Panel of the Month

St Peter from the Great East Window of Gloucester Cathedral

Each issue, Vidimus showcases 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.

St Peter from the Great East Window of Gloucester Cathedral

St Peter from the Great East Window of Gloucester Cathedral

In terms of both its architecture and its stained glass, the east window of the choir of the Abbey of St Peter at Gloucester (as the cathedral was called until 1541) was a work of spectacular innovation. Executed by a workshop responsible for some of the most splendid glazing schemes of its time, the largely intact east window gives Gloucester entry to a small group of formerly Benedictine establishments (such as Canterbury, Tewkesbury, and the former priory church at Great Malvern) that allow us an idea of the wealth of the order’s artistic achievement, largely lost at the Reformation. It is for primarily these reasons that this panel has been chosen for presentation this month, although St Peter, who forms the subject of the glass, was almost certainly regarded particularly highly at Gloucester. The image used to illustrate the panel is itself of some significance. It was taken by Sidney Pitcher, of Gloucester, one of the first professional photographers to take a long and serious interest in recording medieval stained glass as well as early twentieth century technology allowed.

The Abbey: the East End Remodelled

Although a religious community was founded on the cathedral site as early as the late seventh century by Osric of Hwicce, the core of the current church belongs to the Norman rebuild begun in 1089. The burial of Edward II at Gloucester in 1327, following his murder at Berkeley castle, prompted a programme of modernization throughout the church’s east end in the dead king’s honour. The recent refurbishment of the gallery chapels of the abbey’s choir and transepts made the wholesale rebuilding of this part of the church unpalatable, so instead a novel solution was devised, which became the basis of the Perpendicular style of architecture that remained in use for over two hundred years. The Romanesque ashlar facings of the main interior elevations at the church’s east end were removed and replaced with a grid-like veneer of Gothic tracery. The main vessel of the choir was lengthened by demolishing the Romanesque apse, and a new east window erected in its place. To ensure the stability of the building, the remodelled east end was to follow the line of the retained crypt-level ambulatory, causing the side walls of the easternmost bay to swing outwards before joining the east wall. In consequence the immense ‘window-wall’ appears from most viewpoints as if floating in air, entirely unattached to its side walls: a spectacular effect entirely appropriate to a church’s most sacred of spaces (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. The Great East Window of Gloucester Cathedral, c.1350

Fig. 1. The Great East Window of Gloucester Cathedral, c.1350

The spectacular impact of the abbey’s east window was also created by the utilization to great effect of bar tracery, an innovation in window design that had made its first large-scale appearance in the eastern part of Henry III’s Westminster Abbey. Instead of glazing large areas with a series of narrow lancets, separated by substantial amounts of masonry, thin ribs of stone were used to create a delicate, web-like structure that increased the proportion of glass to stonework significantly. The sparkling translucency such windows were able to achieve was to became the hallmark of the great Perpendicular and Renaissance glazing schemes of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.

The Production of the Panel

Traditionally, it had been thought that the series of shields of arms that run through the lowest tier of the window’s openings (see Fig. 1 and Iconography below) represented and commemorated those who had fought with Edward III in his French campaigns of 1346–49, and that they provided, therefore, a secure terminus post quem for the window’s date. More recently, it has been noted that the heraldry is also representative of those who were involved in the king’s expeditions against Scotland in the early years of the fourteenth century, and that it serves equally well as a general roll of the leading nobles of the period (Kerr). Nonetheless, a date in the 1350s for the glass seems to be relatively certain when, as Marks pointed out, the heraldic evidence is taken alongside iconographic details such as the form of the armour worn by the figure of St George in the window.

The Gloucester east window marked the culmination of an intensive, century-long period of glazing activity by the cathedrals and larger monasteries, since the middle of the thirteenth century that saw the production of glazing schemes of great sophistication at establishments such as Exeter, Wells, Bristol, Tewkesbury, Ely and York. About half-way through this period, a new type of window had been introduced to England from France. Consisting of rows of colourful, figured panels set against expanses of grisaille glazing, and known as band windows, this form became popular for the increased translucency it brought to glazing, hitherto predominantly characterized by a rich, jewel-like appearance. At Gloucester, the band window form was rejected in favour of one that filled each light completely with figures or scenes housed beneath micro-architectural canopies. In contrast however with the other great ecclesiastical establishments that also chose this kind of glazing over band windows, such as Wells and Tewkesbury (Fig. 2), Gloucester moved away from a full-colour aesthetic and harnessed the translucent qualities of the band window. The window’s figures and canopies were created almost entirely from painted and stained white glass, with coloured glazing relegated to the panels’ grounds.

