Stained glass is more than just beautiful jewel-like windows flooding interiors with shimmering dappled patches of colour. Many stained glass windows particularly those found in churches are a combination of pieces of coloured glass cut and leaded together to form an image, and parts of the window lights where sections of the glass have been painted. In addition to painting people and animals often vegetal motifs and ornate architectural designs were painted into the backgrounds and borders of the main images.
Part of the ‘Susannah and the Elders’ window, St Edmundsbury Cathedral, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.
Part of the ‘Susannah and the Elders’ window showing painted architectural detail.
I noticed an interesting bow motif used by the makers of ‘The Susannah and the Elders’ window in St Edmundsbury Cathedral in Bury St Edmunds. The artisans who painted this window lived during the first half of the sixteenth century and were either Flemish or French.
Portrait of a Man by the Flemish artist Quintin Massys. 1520
In one of the lights you can see the style of dress worn by the Elders and it is typical of the first half of the sixteenth century as compared with oil paintings such as the 1520 painting ‘Portrait of a Man’ by the Flemish artist Quintin Massys. These images immediately made me think of Thomas Cromwell in his legal guise flexing his power and working his charm round Henry VIII’s court. Although, I can’t imagine he wore any flamboyant bows himself!
Bow detail part of the ‘Susannah and the Elders’ window, St Edmundsbury Cathedral
Currently, I’m working the ‘Tudor bow’ motif with a blue palette.
Sometimes it’s colour combinations, sometimes it’s motifs and sometimes it’s just the overall essence of an image that provides a creative spur when searching for inspiration. We all do it and the Victorians’ passion for mining their past is proudly visible in their cultural output.
Building Noah’s Ark, St Edmundsbury Cathedral, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. Victorian
Moses receives the Law, St Edmundsbury, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. Victorian
God creates Eve, St Edmundsbury Cathedral, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. Victorian.
The Flight to Egypt, St Edmundsbury Cathedral, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. Victorian.
Susannah and the Elders, St Edmundsbury Cathedral, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. Late medieval either Flemish or French.
Jesse, the Father of King David, St Edmundsbury Cathedral, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. Victorian.
The Last Judgement St Edmundsbury Cathedral, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. Victorian.
Most of the stained glass windows that decorate St Edmundsbury Cathedral in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, are the work of three leading stained glass firms of the nineteenth century. Stained glass by Clayton and Bell, Hardman & Co and C E Kempe fill the cathedral windows with their work inspired by long-gone and unnamed medieval craftsmen. There is, however, one window whose lights are not Victorian, but date from the late medieval period. At first glance maybe they all look the same, but one has a different ‘feel’! (I’ve labelled it).
Earlier this year a contemporary, stained glass triptych was installed in Norwich Cathedral. First thought – what makes stained glass different to oil paintings, watercolours, sculpture, bronzes and most textiles, well, it lets light THROUGH. It is not just about surface reflection, but translucence. The most stunning stained glass windows work with this quality. Now here comes the second thought do we commission artists to design windows in glass or do we commission stained glass artists to create windows?
In the past William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones both successfully designed windows as part of a broader view of art which was less sniffy about craft. The Arts and Crafts artist Christopher Whall worked in stained glass. He originally trained as a ‘traditional’ artist at the Royal Academy, but he learnt and practised glass cutting, painting, firing and glazing so he had control and understanding when he began creating stained glass windows. In a similar way to architecture and site-specific sculpture, stained glass should work within its context and architectural setting.
The new triptych in Norwich cathedral was designed by the abstract expressionist painter John McLean. The three large windows on the north nave according to the cathedral’s literature,
‘form a single work of art, conceived as a a vibrant journey from the solemn dignity of the Nave into the architectural excitement of the North transept’.
The designs for the windows were developed over the course of seven years as the artist developed his knowledge of working with glass instead of paint. The finished windows are installed in three bays on the north aisle with northern light flooding through glass into the Romanesque cathedral. I have seen quite a few contemporary coloured windows in medieval churches most are not particularly successful. Here, I see that the shapes and colours of these three windows work well when viewed directly with the even northern light pouring through. As yet I’ve only seen them on a bright, sunny summer’s day.
However, remember these are windows shining light into an interior space. A tall, narrow, stone Romanesque space and the effect of the coloured light shining on the interior is striking, but for me too obvious. I will be interested to return in the middle of winter to see if the reduced light levels result in a more subtle illumination of the aisle. I am not adverse to colour, or the contemporary placed within a 12th-century building, but the orange and purple haze sequence combines to make the aisle look more like a fairy grotto.
Just a final thought – I would be fascinated to glimpse the process of commissioning such large scale works in the twenty-first century for such a significant Norman cathedral.
