help her in forthcoming debates. She then out-argues fifty of the Emperor’s philosophers, persuading them to convert to Christianity and accept martyrdom, as well as Maxentius’ wife and favourite knight, before she herself is martyred and ascends to heaven.
Different accounts of Katherine’s story present these debates in a variety of different ways, depending on their target audience. They could be presented simply, with the saint as a vehicle for straightforward pronouncements of doctrine. They could also be a framing device for elaborate arguments about the tenets of the Christian faith, setting out complex theological debates in some detail. These kinds of variations can be seen in the Minster itself. The famous ‘Heraldic Window’ found in the north aisle of the nave tells the story of St Katherine more briefly than CN nIV, setting out her narrative in six scenes. Here, Maxentius is shown with a small green demon perching on his shoulder, signifying the basic theological import of his arguments with Katherine [fig. 4]. The saint is a conduit for God’s truth, while the pagan Emperor is simply the mouthpiece of a devil. In CH nIV, however, it is a figure, identified by his close fitting coif as a member of the academic or legal sphere, who is consistently present behind the throne, as if whispering in Maxentius’ ear [for example in fig. 5]. Argument is not figured as a straightforward debate between the mouthpiece of a demon and the saint as a mouthpiece for God, but as a conflict between the corrupt council of Maxentius’s court and the divinely inspired reasoning of Katherine.
This interest in debate is expanded across the window. Argument can be difficult to depict visually: the long passages of theological debate found in the scholarly versions of Katherine’s life are not easy to represent in the medium of stained glass. But CH nIV demonstrates an interesting visual iconography of debate, of which our panel, the scourging scene, forms a key part. Many of the scenes in the lower parts of the window, which show Katherine’s interaction with Maxentius and his subjects, show two figures or sets of figures facing one another, the saint consistently on the right [as in fig. 5]. As Katherine conducts her debates and confrontations, the bodies of the figures create a frame around the central space of the scene, across which their gesturing arms reach out and their interactions take place. These internal frames echo the outer frames of the medallions which contain the scenes themselves, linking their oppositional composition to the structure of the window as a whole. In all these panels, the thematic action of the narrative takes place in the doubly framed central space between the saint and her opponents, where the ideas that enrage Maxentius and convert the philosophers are exchanged.
Located in the central light of the window, the scourging scene marks a turning point in CH nIV’s depiction of Katherine’s interactions with her opponents. This panel marks the point where Maxentius, who up to this point has attempted to use words to dissuade Katherine from her faith, loses his patience and resorts to physical violence. When Maxentius abandons argument and attempts to inflict his power on the saint by scourging, he not only strengthens her resistance, but also disrupts the oppositional composition of the earlier scenes. Tied to the stake, Katherine is placed in the centre of the medallion, which in turn occupies the central light of the window. The torturers, placed on either side of her, echo the oppositional composition of the earlier sections of the window, while the pillar, anchoring the saint firmly in the centre of the panel and echoing the vertical mullions of the window itself, emphasises that Katherine, through her faith, has won her argument: she now occupies the central space of the scene, while Maxentius’ ineffective attempts to conquer that space through are relegated to its edges. Between the two figures of the torturers, the white glass of Katherine’s upper body forms a striking central focus, despite the fact that the violence inflicted on her naked flesh is much less graphic than in some representations of the torture of virgin martyrs. The green pillar to which she is tied emphasises the centrality of her position: overlapped by her bound hands, it cuts through the centre of the panel, connecting the figure of the saint to the outer medallion that frames the scene, and emphasising the relationship between her conquest of the central space of the panel with the vertical movement of the window towards her martyrdom and ascension to heaven.
The saint’s conquest of this space through her willingness to suffer for her faith is contrasted firmly with the final panel of the row, in which Maxentius sets out for the furthest reaches of his kingdom, with the intention of imposing his power on geographical rather than spiritual space. He rides to the right, facing away from the centre of the medallion and away from the centre of the window itself [fig.6].
The choice of St Katherine for a window in the chapter-house at York may be a reflection of the personal interests of members of the community: a chantry to the saint was established by Gilbert de Sarum, sub-dean, in 1285, while the ‘Heraldic Window’ in the nave was donated by another canon, Peter de Dene. It may also reference the broader devotional life of the cathedral: as David O’Connor and Jeremy Haselock have observed, the subjects of the chapter-house windows can be seen as an overview of worship in the late 13th-century Minster, ranging from the central devotional figures of Christ and the Virgin, to those more specific to the Cathedral itself, such as its patron saint Peter and St William, former archbishop and local saint. Nevertheless, a close study of the way that one of the windows communicates its version of the hugely popular Katherine narrative shows how closely the stained glass interacts with its location within the Chapter-House and the function of that space. It is often remarked that York’s Chapter contained a high proportion of absentee canons – members of the Royal court or Papal curia who claimed its generous prebends while rarely attending meetings. This does not detract, however, from the powerful statement that the elaborate building itself made about the power of the chapter. In the Katherine window, there seems to be an interest not only in the saint and what she represents, but also in the processes by which she negotiates with her opponents and, through argument, moves towards martyrdom, heaven and God.
Further discussion of this window can be found in Chloe Morgan’s article ‘A Life of St Katherine of Alexandria in The Chapter-House of York Minster’, which was published in the Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 162 (2009). This essay is based on work undertaken during my MA at the University of York, and was developed with the advice of Richard Marks, Tim Ayers and Nicola McDonald.
The photographs were taken by Hilary Moxon and Chloe Morgan, and are reproduced by kind permission of the Dean and Chapter of York Minster.
G.E. Aylmer and R. Cant, eds. A History of York Minster ed. 2nd edn. Oxford, 1977. (Especially D.E. O’Connor and J. Haselock, ‘The Stained and Painted Glass’ and B. Dobson, ‘The Later Middle Ages 1215-1500’).
Sarah Brown. ‘Our Magnificent Fabrick’: York Minster, An Architectural History c. 1250-1500. Swindon, 2003.
J. Jenkins and K.J. Lewis, St Katherine of Alexandria: Texts and Contexts in Western Medieval Europe. Turnhout, 2003.
K.J. Lewis, The Cult of St Katherine of Alexandria in Late Medieval England. Woodbridge, 2000.
C. Morgan, ‘A Life of St Katherine of Alexandria in the Chapter-House of York Minster’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association 162 (2009): 146-78.
C. Walsh, The Cult of St Katherine of Alexandria in Early Medieval Europe. Aldershot and Vermont, 2007.