St Michael Weighing a Soul:
chancel east window, St Michael’s church, Eaton Bishop (Herefs.)
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 shows the archangel St Michael holding in his hands a balance, in which he weighs a soul, represented as a tiny naked figure in prayer. The panel forms part of the chancel east window glazing (I 2b in the CVMA’s numbering system) at the parish church of St Michael, at Eaton Bishop in Herefordshire. It has been chosen for presentation here equally for its iconography and for the quality and style of the glass painting. Although relatively neglected by modern scholarship, images of St Michael were a popular choice for medieval stained glass, relating directly to concerns for salvation central to contemporary religious beliefs. In terms of painting, the Eaton Bishop glass has been noted for both its inherent quality (N. Pevsner labelled it ‘the finest Dec glass in the county’), and also for its apparent connections to major contemporary monuments, discussed below.
The Church and the History of the Glass Although no church was recorded at Eaton Bishop in the Domesday survey (begun within twenty years of the Norman Conquest), it has been suggested that some of the material in the east wall of the tower may pre-date 1066 and that rather more of it dates to the following few decades; this suggests at the very least a foundation on the site since the late eleventh century. The building, which has undergone a series of rebuilding campaigns, would most likely at this time have been smaller and certainly lower than it is today. The nave, aisles and chancel arch have been dated to c.1200, while the chancel itself and the window above the chancel arch were constructed about a century later. The modifications brought about in this early fourteenth-century campaign reflect the contemporary desire to illuminate church interiors more effectively, through the incorporation into the new work of large, multi-light windows, and in particular the large, five-light openings in the chancel east wall and the east wall of the nave at clerestory level. With the exception of a modern porch and roofs, the church’s structure is essentially unchanged since workmen left the site in the early decades of the 1300s.
The same, however, cannot be said of the church’s original glazing scheme. In the mid-nineteenth century, all of the surviving medieval glass was collected together and leaded, primarily, into the east window of the chancel, with smaller amounts and fragments housed in the two adjoining windows to the north and south. In the following century, the glass within the east window was rearranged slightly once again to create the window’s current appearance (fig. 1). The image of St Michael weighing a soul is almost certainly not a part of the east window’s original glass, which seems to have been of relatively simple composition, comprising a series of kneeling tonsured figures, plus, perhaps, a figure of the Virgin and Child in the central light, set beneath elaborate, elongated canopies and against a grisaille background. It has been suggested by Marshall (see Further Reading below) that the image of St Michael may come from the large window above the church’s chancel arch.
The Panel: Production and Condition Despite its original location elsewhere in the church, the St Michael panel is directly comparable in its painting style to that of the chancel east window glazing, and was most likely produced by the same workshop at a similar time. The east window glass can, in turn, be dated with some precision through the remains of an inscription that identify the window’s donor as Adam Murimouth. Perhaps best known as chronicler to the reigns of Edward II and III, Murimouth also attained his doctorate in Civil Law (hence the academicals in which one of the kneeling tonsured figures from the window is dressed), and served in a variety of high-profile clerical roles. In the early part of the fourteenth century, he belonged to the canonical communities at the cathedrals of both Hereford and Wells, for example, and in 1328 became Canon, Cantor and Precentor at Exeter. The inclusion of the word ‘CAN:TOR’ within the Eaton Bishop glass, alongside numerous fragments of Murimouth’s name, confirms that the glass postdates his election to Exeter, and was probably painted c.1330–35.
In terms of identifying the glaziers responsible for the panel’s execution, it has been suggested by Marks (see Further Reading below) that the same workshop was employed not only at important parish churches in the region, such as Ludlow and Madley, but also at a number of major monuments, working, for example, on the choir clerestory of Tewkesbury Abbey and the east window of Gloucester Cathedral choir between the 1330s and 1350s. More recently (see Ayers under Further Reading), connections have also been made between Eaton Bishop and the stained glass of the 1320s and 1330s in the Lady Chapel and retrochoir of Wells Cathedral, which share the brilliant colour combinations of ruby, yellow and green glass, although affinities in figure style seem less direct. We can see that although the workshop responsible for panels such as that of St Michael at Eaton Bishop clearly worked frequently in the West Midlands, it was also employed by a number of high-ranking patrons. A wish for association with such figures, rather than simply the proximity of the glaziers, no doubt rendered the workshop attractive to Murimouth, as, perhaps, did the glaziers’ apparent ability to incorporate recent technical innovations into their work. The golden yellow colour of St Michael’s hair and the tips of his wings represents a relatively early use in England of silver stain, a technique involving the application of a silver-oxide or -nitrate solution to white glass before firing. The technique was used in high-status monuments in France from c.1310 (at Rouen cathedral, and perhaps in Paris), before coming to England in the following decade or so; a panel of glass from Stanford on Avon (Northants.), containing touches of silver stain in its borders, for example, has been dated to c.1315–26. Following its introduction, the silver-stain technique was swiftly adopted throughout England. Whilst in its early years the stain was used essentially as a substitute for yellow pot-metal, it came to be deployed with great sophistication, to intricate and delicate effect, and even, in some works of later centuries, dominated the entire aesthetic of a composition, as shown, for example, in the image of St George presented as Panel of the Month in issue 1 of Vidimus.
