Monday, 13 April 2020

Reading Stained Glass: Easter Day

These days most people, if they associate Coventry with stained glass at all, think of John Piper’s great Baptistry window. And rightly, for it was the first, and I believe remains the finest, modern abstract window in any British cathedral. 

But the city has a distinguished tradition of stained glass, going back to the 15th century, when John Thornton was the pre-eminent English stained glass artist. He and his workshop created the enormous East window of York Minster, while at the same time continuing to fill the churches of Coventry with stained glass promoting the city as a place of culture, wealth and civic pride. Much of this celebrated glass adorned St Michael’s Church, the former Cathedral, until hurriedly taken out and stored as loose fragments in 1939 when war loomed. Unlike the Cathedral itself, most survived the war, but only recently has the scale and importance of this forgotten treasure begun to be appreciated again. 

Some of the glass has already been restored and a small amount is on display in the present Cathedral. Among the pieces, I was especially struck by a small panel depicting the moment of Christ’s Resurrection (fig.i). It’s worth a close look, even though I suspect this was not the work of John Thornton himself, nor even perhaps of his workshop: it lacks the assurance of his style, but is not without a rough vigour of its own. The window depicts the moment of the Resurrection – literally Christ’s emergence from the grave. The scene is loosely extrapolated from the account in Matthew’s gospel, where the soldiers, set by Pilate to guard the tomb, are paid hush money to say that someone had broken into the tomb and stolen the body while they were asleep. 

In this window, as usual in medieval stained glass, the tomb is shown not as a cave with a boulder rolled across the opening, but as a chest tomb with a great slab on top that has been moved or broken (by an earthquake, Matthew says). Christ appears, his right hand raised in blessing and his left hand holding a long staff with at the top a cross, from the crosspiece of which hangs a pennant displaying the red badge of salvation. Thus far the scene contains all the elements you’d expect to find; however, this artist also adds an unexpected touch of humour. As the startled soldiers wake up, Jesus, stepping back into the world, plants his foot inadvertently on the stomach of the one lying closest to the tomb. It is perhaps as well that the details of the soldier’s face have faded so we cannot see his winded/wounded reaction to this giant step for mankind. The other soldiers, too, look blearily unsure of what is going on.

Of the few attempts in stained glass to show the sepulchre as a tomb ‘hewn out of a rock’, perhaps the
oddest is at Fairford(fig. ii). Here, there is certainly a hole in a hillside, but you could be forgiven for thinking both cave and hillside look curiously man-made. And once again there is an empty chest tomb – a tomb within a tomb – the lid of which has been spun around. Christ’s winding sheet now hangs over the side like a discarded bath towel. It needs the angel addressing the three women to restore a sense of biblical authenticity.  The four gospel writers, it should be said, each tell the story differently: Matthew has one angel addressing two women, Mark has him addressing three (Mary the mother of James, Mary Magdalene and Salome) while Luke has two angels telling the two Marys and Joanna that Christ is risen. John mentions only Mary Magdalene, who finds the tomb empty – no angel for her there; but she soon encounters Jesus himself in the garden, only to mistake him for the gardener. Of these conflicting versions, Mark’s (one angel, three women) is the source for the Fairford window. Only one of the three women, presumably Mary Magdalene, has a halo; later artists, however, have tended to play safe by giving haloes to them all.

Two of my favourite 19th century Resurrection windows are from the Kempe Studio. The first is a very early Kempe window (fig.iii; 1871) by Wyndham Hope Hughes at St John’s Church, Waterbeach, near Cambridge. 

The window is much faded, but I find the painting of the three women, lined up on the grass with their jars of embalming spices, curiously touching. It looks, too, as though the veil with its yellow stripe, worn by the youngest of the women, is as previously modelled by one of the Fairford mourners. Facing the women, who are lined up in front of what could be a vestigial trellis, sits the angel on a red chest tomb. The scene is reduced to its essentials, and its dominant colour scheme, red and green, offsets well the white and gold garments of the motionless women.

Finally, and in total contrast, I admire the same scene from a window in St. Bartholomew’s Church, Much Marcle (fig.iv; Herefordshire; 1889 – the artist was John Carter). Here the three women kneel before the Angel, with their backs to us – their haloes, therefore and most unusually, in front of their faces. 

The angel is perched on the edge of the tomb. His wings are spread, largely blocking from view the walled city of Jerusalem behind him. He gestures towards the women as he speaks: ‘Non est hic ecce locus ubi posuerunt eum’ (“He is not here: behold the place where they laid him”; Mark 16:6) The older women wait for what he will say next, but Mary Magdalene has already turned her head, opened her mouth and raised her arms distractedly. 

