AN ILLUMINATING ART

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I traveled through the centuries on my recent visit to the UK’s only Stained Glass Museum, located in Ely Cathedral. Over 1,000 examples of stained glass windows are held in their collection dating back to the 14th Century, although the craft is thought to have originated in the late 600s.

All topics are explored from the religious to everyday life, from science to farming, from nature to portraiture. The techniques vary enormously as new skills were introduced over time and the differences will be evident in the photos.  The concepts and trends changed dramatically during the centuries.

The introductory window above is a contemporary design entitled Inner Space (1979). This blended art and science and is an interpretation of electron photomighraph of hydra tissue (micro-organism). It illustrates many various techniques of modern design including texturing, acid-etching, tracing as well as traditional leading.

These three traditional -style windows are 600 years apart in age but look as striking and vibrant as ever. Furthest left is Geometric Grisaille (1200-1250s) which is a design expressing the simplicity of the Cistercian monastic ideal and aided the meditation for the monks. The middle panel, The Dawning of the Last Day (1871), is unusual in that it was designed by a clergyman in memory of his father and noticeably moved away from the Gothic Revival towards original motifs. The last of three, The Good Shepherd (1867), uniquely weaves together a painterly style of the figure with the gothic revival surrounds of the rich foliage.

The influence of the Arts and Crafts movement is evident in the window furthest left. Fathers of the Church (1904) depicts St. Augustine, Venerable Bede and St. Cuthbert. The next two windows were commissioned as part of the revival and popularity of stained glass windows in the 1800s and there was a push to return to the ‘True Principle’ of Gothic style windows. The Dance of Solomon (1856), formerly within Ely cathedral, is a lively panel, and one of four depicting St John the Baptist’s life, and martyrdom. The Arms of Queen Margaret of Anjou (c.1840) was designed by a heraldic scholar to blend the arms of 15-year-old Margaret who married Henry VI.

The Typography Panel (c.1930) was most likely a sampler created to demonstrate letter writing on glass, and the use of painted cross-hatching is clearly evident. To the right, this fish experimental piece (1950s) makes effective use of flashed glass and acid-etching within its two layers (to add depth) of pink and blue glass.

Angels are the common factor for these first two windows. Inspired by William Morris and his circle who hoped to rescue the decorative arts from commercialisation and industrial methods of production, the first window is one of two entitled Angel Musicians (1910-1912). It was influenced by famous late 19th-century designers when angel figures were typical of the Italianate style. The centre panel was created 400 years earlier and the Angel Musician (1440-80) shows a unique style of painting particular to the Norfolk area in the UK, which through its riches of the woollen trade produced the majority of stained glass windows at the time. The Annunciation of the Virgin (c.1340) is the oldest of the three panels and created in an era of illiteracy when religious education involved painted windows. It is the finest example of English glass painting of the ‘Decorated’ Gothic style.

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Roundels have existed as a form of stained glass windows since their inception. The most modern is self-explanatory entitled Five Victorian Studios (1987). The opulent roundel of gold shows The Suicide of Charondas of Catanea (c.1530) and establishes the theme of justice as he broke his own laws and thereafter committed suicide. It was most likely produced in the Netherlands which was famous for its thousand or so small and exquisite roundels. The last of the three windows heralds from a church in Burgandy, northern France. St. Vincent on the Gridiron (c.1225-50) is part of a narrative by Gothic glass painters and depicts St. Vincent’s suffering for his faith as he is roasted on a gridiron.

These final three windows are from the very early days of stained glass window design. The central panel, Peasant Figure (c.1340-49), was once part of a large and important window in the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral and at one stage it would have been richly decorated. It is highly unusual for the mere figure of a peasant to be depicted in a glass window. Also rarely created were windows for patrons, which is the case of Donors of William and Matilda Cele (1350-1400) who ensured the survival of their name and contribution for 700 years and onwards. The bird in Bird Quarry is slightly older and produced in the 15th-century. These simple diamond shaped quarries were made in their thousands using white glass, glass painting and silver stain. They often depicted animals with amusing human motifs; here the robin is shown carrying a rosary.

Along one wall of the exhibition, there were mock-up models of stained glass studios showing the various stages of creating a window and some of these are pictured below.

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All photos ©Annika Perry

Credit for post title to The Stained Glass Museum guide which uses this as a chapter heading.

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134 thoughts on “AN ILLUMINATING ART

    • Annika Perry says:

      Neil, same here…I’ll never tire at looking at windows such as these and I ended up wandering round twice as I didn’t want to leave! Many thanks for your lovely comment and take care yourself. Annika

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