Fig. 2. Two lords of Tewkesbury, from the choir clerestory of Tewkesbury Abbey, Gloucestershire, c.1340–04

Fig. 2. Two lords of Tewkesbury, from the choir clerestory of Tewkesbury Abbey, Gloucestershire, c.1340–04

Despite these formal innovations at Gloucester, the glass has been identified as belonging stylistically to a substantial body of major monuments, dating from the late 1330s to the 1350s, located in the West Midlands and West Country. The same workshop seems to have been responsible for work, beyond the Gloucester east window, in the great churches of Bristol Cathedral and Tewkesbury Abbey (an example of which can be seen in Fig. 2), as well as at a number of regional parish churches, such as Ludlow, Madley, Eaton Bishop and Moccas. The exact nature of this workshop is by no means fully understood. It seems to have had some relationship to the fourteenth-century glazing at Wells Cathedral, for example, where there are similarities to this group in some of the formal elements of the glazing, such as its micro-architectural canopies, but there are significant differences in figure style. The workshop responsible for the Gloucester east window and related monuments, however, represents well the connections stained glass in medieval England seems to have had with other branches of painting. It has been noted that the rather course, heavily modelled heads produced by the workshop, characterized by beady eyes and hollow cheeks, can also be found in contemporary manuscript illustrations, such as those of the Luttrell Psalter.


To a considerable extent, the original iconography of the great east window at Gloucester has been preserved, although figures thought originally to have belonged to the adjacent clerestory glazing are now incorporated into the scheme. As noted above, the lowest glazed areas of the window comprise numerous shields of arms set in grisaille panels. Above these, the window is filled with tiers of figures of niches. Immediately above the heraldry are the remains of a series of figures without haloes of mitred bishops alternating with tonsured monks holding crosiers, presumably representing bishops of Worcester, the diocese in which Gloucester was situated, and abbots of Gloucester. Next is a row of saints, including George, Margaret, Laurence, Catherine and John the Baptist; and above these, the Virgin being crowned by her son, placed centrally, flanked by representations of the twelve Apostles. At the top of the window, figures of angels carry palms beneath towering canopies.

Read from bottom to top, the iconography links the temporal with the spiritual hierarchy, simultaneously marking out Gloucester as a location bridging the gap between earth and heaven; presenting the authority of the church (represented in the row of bishops and monks) as higher than that of the temporal leaders of the realm, symbolized by the heraldry at the foot of the window; but nonetheless suggesting that the power of these nobles was sanctioned by heavenly orders with which they appear. The figure of St Peter is, on the one hand, presented as simply a part of this ordered hierarchy, falling with his fellow Apostles between the row of non-apostolic saints below and the more elevated realm of the angels above. On the other hand, he is distinguished as the abbey’s patronal saint at Gloucester by his position in the Apostles’ sequence, at the right hand of the Virgin, and also by his being depicted with a model of the abbey in his arms.

As Rushforth first noted, the window seems clearly to have been designed to act as gigantic triptych over the abbey church’s high altar, with its tiers of figures in niches and its central section rising up higher than the wings replicating contemporary altar piece forms. As such, it is an excellent and particularly splendid example of a wish to present a church’s east window as a retable. This, in itself, of course, is one manifestation of a broader medieval fascination with the interchanging of artistic forms and experimentation with scale.

Bibliography and Further Reading

There has been academic interest in the east window at Gloucester since the earliest days of the modern study of stained glass. The glazing was examined by C. Winston in his ‘Account of the painted glass in the East Window of Gloucester Cathedral’, in the Archaeological Journal (xx, 1863, pp. 239–53), and then by G. McNeill Rushforth in ‘The Great East Window of Gloucester Cathedral’, in the Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society (xliv, 1922, pp. 293–304). More recently, the window has been re-evaluated by J. Kerr, ‘The East Window at Gloucester Cathedral’, in T. A. Heslop and V. A. Sekules (eds), Medieval Art and Architecture at Gloucester and Tewkesbury (1985), pp. 116–29, and was placed in its chronological context by R. Marks in his essay on ‘Stained Glass, c.1200-1400’ in the exhibition catalogue P. Binski and J. Alexander (eds), The Age of Chivalry: Art in Plantagenet England 1200-1400, pp. 137–47. D. Welander, canon of Gloucester Cathedral, has also written the accessible, general guide to the church’s stained glass, The Stained Glass of Gloucester Cathedral (Gloucester, 1985).

Our Picture Archive has yet to incorporate a full collection of images of the Gloucester east window, but it contains images of a series of coloured drawings made by Winston in his mid-nineteenth century study of the glass. More extensive are the collections of glass from Tewkesbury Abbey and Wells Cathedral, noted above as having interesting stylistic parallels with the Gloucester glazing.

Heather Gilderdale Scott

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