Kempe’s windows are sometimes criticised for being too static; but if we read them carefully, noting the cautioning hand on Mary’s elbow, we can sense the tension of the moment and can ourselves supply the question she is desperate to ask:

“Where is he then?”

Adrian Barlow

Text and illustrations © Adrian Barlow


Fig. i:  Coventry Cathedral: The Resurrection (reconstructed fragment; 15th century)
Fig.ii: Fairford Parish Church: The Women at the Tomb, detail; c. 1500)
Fig iii: Waterbeach Parish Church: The Women at the Tomb (W. window, 1871. This window has been cleaned and conserved since my photograph was taken)
Fig.iv: Much Marcle Parish Church: The Women at the Tomb (Kyrle Chapel, E window, 1889)

This is the third of three successive posts discussing stained glass windows relating to Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Day. The previous two posts can be accessed here:

You can read about these two books on The Victorian Web

Friday, 10 April 2020

Reading Stained Glass: Good Friday

When I was a child, I was fascinated by a picture that hung in my father’s study. It was (as I learned much later) a Baxter Print of Rubens’ Descent from the Cross, (1612-14; fig.i) and I wish I had it now, for images of the Deposition – its alternative name – have a long history in stained glass, going back at least to the 12th century. None, though, are quite like Rubens’ altarpiece. 

Rubens’ tableau has no fewer than five men, four ladders, three women, and the magnificently athletic but pallid corpse of the dead Jesus being lowered into the arms of John, the beloved disciple. To help take the backbreaking strain, St. John has placed his right foot onto the second rung of a ladder. In accordance with tradition, he is dressed in a red robe, while Mary is already in deep mourning. Joseph of Arimathea, swathed in a huge cloak and wearing a red bonnet, looks more like a Venetian magnifico than a member of the Sanhedrin. He holds one end of a white linen winding sheet; the other end is clamped between the teeth of one of his servants, who stretches over the cross piece of the crucifix to prevent Christ’s lifeless arm from flopping down.

The tableau is magnificently staged: Mary Magdalene kneels cradling Christ’s left leg as the body descends; behind her, the third woman (Salome, also kneeling) gazes up at St John, who seems to return her gaze. The props are all in place, too: the nails have been removed from the cross and lie on the ground. The piece of paper bearing the inscription ‘Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews’ in Greek, Latin and Hebrew has been weighted down by a stone at the foot of the right-hand ladder. Next to it, on a silver charger, lies the discarded crown of thorns.

Compare Rubens’ Descent with this image (Chartres, early C13; fig. ii) from a window in Chartres
Cathedral. It’s part of a sequence of Passiontide scenes, each enclosed within a red frame; not entirely enclosed, however, for the top and bottom of the cross protrude above and below the frame. So, too, does the foot of the servant – or perhaps he is the executioner, still on the scene?  He kneels to extract the nail from Christ’s left foot, using a large pair of pincers for the job. After this, though, he may need a ladder to reach the nail still pinning the left hand of Jesus to the Cross.   Mary is already holding his right hand to her cheek while Joseph of Arimathea, next to her, strains to support the deadweight of his upper body. Joseph's foot, too, is now outside the red frame. By contrast with the Rubens tableau, here the only inactive one of the four figures around the Cross is St John, who seems overcome by grief. Both Mary and John have red haloes. So does Jesus but, as always, his halo is marked with three of the four corners of the Cross and now, for the first time, these marks recognize an historical event: they no long point forward to the destiny that would await him.

Why, finally, is the Cross green? This is an early example of a trope that appeared first in stained glass of the 13th century and was revived by Charles Eamer Kempe in the 19th century: the idea of the Cross as the Arbor Vitae, the Tree of Life. The Cross was shown as green to symbolise the idea that it was living wood lignum vitae as St Bonaventure described it. If you think this idea too fanciful and suspect that the original artist simply wanted to use a third key colour, green, to offset the dominant red and blue, look again; along both the upright and the crosspiece you can see lines of bubbles flowing up and across. These symbolically represent the sap rising  - as can be seen in an earlier window at Chartres: the Jesse window(c.1150). At the foot of this window, Jesse lies asleep with the trunk of a tree springing up from his groin: the trunk is shown in cross-section, with the sap (Jesse’s seed, so less) clearly rising to indicate that the succeeding generations are his direct descendents.

I said above that I thought the man with the pincers was either a servant or perhaps the executioner.
Not everyone would agree. Malcolm Miller, the great authority on the glass of Chartres and a man I much admire, identifies him as Nicodemus, basing his identification both on the reference to Nicodemus in St John’s account of the burial of Christ (John 19:39) and on the fact that in a similar but earlier image of the Deposition in Chartres, the man with the pincers is more clearly Nicodemus because he wears a conical Jewish hat – as befits a man who, like Joseph of Arimathea, was a prominent member of the Jewish community in Jerusalem.  

