Thomas Rattlesden, Abbot of Bury St Edmunds (1479–97),
before an image of St Edmund.
Nave North Aisle, Church of the Holy Trinity, Long Melford, Suffolk
Each month, Vidimus show-cases a different panel from the wealth of medieval stained glass in England. The panels are chosen with the aim of providing, collectively, a sense of the great range of surviving window glass, in terms of date, subject matter and the kinds of institutions 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 is taken from the north aisle of the nave of Holy Trinity church in the Suffolk village of Long Melford. It portrays a small figure of an abbot, labelled as ‘de Buri’ (of Bury), kneeling at the foot of a large standing figure of St Edmund. It has been chosen for presentation in this issue of Vidimus for a number of reasons. A new class of patrons, the country’s merchants and gentry, emerged in the late Middle Ages, and the church in which this panel is housed is among the finest examples in Britain of the artistic and architectural achievements of this group. Technically, the panel demonstrates the sophistication of which the glaziers of late medieval England were capable, and iconographically it provides an excellent case-study of one of the most familiar subjects in stained glass of the period.
Over the second half of the fifteenth century, the parish church at Long Melford was rebuilt in spectacular form. Although Long Melford belonged to the abbey of Bury St Edmunds, the work was principally organized and funded by local figures: John Clopton and the Martyn family. When completed, by around the time of Clopton’s death in 1494, it formed a splendid display of wealth and parochial pride. Long Melford had slowly prospered over the course of the Middle Ages, and by 1235 had gained a weekly market and annual fair – but its fortunes were made in the fifteenth century with the flourishing of the woollen cloth trade, with which Clopton and the Martyns were very successfully involved.
There survives from the late sixteenth century a remarkable description of the church written by a former churchwarden, Roger Martyn, a descendant of the family responsible for the church’s rebuild, which provides a rare insight into the pre-Reformation character of the English parish church. Among other things he described in detail the drama of the Paschal rituals around the church’s Easter Sepulchre, and an image of Our Lady, ‘the tears as it were running down pitifully upon her beautiful cheeks’. He noted too a great carved wooden altarpiece, placed at the high altar from 1481, which, the description suggests, was of Netherlandish rather than English origin, highlighting the international scope of the church’s patrons’ artistic ambitions.
The figure of St Edmund of East Anglia dominates the panel. Saints were among the most common subjects in medieval stained glass, reflecting their very central role in medieval religious life. Calendars of religious feasts, shaping the liturgical year, were full of commemorations of the various saints, often tailored to reflect an individual church’s institutional identity, and readings from their lives were made by the church each day during Matins, and in the course of private lay devotions. When represented artistically, saints were customarily identified by an emblem or attribute, typically relating to their legend. Although St Edmund is here identified in textual form through the inscription S(an)c(tu)s Edmu(n)d(us), his identity is equally conveyed by the arrows of his martyrdom, which he holds in his left hand.
By the late fifteenth century, St Edmund had developed rather elevated connotations. As a royal saint, he had featured, artistically, in the fourteenth-century sequence of forty such figures that filled the choir clerestory of the splendidly rebuilt abbey at Gloucester, and, c.1400, was one of two saints shown presenting Richard II to the Virgin in the famous Wilton diptych. At Christmas 1433, St Edmund’s cult received royal affirmation by the arrival of the young Henry VI at the abbey of Bury St Edmunds, where he remained until the following Easter. After his stay, Abbot William Curteys commemorated the visit with a splendidly illuminated life of the Anglo-Saxon king, in which the saint was portrayed as a model of behaviour for the young monarch.
The selection of St Edmund for depiction at Long Melford, however, relates equally to the church’s more immediate circumstances – of the ownership of the manor by the abbey of Bury St Edmunds, and to the appearance at the foot of the saint of an image of the monastery’s abbot kneeling in adoration. Such kneeling figures were among the most prominent features of English glass between the end of the thirteenth century and the Reformation. Traditionally viewed as simple acknowledgements of an individual’s generosity in providing funds to assist in the rebuilding or reglazing of the church in which they appear, recent and current research suggests that these ‘donor’ figures were often of a more complex nature, reflecting, for example, patronal wishes to commemorate long-dead, but fondly remembered, benefactors.
Whilst the basic formula of a kneeling figure remained constant, the details of the manner in which ‘donor’ figures were represented in English glass changed over time. The large and elaborate tracery openings of Decorated architecture, for example, meant that they were frequently incorporated in this part of the window, whilst the reduced size and importance of tracery in later Perpendicular windows prompted their habitual location, as in the Long Melford example, at the window’s foot. The panel illustrates too the growing complexity with which the space occupied by the ‘donor’ figure was depicted. It is furnished with a desk, set at an angle to the front plane of the image, in an attempt to convey a sense of the third dimension, and the abbot looks upon an open book, suggesting, it seems, that his devotions to St Edmund have ‘summoned up’ an image of the saint.
The Production of the Panel
The panel of St Edmund has been dated to between 1479 and 1497, the dates of Abbot Rattlesden’s incumbency. Certainly, the inscription that runs beneath him contains the bidding prayer Orate p(ro) a(nima) abbatis de Buri (‘Pray for the soul of the Abbot of Bury’), but it was by no means unheard of for living donors, with a view to the eternal fate of their souls, to commission the inscription.
Richard Marks has argued convincingly that the panel of St Edmund, and others from the church’s clerestory scheme, seem to have been the work of Norwich glass painters. Norwich, like Long Melford, had profited enormously from the flourishing wool trade in late medieval England, and some of its glaziers were among the best in the country. Certainly, the St Edmund panel displays a range of sophisticated techniques. The rich blue clothing of St Edmund and the abbot, for example, are studded with golden-yellow insets, themselves painted with incredible detail, and necessitating skilful ‘drilling’ of the glass that, in lesser hands, carried a great risk of shattering the surrounding material. The panel’s dramatic ‘brocade’ background was most probably created with the use of a finely-cut stencil to replicate the elaborate designs of fashionable, imported Italian silks. As was common in the products of workshops displaying this level of technical accomplishment, however, the treatment of physiognomy is perhaps less refined.
Bibliography and Further Reading
For details of the glass at Long Melford, see C. Woodforde, The Norwich School of Glass-Painting in the Fifteenth Century (Oxford, 1950), pp. 74–127, and R. Marks, Stained Glass in England During the Middle Ages (Toronto, 1993), where the glass is used to illustrate a number of themes and chapters. For one recent summary of the ‘donor’ figure function, see H. Gilderdale Scott, ‘Lay Figures in Sacred Spaces: the 15th-century ‘donor figures’ at Great Malvern Priory, Worcestershire’, The Journal of Stained Glass, xxix (2005), pp. 12–23. See K. W. Woods, ‘The pre-reformation altarpiece in Long Melford Church’, Antiquaries Journal, lxxxii (2002), pp. 93–104, which suggests that the wings from a Netherlandish altarpiece surviving in the chapel of Queens’ College, Cambridge, may be those from the Long Melford retable, given to the college in the eighteenth century.
The CVMA’s Picture Archive includes a number of images of the glass at Long Melford. It also features hundreds, if not thousands, of images of ‘donor’ figures in late medieval English glass. Monuments with particularly extensive or interesting figures of near-contemporary date to the Long Melford panel include Great Malvern Priory (Worcs.); the ‘Royal’ window in Canterbury Cathedral; and the parish church of St Peter Mancroft in Norwich.