Medieval narrative through stained glass

December 19, 1997

Churches with painted windows cast light on life in the later middle ages.

THE MEDIEVAL stained glass of Europe provides a rich insight into the devotional life of the later middle ages, largely overlooked by historians of art and architecture, researchers have found.

While the magnificent windows of Canterbury, York and Tewkesbury are well documented, these make up only a fraction of the glass surviving in 8,000 medieval parish churches around Britain alone.

Most are undocumented and barely studied, and their secrets remain hidden. Yet time, pollution and dilapidation are taking their toll, and a full record of surviving stained glass is urgently needed, according to art historians in an international research project aiming to do just that.

The task is enormous, but thanks to the diligence of the Corpus Vitrearum project, glass painting may eventually enter the canon of medieval art alongside architecture, sculpture, frescoes, panel paintings and manuscripts.

Although the Corpus was begun almost 50 years ago, there is still decades of meticulous recording to be done. A book series, supported by the British Academy, is being published gradually, and 30 volumes are expected. A band of field workers is visiting, recording and photographing churches across the country, and the international project researchers meet every two years. But the research is much more than mere cataloguing of what exists, according to David O'Connor of Manchester University, who is working on windows in York Minster.

"In the middle ages stained glass was the most important form of painting and played a huge role in the development of narrative in art," he says.

Understanding the work in its economic and social context is the key to any analysis of the significance of the images to medieval life. This task is made more difficult, he says, by the fact that much medieval stained glass is no longer in its original setting. It has found its way into valuable private collections, affecting the way it is understood today.

Most art histories of the period are based on analyses of illuminated manuscripts. But in fact, according to project president Richard Marks, stained glass was far more prolific, and accessible to a much wider audience in about 10,000 churches and monasteries.

"Looked at in this way, illuminated manuscripts seem rather peripheral," said Professor Marks, of York University.

The huge scale of the loss of stained glass during the Reformation meant it was gradually relegated to a minor art, particularly during the Renaissance when it was regarded as mere decoration. But during the middle ages, its significance was very much deeper, Professor Marks says.

One of the most difficult problems hampering the Corpus Vitrearum is the amount of restoration which took place during the 19th century. This is often indistinguishable from the original work, although in the Victorian period, in particular, it is suspected that restorers "tidied up" the images while failing to understand the original iconography.

"From an academic point of view, we need to know what we are looking at. We need to be sure the glass is 13th century, and not 19th century, because the restorer inevitably puts his own interpretation on the work and changes its meaning," Professor Marks said.

He has recently completed a mapping of stained glass in Northamptonshire, a painstaking task which turned out to be considerably larger than expected. Instead of the anticipated 30 or so parish churches containing material, there were 90, and there were some important finds.

Tim Ayers, secretary of the Corpus at the Courtauld Institute in London, said that along with wall painting, stained glass represented the most important surviving body of medieval monumental painting.

"Much of the glass in our parish churches has never been published and deserves to be better known," he said. This was particularly important since atmospheric pollution was speeding up the decay of the fragile works of art. Scholars from other disciplines were also watching the research with interest, he said.

Comparisons were being made, for example, between text and stained glass narratives of the period. "We have much more to learn from stained glass," he said.

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