The most serious damage suffered by the St Michael panel is the loss of the side of the balance to the figure’s right, along with some disruption to the delicately traceried architectural side-shafts flanking the archangel. The latter damage may have been incurred when the panel was removed from its original location.
Iconography The dedication of the church at Eaton Bishop to St Michael no doubt rendered a depiction of the saint an attractive option, particularly if it was displayed in the prominent position high in the wall separating the chancel from the nave. Certainly, it was common practice in medieval England to incorporate an image of the patronal saint, whether in glass, wood or stone sculpture, into the fabric and furnishings of a church. However, the St Michael image was almost certainly originally incorporated within an iconographical arrangement that suggests he was also selected for purposes more complex than a general evocation of protection from a church’s titular saint. He was most probably accompanied by depictions of the archangel Gabriel and the Crucifixion, now also housed in the chancel east window, which share a number of stylistic and design features, most prominent of which is their dramatically coloured trellis-work backgrounds. As such, the window to which St Michael belonged seems to have been intended to function as a meditation on the central Christian theme of human salvation: the Crucifixion, representing the opportunity created by Christ’s death for the salvation of all mankind, and the image of St Michael with his scales emphasizing the necessity of each individual to ensure, through their faith and good works, that the opportunity for salvation is taken. In the chancel east window’s current arrangement, St Michael’s gaze, down and to the right, is met so directly by that of the kneeling figure of Adam de Murimouth that it may suggest that similar figures were originally included at the foot of the window in which the archangel was set. Alternatively, the archangel’s intended interaction may not have been with representations of those whose good works and pious donations were already enshrined in glass. Rather, Michael’s hoped-for audience may have been the lay congregation that gathered in the nave directly below the window, whose souls, as he reminded them, were still in the balance.
Images of St Michael weighing human souls survive relatively plentifully in English stained glass of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, albeit in an often fragmentary or partial state. In contrast with the rather abstract composition at Eaton Bishop, however, they are typically associated with very explicit representations of the Doom or Last Judgement, and show St Michael clad in shining white armour and bearing a tall cross-staff of victory. Most famous, perhaps, is the west window of Fairford church (Glos.), c.1500–15 (fig. 2); but equally spectacular is his depiction, similarly attired, in the elaborate admission of the elect to heaven in the east window of the Savile Chapel at Thornhill (W. Yorks.), donated in 1493. Almost half a century earlier, in the background of a panel depicting a pair of kneeling donors in the choir of Great Malvern priory, St Michael is clearly associated with the idea of Resurrection and Judgement, as he is shown alongside figures in shrouds rising from their graves, but the remains of his feathered legs show that he, like the Eaton Bishop example, was depicted without armour.
The late fifteenth-century figure of St Michael in the north aisle of the nave at the church of St Michael at Doddiscombleigh (Devon, fig. 3), perhaps approximates the original appearance of the fragmentary Malvern figure (albeit on a very different scale), and also demonstrates that single figures of St Michael weighing souls, outside of the Doom context, could be found, in some instances, until the end of the Middle Ages. A variation of the St Michael and the scales iconography survives with some frequency in monumental arts other than in glass from fifteenth-century England. In a number of wall paintings (including South Leigh, Oxfordshire (fig. 4), and Barton, Cambridgeshire), and carved alabaster panels (at Pembroke College chapel, and in the Victoria and Albert Museum), the Virgin Mary is introduced into the composition, placing her rosary onto the scale to weigh it down in favour of the soul in judgement.
The idea of St Michael as the weigher and judger of each man’s soul was widespread, also finding expression in late medieval literature in England, such as in The Pilgremege of the Sowle, printed in English by Caxton. The concept had no direct scriptural authority, but biblical descriptions of Michael as the leader of the angelic armies against Satan (Revelation XII, 7 ‘And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back.’), and as the figure who disputed with the devil over the body of Moses (Jude I, 9), clearly provide the basis for the imagery of Michael as weigher.
Bibliography and Further Reading The glass at Eaton Bishop has not received exclusive attention beyond G. Marshall’s, ‘Some remarks on the ancient stained glass in Eaton Bishop church, co. Hereford’, Transactions of the Woolhope Naturalists Field Club, 1921–23), pp. 101–14, and, by the same author, ‘Ancient Stained Glass in the Churches of Eaton Bishop and Madley’, Journal of the British Society of Master Glass Painters, ii (1927–28), pp. 171–75. Some comments, contextualizing the glass, can be found in H. Read, English Stained Glass (London, 1926); R. Marks, Stained Glass in England during the Middle Ages (Toronto, 1993); and T. Ayers, The Medieval Stained Glass of Wells Cathedral, CVMA GB I (Oxford, 2004). Marks’ volume also discusses St Michael briefly as part of the iconography of the Last Judgement, but the saint has not received extensive attention in England. For recent work in the Italian context, however, see V. Brilliant, ‘Envisaging the Particular Judgement in Trecento Italy’, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Courtauld Institute of Art (2005).
Our Picture Archive includes images of St Michael with scales to weigh men’s souls at Fairford (Glos., see above and here), and Doddiscombleigh (Devon, see above). It also features images of the archangel is contexts other than as the weigher of souls, and typically as the slayer of demons, as in the tracery of the choir aisles of Wells Cathedral (Somerset), c.1330–35; and as a single figure on a pedestal in a main light of a fifteenth-century chancel window at Trull (Somerset).