New Discoveries at one of England’s Best-known Monuments
A REPORT FROM GLOUCESTER CATHEDRAL
Gloucester Cathedral is this year commemorating the 700th anniversary of the accession of King Edward II in 1307. Twenty years later, in 1327, he was buried here, in what was then the Benedictine abbey of St Peter. The fine, shrine-like tomb is now in need of significant conservation, and a programme of talks and other events is planned, to raise awareness and, it is hoped, funds.
This month marks another important anniversary, in the history of the stained glass of the Cathedral. Two years ago, in February 2004, the Cathedral’s Dean and Chapter asked a group of volunteers to take responsibility for drawing up an inventory of the church’s stained glass. Gloucester contains some of the country’s best-known glass, and various aspects of it have long been looked at and written about by art historians, artists and conservators. We, however, would perhaps be the first to set out to examine each window closely, panel by panel. In the course of our work, we have noted details not previously recognized, reminded ourselves and others of work previously recognised and then, seemingly, forgotten, and corrected some mistakes. Some of our favourite discoveries are shared below, but first, a brief introduction to the Cathedral’s glass, and our activities.
One hundred and fifty four windows in the Cathedral contain stained glass, most of which is Victorian, and comes largely from the leading workshops of the period: those of Hardman, Clayton and Bell, and Kempe. The Great East Window is the outstanding medieval survivor, dating from the mid-fourteenth century reconstruction of the Quire following Edward II’s burial and counts among the most impressive English glass monuments of the Middle Ages. A large, although more fragmentary, collection of medieval glass also survives in the east window of the Cathedral’s Lady Chapel. Further fragments can be found in the cusped heads and tracery openings of the chapel’s side windows, thankfully left in situ by the important Arts and Crafts designer, Christopher Whall, whose early twentieth-century scheme in the chapel is recognized as the finest glazing of the period. Stained glass from our own time (sadly a very small amount) is also represented at Gloucester in the work of Alan Younger, one of England’s most distinguished glass artists of the post-1945 period; the artist and author Caroline Swash; and in the innovative work of Tom Denny.
In preparation for our own work, we familiarized ourselves with the observations of others: on the Great East Window, nineteenth- and early twentieth-century work by the glass pioneers Charles Winston and G. McNeill Rushforth, and more recently by historians Jill Kerr and Sarah Brown, and conservationist Leonie Seliger; Rushforth on the Lady Chapel east window; Peter Cormack on Christopher Whall’s glass; and work by the Gloucester Canon, David Welander, describing all of the glass. We were also given half a day’s invaluable tuition by Sarah Brown, English Heritage’s Head of Research Policy for Places of Worship and author of a number of stained glass volumes, on effective glass recording techniques. We decided that we would write up windows individually and then meet to discuss them. However, we looked at the two east windows as a group, as no-one was prepared to miss the challenge posed by this glazing. Thus problems could (generally) be solved and mistakes and omissions identified: we quickly realised how much more three pairs of eyes could see than could one!
From a body of glass as extensive as that at Gloucester, it is difficult to isolate just a couple of particularly noteworthy findings, but perhaps our most fascinating and rewarding challenge was that set by the late fifteenth-century Lady Chapel glazing.
Although the chapel glass was included in Sydney Pitcher’s Ancient Stained Glass in Gloucestershire Churches, contributed in 1925 to the Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, later writers on the Cathedral glass appear to have ignored his work. However Pitcher was a notable photographer as well as a keen and informed observer, and his detailed comments and few photographs helped us to identify and record in detail many of the surviving fragments in the tracery lights of the Lady Chapel side windows. Great pleasure, for example, was gained from the ‘monstrosity past description, standing erect on legs of a dog, a mouse’s head and ears, a pelican’s beak, and a fantastic tail’ (in Pitcher’s words) in a tracery light on the north side of the chapel, illustrated here (fig. 1).
The tracery lights in the opposite window on the south side, probably from a different workshop, contain heads of men holding scrolls, some of which can still be read, such as that depicting the prophet Micheas (fig. 2), holding what appears to be a small, golden carrot but which is perhaps more probably a stylus. C. H. Dancey published his findings on these lights in the 1890s, and the details are also noted by Pitcher. However, no-one appears to have observed in a compartment in the head of the window a well-preserved angel holding what appears to be a soft shoe or slipper, but which is perhaps intended to represent a simple medieval incense boat (fig. 3).
The east window of the Lady Chapel was a major challenge. Rushforth and Welander both described it in detail, yet as we scanned it fragment by fragment, we saw things that had certainly not been previously noted. Whilst the small head of Christ had previously been recorded, the recent close examination work has shown his body – comprising a dark green gown with a tiny foot emerging from its bottom edge – to be intact as well (fig. 4). Elsewhere in the window is a partially intact depiction of the Harrowing of Hell. One of us, in writing some years ago a brief guide to the Cathedral’s glass, had questioned the suggestion by Rushforth and Welander that the woman to the left of Christ was the Virgin Mary. It seemed more likely that she was Eve (as in scenes of the same subject at Fairford and King’s Cambridge, for example); Adam had sadly disappeared. However, a more careful look this time revealed a fragment of a man’s face beyond Eve; now we had Adam as well (fig. 5).
In the current arrangement of the glass (probably assembled 1802–1803) fragments and panels have been switched around, in an attempt to create fairly complete lights. Inexplicably, two almost intact figures of female saints, housed in two of the east window’s main lights, were divided, their lower halves exchanged. The wonders of digital photography enabled us to reunite them (fig. 6); one is especially pleasing in that we now have an almost complete figure, with quite a lot of the niche surviving as well.
Our work on the Cathedral’s glass is not yet complete: we have only recently started on the Great East Window. What is clear, however, is that the glass as a whole merits much more investigation, such as a full CVMA survey of the scheme: a project for the future.
Robin Lunn, Heather Gilderdale