Following a recent three-day conference about seventeenth-century stained glass in Oxford, a Vidimus reporter highlights the use of poetry in contemporary arguments about the validity of religious imagery in windows.
Religious turmoil in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England saw attitudes towards stained glass veer sharply. After the upheavals and blood-spilling of the Reformation and Mary’s short-lived attempt at a Counter-Reformation between 1553 and her death in 1558, the fabric of English churches entered a long period of decline. The ascendant Puritan factions rejected imagery in favour of sermons (the word of God) and hated formalities such as bowing before altars. But towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign new voices began to be heard which, while accepting the break with Rome, nonetheless championed the virtues of sacramentary worship and the beautification of church interiors. Key figures were the theologian Richard Hooker (1554–1600), who said the Lord should be worshipped in the ‘bewtie [beauty] of holiness’, and Lancelot Andrewes (1555–1626), Bishop of Chichester (1605–1609), Ely (1609–1619) and Winchester (1618–1626), who accused protestants of ‘replacing images with imagination’ [Fig. 1].
Such sentiments found sympathy at the court of Elizabeth’s successor, James I, and in 1610, Robert Cecil (?1563–1612), a powerful ally of the king, installed the first figurative scheme of stained glass to be executed in fifty years in the east window of the chapel at his newly built mansion, Hatfield House (Hertfordshire). The scheme showed Old Testament scenes as types or forerunners for events in the New Testament. Cecil’s example emboldened others who shared his sentiments. Three years later, the first in a succession of increasingly lavish scenes appeared in Oxford University colleges. The pioneers were the Wadham family, founders of the college that still bears their name. In 1613, they commissioned a scheme of stained-glass windows for their newly built chapel to complement the elaborate screen, choir stalls and black and white marble pavement they had installed. Despite some initial problems, the scheme was eventually completed in 1622, when the Emden-born artist Bernard van Linge finished the east window at a cost of £114 [Fig. 2].
The same decade saw the refitting of Lincoln College at the expense of John Williams, Bishop of Lincoln (1621–41). Expensive cedar wood was used for the stalls (echoing descriptions of the furnishing of Solomon’s Temple), and the windows were filled with painted glass by Bernard’s kinsman, Abraham van Linge. (Traditionally Bernard and Abraham were thought to be brothers, but modern scholarship is unsure about the exact relationship.) The scheme featured Old Testament prophets on the north wall, leading to the east window, which showed types and antitypes, and a row of Apostles spreading the gospel on the south side [Figs 3 and 4].
Other colleges that followed suit included Magdalen, with windows by Richard Greenbury of c.1637–40; Balliol, with windows by Abraham van Linge of 1637; Christ Church, with windows by Abraham van Linge of the 1630s; Queen’s College, with eight windows by Abraham van Linge of 1635; and University College, with windows painted by Abraham van Linge in 1641 but not installed until after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1666 [Fig. 5].
Such changes gave rise to a distinctive body of devotional poetry. One of the most important writers was George Herbert (1593–1633), a Cambridge scholar who became the rector of Fugglestone and Bemberton (Wiltshire) in 1630. Herbert was deeply influenced by Lancelot Andrews and in 1633 published a collection of poems known as The Temple – itself a word with ideological reverberations, as it evoked the Temple of Solomon built to God’s command and filled with fine furnishings. Once ‘inside’ the poem (temple) Herbert led his readers through its different parts until he came to ‘The Windows’ about which he said:
Lord, how can man preach thy eternall word?
He is a brittle crazie glasse:
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford
This glorious and transcendent place,
To be a window, through thy grace.
But when thou dost anneal in glasse thy storie,
Making thy life to shine within
The holy Preachers; then the light and glorie
More rev’rend grows, & more doth win:
Which else shows watrish*, bleak, & thin.
Doctrine and life, colours and light, in one
When they combine and mingle, bring
A strong regard and aw: but speech alone
Doth vanish like a flaring thing,
And in the eare, not conscience ring.
Professor Graham Parry, a leading expert on this period of church history, has singled out some of the lines in this poem for special attention. Thus while painted windows have a ‘glorious and transcendent place’ in the church, man is like glass, ‘brittle’ and ‘crazie’ – frail and depraved by sin. As windows glow with the light of the sun, so preachers are illuminated with the divine spirit and make the holy stories more compelling, bringing the gospel home to the congregation. He also notes the rebuke to the puritan over-emphasis on sermons when Herbert writes, ‘speech alone/ doth vanish like a flaring thing’.
Like others who supported the restoration of ceremonial worship and the revival of religious imagery in churches, Herbert stressed the ‘teaching role’ of such pictures, themes taken up by other poets of the period, including William Strode, who became a canon of Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford in 1638. As with similar like-minded scholars, he was deeply impressed with the pre-Reformation windows at the church of St Mary at Fairford (Gloucestershire) about 20 miles west of the city:
Each pane instructs the laity
With silent eloquence, for here
Devotion leads the eye, not ear,
To note the Catechizing paint,
Whose easy phrase doth so acquaint
Our sense with gospel that the creed
In such a hand the weak may read:
Such types even yet of virtue be,
And Christ, as in a glass, we see.
For if each Christian heart were glazed
With such a window, then each breast
Might be his own evangelist
To such men, ‘Signes [were] but spectacles to help faiths eye’, but in Protestant eyes the reappearance of religious imagery combined with the growing authoritarianism of Archbishop William Laud (1573–1645) signalled ‘popery’ and resurgent Catholicism. The poet and polemicist John Milton (1608–1674) voiced their anger [Fig. 6]. He lashed those who wasted money on beautifying churches rather than building schools and attacked ‘the Idolatrous erection of Temples beautified exquisitely to out-vie the Papists, the costly and dear-bought Scandals, and snares of Images, Pictures, rich Coaps, gorgeous Altar-clothes.’ (Of Reformation Touching Church-Discipline In England, 1641).
As tensions rose, Laud was arrested in 1641 and eventually executed in 1645 at the height of the Civil War between crown and parliament. During the war, thousands of windows were smashed, including many that had survived the initial furies of the Reformation (see Vidimus no. 32 for a review of journal of iconoclast William Dowsing). Fortunately, much of the van Linge and Greenbury glass in Oxford avoided such destruction and can still be seen in situ today. (Visitors should check entry hours in advance. Some Colleges charge admission fees.)
G. Parry. Glory, Laud and Honour: The Arts of the Anglican Counter Reformation, Woodbridge, 2006
M. Archer, S. Crewe and P. Cormack, English Heritage in Stained Glass: Oxford, Oxford/New York, 1988