Each month, Vidimus will showcase a different panel from the wealth of Britain’s medieval stained glass. The panels will be chosen with the aim of providing, collectively, a sense of the great range of glass that survives, in terms of date, subject matter and the kinds of settings for which it was made. The selected pieces will also relate, in various ways, to some of the broader issues being raised in the study and conservation of medieval glass, such as fashions in window forms and techniques, or approaches to the restoration of medieval glass.
This issue’s panel, showing St George on horseback slaying the dragon, from St George’s, Kelmscott (Oxfordshire), has been chosen primarily because it is an image of one of the most frequently represented saints of the late Middle Ages, who remains recognisable to this day, and also for the panel’s location in a church that offers, in its extant wall paintings, some indication of the complex artistic context in which medieval stained glass was originally set.
St George at St George’s Church, Kelmscott, Oxfordshire
The Church The parish church of St George, Kelmscott, is an excellent example of the accretive manner in which any English churches were built, extended, updated and decorated, often over a number of centuries, throughout the Middle Ages. Its earliest architecture dates from the twelfth century, but the church was extended, through the addition of small transepts, in the early 1200s, from which date there also survives a baptismal font. The church’s north chapel retains fourteenth-century wall paintings incorporating episodes from the lives of Adam and Eve, and from the early life of Christ, alongside a fragmentary Doom. In addition to the image of St George, the church contains a small amount of decorative medieval glass, including a late fifteenth- or sixteenth-century quarry painted with a large stylized pomegranate, possibly derived from the pomegranate badge of Aragon, and several pieces bearing late fifteenth-century foliate designs.
In the churchyard of St George’s is the tomb of William Morris, whose country home between 1871 and 1896 was Kelmscott Manor. The manor is now owned by the Society of Antiquaries and is open to the public between April and September. For opening details, visit the Society’s website.
The Panel: Production and Condition This image of St George can be found in the east window of the church, I 2b in the CVMA’s numbering system (for more information on this, click here). It measures 0.59m (h) x 0.34m (w), and is painted in brown paint on white glass, with very delicate stipple shading and details picked out in yellow stain. As for the date of the panel, there is no documentary evidence. Armour of a style similar to that at St George’s can be found as early as 1420-30, but it is most closely paralleled in glass painting datable to the last decades of the fifteenth century, and is particularly reminiscent in many details of that of a figure of St George from the nave of Great Malvern Priory (Worcs.), from the 1480s. The late fifteenth-century style of the rest of the glass at St George’s may also be indicative of the likely date of the Oxford figure. The patron who commissioned the glass is not known, nor is the style of the glass that of any of the fifteenth-century glass painters or workshops that have been identified to date.
The image of St George is in very good condition, both in terms of the quantity of original glass, and the state of the extant pieces. When the panel was cleaned and re-leaded in 1975, a new piece was painted for the missing right foot of the saint and the head of the dragon by the restorer (D. King of Norwich); the quarries surrounding the figure also include modern white glass. The panel is otherwise original and the glass remarkably clear, having suffered little serious corrosion or loss of paint. The overall appearance of the panel, however, has almost certainly been affected by repair work. Lead introduced to repair fractures in the glass, particularly within the horse, create a mosaic appearance at odds with the panel’s probable original composition, comprising just two or three large pieces of painted glass, using lead lines to reinforce key outlines.
Iconography According to the Golden Legend, a thirteenth-century anthology of saints’ lives compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, the Bishop of Genoa, St George was a Cappadocian warrior knight who saved the King of Silene’s daughter from a fearsome dragon, symbolic in Christian art of evil and paganism. George was later martyred for his Christian faith. He became popular across Western Christendom as a result of the Crusades, and the cult burgeoned in England following royal endorsement from the mid-fourteenth century onwards. George was initially a favourite of Edward III, who founded the college of St George at Windsor in 1348 to serve as the spiritual centre for the order of the Garter, launched in the same year. Subsequent monarchs followed Edward’s lead: in 1388 soldiers in the English army were instructed to wear the red cross of St George on their surcoats, and in 1399, St George’s feast day was officially promulgated ‘as a holiday, even as other nations observe the feast of their patrons’. The feast of St George was raised to the highest rank of a Greater Double feast shortly after Agincourt, in recognition of the saint’s special aid to England in the battle, and as a mark of Henry V’s close identification with the warrior-saint. Enthusiasm for the saint at parish level was evidently equally strong, and is reflected in the great abundance of surviving and recorded images in glass, wall-painting and sculpture across England dating to between the fourteenth and early sixteenth centuries. George also became popular as a Christian name.
The extent to which St George had become entwined in the nation’s affections and served as a national symbol is suggested by the fact that his feast day survived the decrees abolishing holy days in both 1536 and 1541, although it succumbed eventually ten years later. The occurrence of St George at Kelmscott, however, may equally spring from a desire to incorporate representations within the church of the saint to which it was dedicated as from the general popularity of St George. In the fourteenth and early fifteenth century, the saint was often represented as an unmounted and fully armed knight with the red cross on his shield or surcoat, without his dragon, as in the glass image at Brinsop (Herefs.), or the standing, freestone sculpture at St Alban’s cathedral (Herts.). The dragon, depicted at the moment of its demise, subsequently became a commonplace in all media. The mounted St George was found increasingly in stained glass of the fifteenth century, encouraged, perhaps, by the popularity of narrative windows, detailing episodes of saints’ lives, and by an increasingly pictorial approach to glass painting, rather than ‘iconic’ representations of standing figures.
Bibliography and Further Reading For further details about this panel and other glass at Kelmscott, see Peter Newton, The County of Oxford, A Catalogue of Medieval Stained Glass, Corpus Vitrearum Great Britain I, London, 1979, pp. 124–25. For further reading about St George, see G. McN. Rushforth, Medieval Christian Imagery, Oxford, 1936, pp. 218–21; S. Riches, St George, Hero, Martyr and Myth, Sutton, 2000. R. Marks, Image and Devotion in Late Medieval England, Stroud, 2004, pp. 114–20, provides recent and devotional context.
Our Picture Archive includes windows depicting the life of the saint, including his martyrdom, at the churches of St Neot in St Neot (Cornwall, nVIII) and St Mary in North Tuddenham (Norfolk, sVI B1). Individual representations of the saint include those in the churches of St Peter, Aldwincle (Norfolk, sIV 3b); St George, Brinsop (Herefs., I 2b); St Mary, Long Sutton (Lincs., sVI 2b); St Martin, Bowness-on-Windermere (Westmorland, I 2–4b); and St James, Castle Acre (Norfolk, sIV 2b).