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APOCALYPSE The Great East Window of York Minster Sarah Brown

APOCALYPSE The Great East Window of York Minster Sarah Brown



It is a privilege to have been involved in this wonderful project, and I am delighted to have the opportunity now to thank the steering committee – Sarah Brown, the Dean of York, the Very Reverend Vivienne Faull and Dr Richard Shephard – for all their enthusiasm and encouragement. Special thanks are due, too, to Dr Paula Gooder, who generously gave her time to write Chapter 5 on the theological meaning of the Apocalypse today. Creating a book of this quality depends on the generosity, commitment and time of many people. Nick Teed and Anna Milsom of the York Glaziers Trust supplied the exceptional photographs of the glass and conservation work on the panels, while Laura Tempest prepared the Biblical texts for the panel section, and I thank them all most sincerely. The book was designed by Susan Pugsley; I am grateful, as always, to her, and to Patrick Taylor for additional picture research. However, this beautiful book is largely the work of one woman. Sarah Brown not only wrote the expert and engaging text, she also checked and corrected the layouts, wrote captions, provided photographs, liaised with the York Glaziers Trust and generally ensured that this project was the easiest I have ever managed. It has been a pleasure to work with her, and to play a small part in making the splendour of the Apocalypse Cycle in York Minster’s extraordinary Great East Window accessible to a wider public.





Chapter One



Chapter Two



Chapter Three



Chapter Four



Chapter Five









11 23







152 154 156

Chapter One

A Brief History of the Window


ork Minster’s Great East Window of 1405–8 is the single largest expanse of medieval stained glass in Britain and, with over 300 glazed panels, is surely one of the largest windows ever created in the Middle Ages. It is located in the east wall of what was a two-stage reconstruction of

the entire eastern arm of York Minster (Fig. 1.1). This was achieved between 1361 and c.1420, and replaced the 12th-century east end of Archbishop Roger of Pont L’Évêque (1154–81). The new east wall was built as part of the first phase of work (1361–71), which saw the creation of a four-bay eastern extension of the church, focused on the new Lady Chapel at the foot of the East Window. The stained glass was actually only installed in the window as part of the second phase of activity (c.1394–1420), which saw the construction of the eastern transepts and four-bay western quire and it is not known how the massive east-window opening was filled during the intervening 30 years. In the winter of 1405 the Dean and Chapter entered into a contract for the creation of the window with the Coventry glass painter John Thornton, an arrangement known primarily thanks to the late 17th-century antiquary James Torre (1649–99) who recorded the content of the now-lost contract. That the window was installed by its target date of 1408 can be adduced from the numbers in glass that appear near the apex of the window (panels Z1 and Z2). Conservation of the window as part of York Minster’s York Minster Revealed project, with substantial funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, has shed new light on this medieval masterpiece and the circumstances of its creation.

T HE M EDIEVAL B UILDING The rebuilding of the eastern arm of York Minster was inaugurated, and for many years funded, by the great theologian and pastoral reformer Archbishop John Thoresby (1352–71), who was buried before the Lady Chapel altar. It is not known whether Archbishop Thoresby had determined the subject matter of the Great East Window before his death, although it 1.1 General View of the Quire and the Lady Chapel looking east to the Great East Window (English Heritage).

seems likely that some thought would have been given to the subject to be depicted in such a huge cliff-like expanse of stained glass that would eventually illuminate the whole of the new eastern arm of the cathedral. The window is not dedicated to the Virgin Mary, honoured at an altar directly below, but is an evocation of the beginning and the end of all things, culminating in the Apocalypse, which will presage the end of the world and the Second

Apocalypse: The Great East Window of York Minster

LEFT: 2.8 Lettering and scrolls (panels 7d and 5a). BELOW: 2.9 Different painters: Heads of St John (panels 11c, 10f and 8g).

of capital letters comparable to the work of a professional

to mean that Thornton was required to paint some of

scribe (Fig. 2.8). An extremely fine brush, or even a quill

the more important aspects of the glass? Presumably so.

laden with glass paint, must have been used to achieve these

However, how can we define ‘important’? This is far harder

inscriptions, and in only one instance is there a smudge!

to discern and modern sensibilities almost certainly do not

Certainly by the 16th century it was common for an

mirror medieval perceptions. Could the status of the figure

artist’s workshop to practise a kind of artistic hierarchy,

depicted be a guide? By this reckoning all the figures (and

with the master working on heads and hands, the junior

especially the heads) of God himself, and by extension

members of the workshop assigned the painting of subsidiary

those of Christ, might fall into this category. However, we

and background elements, and certain painters developing

can detect more than one hand at work and they cannot

special skills, for example, in the manipulation of drapery.

therefore all be the work of Thornton. Similarly, not all the

Attempting any detailed analysis of this kind is not yet

heads of John, the narrator of the Apocalypse narrative, are

possible for the Great East Window, which is characterized

by the same painter (Fig. 2.9). We might also consider the

by the consistently high standard of painting exhibited

proximity of the figure to the viewer as another criterion of

across the work as a whole, so that no distinctions can easily

interest to the client, although as noted above, the quality

be made in purely qualitative terms. Thornton picked his

of the window is remarkably consistent from top to bottom

collaborators with great discernment, it would seem, and

and some of the far-distant tracery figures are exceptionally

applied strict quality control over the whole work, as the

fine. Unfortunately, one panel that combines proximity to

contract required.

