Last year when I visited the Great Church of the Holy Trinity, Long Melford, I knew it had some of the finest surviving fifteenth-century stained glass in England. Naturally, I made sure I had plenty of time to photograph the beautiful windows.
I’ve previously blogged about the outstanding glass filling the north aisle windows of this Suffolk ‘wool’ church. I’ve also examined the single donor portrait of Elizabeth Talbot, wife of John de Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, and the possible link to the John Tenniel illustrations for Alice in Wonderland.
However, there are many more medieval folk represented in this collection of stained glass. Today, almost all of the surviving portraits of the original donors can be identified by visitors as, when the portraits were re-glazed to their present locations a small lite bearing each name was inserted beneath. These labels are a modern addition.
Examination of original fragments of medieval gothic script legends, together with any related heraldry and further evidence from the historical record, has enabled accurate contemporary identification, hence the useful labels.
The use of heraldry not only aids modern identification, but in medieval times confirmed the various family connections and associations, and, would have maintained the significance of these people in the eyes of their contemporary congregations. However, the principle reason the wealthy aristocracy commissioned these glass portraits was piety. They wished to be remembered in the prayers of the clergy and congregations for a long while after their deaths in the hope of shortening their time in purgatory.
Little were they aware that the very notion of purgatory would be rejected within the next 100 years following the Reformation and the establishment of English Protestantism. And, never would they have dreamt that 500 years later visitors to their church would be just as interested, if not more interested, in the skills of the talented yet nameless artisans who created this costly and elegant glass.
I have found the windows a great inspiration and have used the colours and some of the motifs to develop a silk scarf design.But somehow I still can’t quite capture the tone of the original creations!
24 thoughts on “Inspirational medieval stained glass”
These are such delicate yet striking designs. No wonder they inspire you. I love the way that the grisaille is complemented by bold slabs of colour in the garments and heraldic motifs. I can feel a visit coming on!
Yes, as you’ve commented it is the contrast between the grisaille and the bold colour that I think appeals to us across the centuries as it has a more 21st century restrained quality. Oh the church is most definitely worth a visit and there’s both the National Trust’s Melford Hall and the Tudor moated Kentwell Hall in the vicinity too. Kentwell Hall is well known in the area for hosting costumed special events and re-enactment days.
Right. All have gone on the list. I think East Anglia needs to be very high on our ‘must visit again’ list.
I could see spending hours looking At these windows. I marvel at them. Thank you.
Sometimes when I visit these churches I am the only one there. It is such a pleasure to be able take plenty of photos without feeling you are intruding.
Yes, I know that feeling. You can slow down and really concentrate on the details and take in the atmosphere.
Thanks for the close up. It is not as simple as you’d think creating those images. That which you’re well aware and I think you do catch the sense of it remarkably well.
Would you want to copy a window directly? Do the church own some sort of copyright on these images?
Thank you – you are SO RIGHT about the difficulties and I don’t carry about a 15 foot ladder to get ‘on the level’! The best photos of church stained glass, in situ, are taken when scaffolding is erected for cleaning and repairs. Then the photographer can really capture the detail and avoid all those weird things (converging lines and distortion) that happen through ordinary lenses. Sadly, as an amateur I have yet to be invited to climb up any scaffolding with my ancient secondhand DSLR. Can’t imagine the health and safety and insurance issues either!!
I don’t think I’d want to directly copy a window, but I can imagine using segments of photos and making a design to be printed in a similar way as I did for my umbrella. Regarding copyright, the ‘church’ hasn’t created any of this work as such and actually it wouldn’t be the Church of England it would have been the Catholic Church and their artisans. The original copyright holder would be the maker/artist and the copyright lasts only 70 years after their death – so they are out of time by 400 years! I think medieval stained glass makers would be very perplexed by our notion of copyright. Between God and the Aristocracy I don’t suppose they felt they had any type of ownership over their work. I don’t think any English churches are (yet) trying to make money out of using weak claims of copyright like some of our museums when they assert they own the copyright of some of the historical pieces they hold for the nation! The more I’ve thought about this the more irritated I feel about any aspects of copyright extending past the death plus 70 years rule.
Thank you for sharing these. Always good to see some of the windows which have survived time, weather, reformers, Victorians and so forth!
Oh there’s so much to this church that the 16th-century reformers and then 100 years later William Dowsing (Suffolk born) didn’t destroy. The Victorians have made their mark, but mostly by adding large stained glass windows of average interest to the south aisle windows. These medieval donor portraits survived as they were originally clerestory glass that was difficult to reach and expensive to replace when destroyed.
I think it is fascinating how you draw inspiration from these visits, and I agree, the colours in the stained windows are beautiful, restful and striking at the same time.
It was a great visit as in the afternoon there was a performance of various Bach pieces by members of the Britten-Pears Young Artist programme directed by Mark Padmore. It was an exquisite setting for such beautiful, poignant music.
I’m getting nostalgic for a visit to England. Keep fantasising about renting some place for six months. Maybe I’m channelling my great-grandmother who I am writing about at the moment. Although . . . Bradford . . . not the most tranquil place to get nostalgic about 🙂
Ah yes, there’s nothing like working on something to fire you up for a visit. I usually find that once I start writing a series of posts, like the Long Melford ones, I want to go back again and look even more closely and critically. Bradford, maybe not tranquil, but an interesting collection of Victorian municipal and corporate buildings. Love a bit of Victorian building bling – like the Yorkshire Penny Bank! Haven’t visited yet, but when next I am up that way with camera in hand. . . .
Undercliffe Cemetery and nearby Peel Park are also worth a visit. I could imagine my great-grandma and her sisters taking their Sunday stroll in those areas.
Sunday strolls and promenading used to be popular over here too, but went out of fashion when most people were able to afford a car!
I have made a glancing reference to it (Sunday walking in Bradford’s Undercliffe cemetery) in my current manuscript. By the way, thanks also for putting me on to Death in the Victorian Family. I drew on that for a death scene set in 1872.
Oh so pleased to be useful. Researching and writing about the Victorian era makes you realise how lucky we are to be living now whatever the current problems. And, as for those people who want to ‘return to the old ways’ – they just don’t know their history!
Incredible artwork you have captured here Agnes. You also share amazing facts about the church and its history
Thank you. Actually, there is a lot more to the glass, it is a jewel for Art Historians interested in regional artisans and their output. It is also a fantastic record for historians of fashion interested in medieval headdresses!!
Really must make time to stop next time we visit Suffolk but by the time we’ve watched birds and seen family we never seem to have much time.
Yes, there’s more to Suffolk than first meets the eye. I lived on top of Sutton Hoo for a while and didn’t get to visit until I’d moved away and then came back as a ‘tourist’. 😉
It’s always the same – thirty years in Nottingham and I still haven’t been to loads of local places – though I have been to Sutton Hoo! 🙂