I know I’m not the first and I certainly won’t be the last to comment on the nature of public commemoration during this year, 2014, that marks 100 years since the beginning of the First World War. A public, ritualised remembrance for the dead has long been available to the powerful elite, but the terrible carnage of World War One brought widespread change to how the death’s of ordinary folk dying for their country was remembered. The sheer numbers of the fallen from virtually every town and village of the United Kingdom instilled a need in the general populace to act together within their communities and communally mark their losses. This was done through the village memorial, a stone cross bearing the names of the fallen.
Although the stone cross memorial is the most frequent site of commemoration stained glass windows were also commissioned and installed in churches and public buildings. Similar lists of names of the fallen can be seen written on stained glass panels. Commemorative stained glass filling the windows of churches across Great Britain has been traditional for hundreds of years. Most were sponsored by prominent families or religious bodies and depicted Christian imagery. Often a discrete biblical quotation accompanied by the patrons name reminded the congregation to offer up prayers’ for the departed soul.
At the end of World War 1 with the large loss of life many institutions also chose to collectively mark the loss of their colleagues and friends. Not only were the dead from specific regiments commemorated, but companies, wealthy organisations and even schools commissioned large stained glass windows listing all their fallen.
The Baltic Exchange in the City of London commissioned a set of memorial windows for its semi-circular apse when it was based at 30 St Mary Axe. These windows by the stained glass artist John Dudley Forsyth were severely damaged by an IRA bomb which exploded on the 10 April 1992. Since then they have been restored and are now installed at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London. As this set of windows is now at standing height if you look carefully you can spot depictions of various WW1 war machines.
In Southwark Cathedral, London, two three light windows by Hardman & Co were installed in memory of those who had died during the conflict. One window commemorates the 386 employees of the South Metropolitan Gas Company and the other window the staff from the Oxo company who also lost their lives.
Of course regiments commissioned memorial windows and the King’s Own Regiment has a large, three-light window in the north nave aisle of Norwich Cathedral. It shows a central image of St George, but it has paintings of soldiers in the trenches in the panels either side. One is shown cleaning a rifle and the other shows a stretcher-bearer waiting for casualties.
It hasn’t been just fighters and machinery that have been depicted in these First World War memorial windows. In the small village of Swaffham Prior in Cambridgeshire, their local church, St Mary the Virgin, has a light that shows women working in an armaments factory.
But despite all these long lists and large community windows every now and then a simple, small single light dedicated to two brothers can be found in a tiny village church – reminding us that each name on a long list had been an individual life extinguished by war.
Head of the Patriarch Semei, c. 1180. From Canterbury Cathedral now in the V&A.
Detail of silk scarf inspired by early medieval stained glass.
A couple of months ago I was asked to design and paint a ‘stained glass’ scarf.
When undertaking a commission the easiest way for me to understand a client’s wish is to ask for a ‘mini’ mood board. This can be a small postcard-sized piece of card covered with torn pieces of magazine pictures, snippets of cloth, small cuts of wool and screwed up cotton thread that give me an idea of the colours required. In the past when one customer wanted a scarf to complement her new winter look she gave me a snippet of cloth from the inside seam of her new coat.
However, more recently, the wealth of beautiful photographs on the Internet, has allowed mood boards to be generated very easily on platforms like Pinterest. The advantage of this approach is the ease with which ideas come together. Unfortunately, the downside is that accurate colour portrayal of ‘real-life’ on screen is notoriously unreliable and even the same image across different screens/devices can vary significantly. So, if an accurate tonal range is critical then an old fashioned, mini mood board is still best.
With the light shining through, early medieval stained glass panels photograph well (if not too high up in a window!) and the frequent use of bright reds and blues imparts a recognisable aesthetic. It is such a strong visual form that it was easy for the Victorians to mimic and then extensively develop in their Gothic Revival church windows, and, is probably what springs to mind when most people think of stained glass.
Silk scarf stained glass design.
Childebert receives St Germanus from a window in Saint Germain des Prés, Paris, c1240-5. Displayed in the V&A.
Stained glass inspired silk scarf as worn.
With my Art History hat on my personal preference is for the work of the late-Victorian Christopher Whall particularly his early 20th-century windows. This example panel depicting St Chad dates from 1901-10. It is now in the V&A Museum, London, and is from a collection of stained glass produced for a commission for a new window in the Lady Chapel at Gloucester Cathedral.
St Chad by Christopher Whall (1849-1924). Slab glass with painted detail. Displayed at the V&A Museum.
St Chad by Christopher Whall – robe detail.
St Chad by Christopher Whall – detail showing nature of slab glass.