Conserved medieval panels of stained glass depicting the figure of St Cuthbert (c. 634-687) returned to York Minster on All Saints Day (Monday 1 November) as part of an exhibition exploring the history and conservation of the window devoted to the life and miracles of one of northern England’s most significant saints.
The figure, which runs over two panels, was removed from the Minster in March 2021 as part of a five-year, £5m project to conserve the St Cuthbert Window of c. 1440 – one of the largest surviving narrative windows in the world – and the stonework of the south-east choir transept (Fig. 1).
Conservators at the York Glaziers Trust have begun carrying out painstaking cleaning and repair work to the 152 panels removed from the window, with a selection gradually being put on display as part of the cathedral’s Light, Glass & Stone: Conserving the St Cuthbert Window exhibition, which opened in June, curated by Dr Helen Rawson, head of Heritage at York Minster, supported by the doctoral research of Dr Katie Harrison, who acted as project consultant.
During the work, conservators found the evidence of the use of a technique first described in the 12th century, demonstrating the high level of glazing expertise and skill in the city around 1440 when the window was created. In a section of his treatise entitled ‘Setting Gems in Painted Glass’ the 12th-century author(s) who adopted the pseudonym Theophilus, advises: ‘decide on the places where you want to set the stones. Then take some small pieces of clear blue, and with them make jacinths sufficient for the number of their setting, and make the emeralds with green glass….. When these have been carefully attached and fixed in their settings, paint a thick colour around them with a paint brush so that none of it runs between the two glasses. Then fire them in the kiln with the other parts and they will stick so firmly that they never fall out’.1 ‘Jewels’ of this kind have been used to enrich the vestments of St Cuthbert, although some, including the one that once adorned the back of his glove, have detached themselves allowing the degree to which they reflect Theophilus’s instructions to be examined (Fig. 2). They were also originally affixed to the crown on the severed head of St Oswald (d.642), held by St Cuthbert in reference to the transportation of St Oswald’s relics in his coffin when the monks of Lindisfarne fled the Vikings in the 9th century, settling eventually at Durham (Figs 3 and 4). Unfortunately, the up-standing vestiges of the paint used to adhere the jewels to the base glass were probably scraped away by the glaziers of the 1930s who fixed the broken head inside double plates of modern glass in order to avoid a web of disfiguring mending leads.
Examples of this ‘jewelling’ technique survive from the 12th century at Regensburg Cathedral and from the 13th century at Heimersheim an der Ahr, both in Germany, believed to be the home of ‘Theophilus’. In York Minster the technique is first encountered in the glazing of the south choir aisle (sIV), but seems to have been known to a number of glaziers in the city, as it is also used outside the Minster in the 15th-century glazing of St Michael Spurriergate.
The work to conserve the St Cuthbert Window, together with the stonework of the South East Transept, started in 2021 and will take around five years to complete. The project includes the installation of environmental protective glazing, replacing external diamond quarry glazing installed in the 1930s, when the negative impact of the environment on the Minster’s medieval glass was already recognised.
- C. R. Dodwell (ed), Theophilus: The Various Arts (London 1961), 57-58