the viewer and a figure of Christ in Judgement – a panel

We cannot escape the conclusion, however, that

occupying the axial location in the window (2e), directly

Thornton himself was expected to paint some glass ‘where

beneath the figure of God as Alpha and Omega at the very

need required’ and that this contribution was somehow

apex of the window (DD1) and thus a prime candidate to

to be defined by the client (‘according to the Ordination

have been the work of Thornton – has suffered catastrophic

of the Dean & Chapter’), although the mechanism for

damage and the original head and much of the figure of the

communication between Thornton and his client remains a

enthroned Judge have been lost. The panels of the bottom

closed book. Can this contractual stipulation be interpreted

row might also be panels calling on Thornton’s painting

Chapter Two: John Thornton and the Original Commission

are applied last, on top of the modelling. Without the benefit of underlit tables or large-scale plate-glass easels (an invention of the 19th century), complex, multilayered glass painting could only be done on the front of the piece by following a framework of visible guidelines applied to the back of the glass. Pieces could then be taken away from the table, allowing the glass painter to work on a small glass easel near a window, as illustrated in Jost Aman’s Book of Trades (c.1568). Once the painting was complete, the temporary guidelines could be wiped off before firing to fix the paint. While this was common practice, in some cases the guidelines were overlooked on pieces from the Great East Window, and because they too had been applied using glass paint, they have also been fired and made permanent, providing clues as to how designs were translated from cartoon to glass. In numerous instances in the Great East Window, conservators have observed that architectural elements on the left- and right-hand side of a panel are mirror images of one another, with a degree of precision that free-hand copying could not achieve. These exact replicas are best skills. There is no doubt that some of the finest glass

explained through the transfer of a ‘master detail’ from the

painting is found in this row. The heads of St Edward the

table in the form of guidelines on the back of the glass. In

Confessor (Fig 2.10), King William the Conqueror and King

those architectural designs with figures standing in niches,

Edward III in 1d, for example, are exceptional. The client

the exact replication of detail extends to the main lines of

might also have requested that Thornton paint the head of

drapery folds. Within these identical guidelines, however,

the donor, Walter Skirlaw, in 1e. Sadly, this panel has also

there is a considerable amount of variation in the execution

been badly damaged and the head is a replacement. Another complication is added by the question of the relationship between design and execution: how was Thornton’s cartoon translated into painted glass? Theophilus implies that the glass painters would copy the lines marked for them by the master on the whitened table, by placing the glass over the requisite detail. The Girona tables display one painted detail; a solitary vine-leaf crocket on the canopy gable. It is possible that Thornton TOP RIGHT: 2.10 King Edward the Confessor, (panel 1d). RIGHT: 2.11 Canopy details copied from the same cartoon (panel 4b, left and right canopy side-shafts)

marked painting instructions onto the table itself, just as the Girona master did in at least one instance, but the way glass is painted makes it unlikely that all glass painting was done directly from the table. Glass painting must be executed against the light and the delicate layering of paint typical of Thornton’s workshop is done ‘in reverse’, with modelling washes applied before solid trace lines, which

Apocalypse: The Great East Window of York Minster

8e – Revelation 9:13–15 And the sixth angel sounded the trumpet: and I heard a voice from the four horns of the great altar, which is before the eyes of God, Saying to the sixth angel, who had the trumpet: Loose the four angels, who are bound in the great river Euphrates. And the four angels were loosed, who were prepared for an hour, and a day, and a month, and a year: for to kill the third part of men.


The Apocalypse Panels

8f – Revelation 9:16–19 And the number of the army of horsemen was twenty thousand times ten thousand. And I heard the number of them. And thus I saw the horses in the vision: and they that sat on them, had breastplates of fire and of hyacinth and of brimstone, and the heads of the horses were as the heads of lions: and from their mouths proceeded fire, and smoke, and brimstone. And by these three plagues was slain the third part of men, by the fire and by the smoke and by the brimstone, which issued out of their mouths. For the power of the horses is in their mouths, and in their tails. For, their tails are like to serpents, and have heads: and with them they hurt.


Apocalypse: The Great East Window of York Minster

3a – Revelation 17:1–5 And there came one of the seven angels, who had the seven vials, and spoke with me, saying: Come, I will shew thee the condemnation of the great harlot, who sitteth upon many waters, With whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication; and they who inhabit the earth, have been made drunk with the wine of her whoredom. And he took me away in spirit into the desert. And I saw a woman sitting upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was clothed round about with purple and scarlet, and gilt with gold, and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand, full of the abomination and filthiness of her fornication. And on her forehead a name was written: A mystery; Babylon the great, the mother of the fornications, and the abominations of the earth.


The Apocalypse Panels

3b – Revelation 18:9–19 And the kings of the earth, who have committed fornication, and lived in delicacies with her, shall weep, and bewail themselves over her, when they shall see the smoke of her burning: Standing afar off for fear of her torments, saying: Alas! alas! that great city Babylon, that mighty city: for in one hour is thy judgment come. And the merchants of the earth shall weep, and mourn over her: for no man shall buy their merchandise any more. Merchandise of gold and silver, and precious stones; and of pearls, and fine linen, and purple, and silk, and scarlet … The merchants of these things, who were made rich, shall stand afar off from her, for fear of her torments, weeping and mourning. And saying: Alas! alas! that great city, which was clothed with fine linen, and purple, and scarlet, and was gilt with gold, and precious stones, and pearls. For in one hour are so great riches come to nought … Alas! alas! that great city, wherein all were made rich, that had ships at sea, by reason of her prices: for in one hour she is made desolate.


Apocalypse: The Great East Window of York Minster  

Sample spreads from 'Apocalypse: The Great East Window of York Minster'

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