21st century displays for 15th century stained glass at York Minster
The great East Window at York Minster has been described as the English equivalent of the Sistine Chapel. The stained glass panels were designed by one of the grand glaziers, John Thornton. He began the work in 1405 and completed it on time in 1408. The main part – 81 of 108 panels – depicts the apocalypse (The End of the World). This year half of the panels have undergone a total restoration, while the rest are queuing for the same treatment. The work, which is undertaken by the York Glaziers Trust, is expected to be finished in 2016.
As of now visitors are not able to see for themselves how the work is progressing. At the same time the Minster has wished to show the restored treasures to the public at close hand. Each panel is in itself a piece of great art. Nevertheless only conservators have until now been able to enjoy the delicacy and delights of seeing each panel up close.
In order to remedy this, York Minster has installed an “Orb”, a metallic dome placed in the under-croft, where five panels will be shown permanently. Four will be permanently on display, while one will change each month during the Orb’s three-year tenancy. The metallic exterior of the Orb is subtly illuminated with moving projections of stained glass to add extra colour and movement to the domed roof. The Orb is a 10 metre wide, 3 metre tall dome that has been installed to the East of York Minster’s Quire, directly below the Great East Window (where a replica is currently in place while restoration is proceeding).
Assemblage of kings from York Minster
The installation of The Orb is part of York Minster Revealed, a five-year project generously supported by a £10.5 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which incorporates the largest restoration and conservation project of its kind in the UK.
Flanking the Orb, St Stephen’s Chapel and All Saints Chapel feature interactive exhibitions, which are inspired by the major works taking place on the Minster’s east front. The work of York Minster’s stonemasons is highlighted in the All Saints Chapel with displays explaining the scale of the work facing the artisans in restoring the stone tracery that supports the glass. A touch screen game allows children to virtually chip away at a block of stone, with interactive displays featuring tools and stone taken from the building.
In St Stephen’s Chapel, the role of the glaziers is examined. A second touch-screen game invites young visitors to join John Thornton’s team of artists and glaziers to create a virtual stained glass window, whilst display panels explain the huge scale of the project currently being undertaken by conservators at the York Glaziers Trust. Dedicated visitors might book a special tour and visit the actual restorers at their work behind the scene.
Mosaic of faces from Coventry Cathedral
York Minster holds a copy of the contract from 1405 by which John Thornton was commissioned to undertake the work. This is the only written document, which links him to a specific window in existence. It required Thornton to do all of the ‘cartooning’ (full-scale design of the window) of the window’s 311 panels himself, and also to do some of the painting “with his own hand”. However, with a project of this size, he would have had a team of artists working to his design. The document shows that he was paid £56 for his involvement in the project, and it is known that he received a £10 bonus for its completion on time. Afterwards Thornton was made a freeman of York, but by 1413 he was back living in the narrow street, St. John’s bridges, in Coventry. The products of his workshop can be recognized by their favouring of white glass and yellow stain set against blue and ruby backgrounds. Not least the very distinctive modeling of the faces reveal his hand.
These characteristic faces are one of the reasons why scholars attribute the stained glasses of Coventry Cathedral to the artist. The glass from the cathedral was removed before German air raids left the building a total ruin. Later it was decided to build a new modern cathedral and the fragments of glass were left store under appalling conditions in a basement. Currently a project is underway to restore the 5000 fragments. In total, the collection now amounts to at least several thousand unsorted pieces spread across 127 trays, plus hundreds more leaded into 40 of the original and still largely intact pre-World War II ‘mosaic’ panels, which had been removed in 1939. However, until now only a few choice panels have been extracted and exhibited at the new cathedral as well as the medieval guild-hall in Coventry. Most of the fragments remain unexamined and virtually un-catalogued. Using laser-scanning and digital processing it is hoped that the grand puzzle may be underway. It is believed that the scholarly reexamination of the York panels, which are accompanying the restoration work, will allow a better evaluation of the artistic provenience.
Whether a direct reconstruction of the panels in Coventry will take place is currently being debated. Some modern artists want’s to make postmodern collages out of the fragments. Not so in York: there the glaziers work with veneration and respect for the artistic oeuvre of a long-gone artist.
The Orb at York Minster
York Minster: The Great East Window (Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi, Great Britain, Summary Catalogue 2)
Oxford University Press 2003
Stained Glass at York Minster
Scala Publishers 1999
The stained Glass of Coventry Cathedral. In Vidimus:33
Coventry: Medieval Art, Architecture and Archaeology in the City and its Vicinity
British Archaeological Association Transactions, XXXIII
Linda Monkton and Richard K. Morris, Editors
Maney Publishing 2011