I am afraid I disagree with Malcolm Miller here. Not only in this image is the man shown without a hat, he is here wearing the plain short tunic of a slave, not of a high-profile Pharisee. There is a further point: in later stained-glass illustrations, as for instance at Fairford (Gloucestershire) the man assisting at the Deposition is very clearly the executioner. You can see him here (Fairford, c.1500; fig.iii) climbing down from the Cross with the body of Christ, floppy as a rag doll, hanging over his arm. And tucked carefully into his belt are the same pincers as seen at Chartres: instruments of the Passion, tools of the executioner’s trade. 
Adrian Barlow

Text and illustrations © Adrian Barlow

This is the second of three linked posts. Here is the link to the first: Reading Stained Glass: Maundy Thursday

Thursday, 9 April 2020

Reading Stained Glass: Maundy Thursday

The first of three posts discussing ways in which the events of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Day have been depicted in stained glass from the 12th century onwards.

I am interested in the different ways stained glass artists have portrayed Judas. Sometimes he is shown almost as a pantomime figure – black faced, even black haloed – clutching a moneybag. In the E window of St Edmundsbury Cathedral, the Last Supper (1874; fig. i) is cast in an almost lurid light: yellow and black tiled floor, benches even brighter than the brass dishes on the table.  Around this table Jesus and the twelve disciples form a tight circle. Jesus sits in the centre, St John, the beloved disciple, leaning his head on Christ’s right shoulder; St Peter, tonsured according to tradition, sits on his left. The faces of the twelve, offset by the whiteness of their haloes, are variously perplexed, apprehensive or reflective. With one exception: Judas, the man in green with his back to us, has no halo. Scowling and with his clenched fist pressing into his thigh, he has a moneybag already tucked under his belt. Only we can see this detail; the disciples are unaware of it. Judas does not look at Jesus, but his left hand hovers over a knife which points directly at him.

The fact that we know what will happen next gives this crowded image its power:  as soon as the meal is over Judas, who is conveniently perched on the end of a bench, will slip away to carry out his side of the bargain made with the Chief Priests.  Jesus, meanwhile, will head for Gethsemene, taking Peter, James and John with him to keep watch while he tries to find the courage to endure what he knows must follow.

A rather different Judas emerges from a 16th century window (fig. ii) at Woolbeding, a country church
just outside Midhurst in Sussex. No longer compelled to sit as one of the twelve disciples, here he strides purposefully in front of a group of soldiers crossing a wooden bridge towards Gethsemene. The leading soldier wears an impressive plumed Roman helmet and shoulders a large flag; next to him a man carries both a lantern (by now it is nearly the middle of the night) and an ugly cudgel. In the background more soldiers are crossing a distant bridge; pikes and halberds of a sizeable troop can also just be made out – the silver staining shows signs of serious corrosion. What we can still observe, however, is that even as Judas gesticulates commandingly with this right hand, his left hand can just be seen still clutching the neck of the money bag and the thirty pieces of silver.

When William Morris first set eyes on Evreux, en route for Chartres, he was impressed. ‘We had only a very short time to stay at Evreux, and even that short time we had to divide (alas! for our Lower Nature) between eating our dinner and gazing on the gorgeous cathedral …. There is a great deal of good stained glass about the Church’  (letter to Cornell Price 10 August 1855). I wonder if he noticed the astonishing and disturbing image (fig. iii) of The Betrayal? 

It comes from a 15th century window in Evreux Cathedral and captures the very moment of the kiss that will identify Jesus to the soldiers. But this is no cursory peck, as if to say, ‘Here’s your man’. It is an embrace between two men for whom such intimate contact is no surprise: eyes, nose, cheeks, lips could not be closer. Indeed, and this is what is so revealing, the two faces – Jesus and Judas – are almost mirror images of each other.  Every other piece of glass you see in this image depicting a face, hand or arm is enclosed within thick lines of lead; these two faces, the face of Christ and the face of his beloved enemy, are painted on a single piece of glass and nothing divides them.  Yet the eyes of the two men, betrayer and betrayed, do not meet.

We are forced, looking closely at this stained glass image, to ask why Jesus accepts so calmly this act of betrayal by a man he had chosen to be his friend. Simply because he has no option?  Or because he knows that only a short time earlier he had all but betrayed himself when pleading “Let this cup pass from me”?  And while the armour-clad soldier attempts to lay hands on his prisoner, Judas seems almost to be shielding Jesus from arrest.  Is he already trying to undo what he has just done?

Stained glass is an art of light, and the art of stained glass artists from whatever age lies in encouraging us to look more closely at images, scenes and stories we take for granted; to see them, indeed, in a new light.

Adrian Barlow

Text and illustrations  © the author