The Wonders of Rivenhall
Many English cathedrals and churches have important collections of Continental painted and stained glass dating from the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries. This month’s feature about the French (and Netherlandish) glass at Rivenhall church in Essex is the first in a new series of occasional articles about these rich collections.
In 1839, the rector of St Mary and All Saints Church in Rivenhall (Essex) was travelling near Tours in France, an area he knew well, as his parents had lived there before their deaths and from where, in his younger days, he had commuted regularly to Pembroke College, Oxford. One excursion took him to the small village of Chenu (Pays de la Loire), about 30 miles south of Le Mans, where he saw, and eventually bought, a number of stained-glass panels of mixed dates from the local parish priest. The cost was 400 francs (about £65) plus 89 francs for removing the glass and £5 10s. 3d. for the cost of transporting it to London.
The lucky purchaser was Bradford Denne Hawkins (1799–1882), a devoted clergyman who spent the remainder of his life in the parish. He had been looking for a fitting ensemble to install in the east window of his church, which had recently been remodelled by John Adey Repton (1775–1860), the architect son of the famous landscape designer Humphry Repton (1752–1818) [Fig. 1]. Perhaps without knowing it, Hawkins had also acquired some of the finest and most important examples of European twelfth-century window glass to be seen now anywhere in England.
But before discussing this glass in greater detail, it is worth putting its art-historical value in some context. Few questions are more frustrating for historians than how and when windows in English parish churches began to be filled with painted and coloured glass comparable with the Chenu panels. Apart from the few examples listed below, there is a disappointing lack of evidence about glazing schemes in local churches before the thirteenth century, either in situ, or recorded from other sources such as archaeological excavations and contemporary documentation.
Surviving window openings in late Anglo-Saxon parish churches show no traces of either the iron ferramenta that would have held glass in place or any internal rebates for glazing frames. Rather than glass it seems that such churches relied on wooden shutters (perhaps with internal linings of oiled canvas), which could be opened during services to admit some light into what would otherwise been exceptionally dark interiors. In 1917, an oak shutter that has been dated to the late eleventh century was discovered at Poling Church (West Sussex), and in 2010 an intact shutter in its original wooden frame was found during renovation work at the parish church of St Andrew at Boxford (Berkshire). According to the architect Andrew Plumridge (Peter Scott & Partners), who supervised the conservation work at Boxford, the shutter would have had a string side hinge probably made from hemp [Fig. 2]. Other shutters of an equally early date have been found at Hadstock (Essex) and Bishopstone (West Sussex).
The earliest surviving examples of stained glass in English parish churches have been dated to the first third of the twelfth century. Both are in the Midlands, at Dalbury (Derbyshire) and Fledborough (Nottinghamshire) respectively. The Dalbury glass shows an angel (probably St Michael) and the Fledborough example consists of two heads (one illegible) from an otherwise unknown subject [Figs 3 and 4].
Evidence from the last quarter of the twelfth century is also slim. The parish church at Easby (Yorkshire) has two figures from a Crucifixion scheme of c.1180–90, while Brabourne (Kent) has an ornamental window consisting of grisaille and coloured glass enclosed in loops that are linked by straps. An unpublished wall-painting at Tysoe Church (Warwickshire) also deserves a mention in this context. It survives in the splays of a twelfth-century window opening, and consists of white interlacing circles that may have paralleled designs in the window glass [Figs 5 and 6].
With such few pickings available, it is understandable that historians trying to assess the amount and quality of stained glass that may have been installed in parish churches during the eleventh and twelfth centuries have had to cast their net wider than England. Obvious locations include France and Germany, where figural glass began to appear in rural churches from the eleventh century onwards. In this context the Rivenhall glass assumes a particular importance. If such glazing schemes existed elsewhere in Europe towards the end of the twelfth century, it is possible that there might once have been work of similar quality in at least some English parish churches.
The Chenu glass is displayed in the east window of Rivenhall Church, together with an assortment of other pieces [Fig. 7]. The earliest glass consists of four large medallions depicting Christ in Majesty, the Entombment, the Virgin and Child, and the Annunciation, together with two large frontal figures of archbishops, collectively dated to c.1170–80 by the eminent French historian of stained glass Louis Grodecki (1910–1982). The design and colour of the glass is outstanding. When made the panels occupied the central lancet in the apse of Chenu church, where they would have complemented the liturgy of the mass performed at the altar below [Figs 8–11].
The Chenu glass has been associated with windows of a similar date at two other parish churches in western France: Les Essards (Charentes Maritime) and Chemillé sur Indrois (Indre-et-Loire). In each case the glass has been attributed to a workshop based at Le Mans Cathedral. Perhaps significantly, the Easby glass is thought to have been executed by glaziers working at York Minster in the late twelfth century, in both instances suggesting that wealthy donors patronised a glass-painting workshop centred in the regional capital.
Apart from the twelfth-century glass, Rivenhall also contains a thirteenth-century panel from Chenu of a mounted knight with the inscription ‘Robert Lemaire’; assorted fragments of French glass; and a collection of seven sixteenth-century Netherlandish roundels [Figs 12–13].
N. Pevsner and J. Bettley, Buildings of England: Essex, 2007 edn, Yale University Press, p. 644
F. Perrot and A. Granboulon, ‘The French 12th, 13th, and 16th Century Glass at Rivenhall, Essex’, Journal of the British Society of Master Glass Painters, xviii/1, 1983–8, pp. 1–11
R. Marks,‘Glazing in the Romanesque Parish Church’, reprinted in Studies in the Art and Imagery of the Middle Ages, London, 2012, pp. 230–47
K. Ayre, unpublished notes on monuments housing medieval stained glass in the county of Essex. These notes are based on a survey carried out by Kerry of the four volumes of the Royal Commission for Historic Monuments printed in the early twentieth century
W. Cole, A Catalogue of Netherlandish and North European Roundels in Britain, CVMA (GB), Summary Catalogue 1, Oxford, 1993, pp. 232–33
D. Nash, Rivenhall Church Essex, church guide