Sarah Brown, The York Glaziers Trust
On 2 January 2018 the final panel in the Great East Window was formally returned to the Minster, concluding one of Europe’s largest stained-glass conservation projects of recent decades (fig. 1). Between 2011 and 2017 the York Glaziers Trust has been engaged in the conservation, restoration and protection of this stained-glass master-piece, the work of an exceptional team of artists and craftsmen led by master glazier John Thornton of Coventry. Thornton was entrusted with oversight of the project in the winter of 1405 and was required to have the job complete by 1408. That he achieved his objective is suggested by the date which appears in medieval glass at the top of the window. Although Thornton was contracted directly by the Dean and Chapter of York, the donor of the window was Bishop Walter Skirlaw of Durham (d.1406), whose kneeling figure appears in the window’s bottom row, where he keels before Christ the Judge. His distinctive coat of arms has been found tucked away in a number of places in the window. The subject matter of the window is extremely ambitious, namely the beginning and the end of everything, with God the father and the company of heaven in the tracery (fig. 2), an Old Testament sequence of 27 scenes starting with the seven days of Creation (from the Book of Genesis, fig. 3), culminating in 81 scenes from the Apocalypse (Book of Revelation fig. 4), and nine panels depicting historical figures and heraldry at the window’s base (fig. 5).
The conservation project had a long gestation; the first discussions of the future care and conservation of the window began in 2005. The need to undertake urgent stone repair made the removal of the glass a necessity, and provided an opportunity to review its past restoration history, its current condition and the art-historical significance of this huge expanse of medieval glass. The Chapter of York showed great foresight in appointing at the outset a multi-disciplinary advisory group, the East Window Advisory Group (EWAG), comprising of art historians (including Professor Tim Ayers, Professor Richard Marks and Professor Christopher Norton), an independent conservation specialist (Dr Ivo Rauch) and representatives of the Chapter and the York Minster Fund (notably Precentor Peter Moger, cathedral surveyor Andre Arrol and development director Dr Richard Shephard), which directed and funded the overall programme of works, of which the conservation of the glass was but a small part.
Conservation work began in earnest only in 2011, after several years in which preliminary research was conducted (by Dr Joseph Spooner and Professor Nigel Morgan), fleshing out the picture already established by CVMA authors Tom French and David O’Connor. Environmental monitoring at the east end, with analysis undertaken by Dr Rauch and Dr Erhard Jaegers, informed the design of an internally ventilated protective glazing system that was an integral part of the conservation methodology from the start. The decision to dismantle the window was not taken lightly, and involved the development of a detailed method statement that required Chapter, Fabric Advisory Committee and Cathedral Fabric Commission approval before the Heritage Lottery Fund would approve the stained-glass components of its £10m support of York Minster Revealed. The EWAG, which met over 90 times, ensured that the project remained consistent in its application of the approved conservation methodology and provided much invaluable advice and guidance besides. A late adjustment to the original specification was the decision to use Lamberts Restauro UV © glass for the window’s outer protection, the first use in the UK of this remarkable new material that provides additional protection for light sensitive conservation materials. Now that the glass has returned to the cathedral, the increased light and legibility displayed by the window can be appreciated to the full (fig. 6).
The project was also a vehicle for training and knowledge transfer. Between 2008 and 2017 five new conservators were trained alongside the YGT’s experienced team, while many more young conservators joined the team for shorter internships. More experienced practitioners also spent time at the YGT, developing particular skills with a view to advancing their CPD and securing professional accreditation. Outreach and interaction with the public has also been a major objective. The ‘Bedern Studio’ provided a publicly accessible showcase for the conservation work, allowing visitors to the Minster to see actual conservation in action in real time. For those further afield an online ‘panel of the month’ could be explored through a commentary with ‘before’ and ‘after’ images. Perhaps for many it was the excitement of visiting ‘The Orb’ (fig. 7), a consciously modern structure located in the Lady Chapel, in which visitors could see five conserved stained glass at close quarters, with complementary displays on craft, technology and conservation in a nearby chapel. This has transformed public perception of the importance of the glass to the Minster, an invaluable legacy as we move forwards with a 20-year plan for the conservation and protection of the Minster’s other windows.
Further interpretation has been possible through more conventional forms of outreach. In 2014 a profusely illustrated book presented all the images of conserved glass from the Apocalypse section of the window. From March 2018 the entire window will be published in colour for the first time ever. You can pre-order your copy of The Great East Window of York Minster: An English Masterpiece (fig. 8), published by Third Millennium Publishing on 15 March 2018 by using this link: http://bit.ly/GreatEastWindow a fitting tribute, we hope, to the conservators and experts who worked together so fruitfully to protect the glass for future generations, and the extraordinary artistry of John Thornton and his anonymous collaborators who made this medieval masterpiece in the first place.