The Conversion of St Helen: south aisle (sVI), church of St Michael and All Saints, Ashton-under-Lyne, Greater Manchester
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, depicting an episode in the conversion of St Helen to Christianity, has been chosen, on the one hand, as an attractive example of a type of glazing particularly popular in fifteenth and early sixteenth-century England: hagiographical glass narrative. On the other hand, the style in which the panel is painted is a useful reminder that although much of the best glazing of this period was influenced by Continental glass painters (as highlighted in recent Vidimus issues looking at panels from Fairford (Glos.) and King’s College Chapel, Cambridge), workshops painting in the native style continued to play an important part in the stained-glass industry.
The Church and its Glass
Although on the site of an earlier structure, the building of the present church was begun in the first half of the fifteenth century and completed at the beginning of the sixteenth. Three generations of the Ashton family, lords of the manor of Ashton-under-Lyne between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries, contributed to the construction of the church, at which younger sons of the family also served as rector between 1458 and c.1515. The dedication to St Michael and All Angels is modern: the medieval parish church was dedicated to St Helen, and the panel of her conversion was originally housed in the east window, above the high altar, as part of an extended cycle of images depicting scenes from the saint’s life.
Extensive restoration and renovation work at the church in the nineteenth century included the removal of the St Helen glass from the east window to make way for the memorial window by James Ballantine and Son of Edinburgh still in situ. The St Helen panels were relocated to windows in the church’s north and south aisles until, in 1913, Samuel Caldwell of Canterbury, one of the most prominent stained-glass restorers of the early twentieth century, was called in to repair the glass. On completion of the restoration, the panels were grouped together in the four windows of the south aisle, where they remain today.
The panel shows St Helen, with long golden hair and a large crown, facing her son, the Roman emperor Constantine, in ermine robes and imperial crown and holding a golden sceptre, and Pope Sylvester, in purple garments and papal crown. Behind Helen stand four doctors (the two on the far right of the panel are modern), whilst in front of her, in the right foreground, Zambres, wearing a blue gown and black cap, leans over a prostrate bull. At the foot of the panel, a blackletter inscription, somewhat restored, reads: ‘Hic arte/ diabo(lii) / za(m)brez/ mag(us) êlene/ sufflabat/ i(n) aure/ tauru / et/ cecid(it) mor(t)u(m)’ (‘Here, using witchcraft, Zambres, Helen’s magician, whispers in the bull’s ear and kills it’).
The scene relates to the episode of St Helen’s conversion to the Christian faith. Of the historical St Helen, born AD c.250, little more is known than that she married the Roman general Constantius Chlorus and became mother to Constantine the Great; she converted to Christianity around the same time as her son in c.314 and went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where she died c.330. In the decades and centuries after her death, a variety of legends developed fleshing out these bare bones of her life. From as early as the late fourth century, she was credited with the discovery of the True Cross, on which Christ was crucified, whilst in Jerusalem; later, it came to be believed that she was the daughter of King Coel of Colchester (the King Cole of nursery rhyme), and wedded to Constantius when he came to England after conquering Spain. By the time of Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend (a thirteenth-century compilation of numerous saints’ lives), the description of Helen’s conversion included the episode represented here. After his own reception into the Christian faith, Constantine instructed that his mother should gather together the most learned Jewish men, whilst he would do the same from among the Christians, so that they could dispute and establish whose was the truer law. The Jewish ‘magus’, Zambres, came forward, killed a bull by whispering in its ear, and claimed he had caused its death by uttering the name of Jesus Christ. Pope Sylvester argued that Zambres had whispered the name of a devil, and accepted the challenge to restore the animal to life as a demonstration of Christ’s power. On Sylvester’s success, Helen, Zambres and the other Jewish doctors all converted in their faith.
The association of St Helen with the True Cross ensured her popularity through the medieval West, and imagery relating to her was incorporated into artistic products of even the highest status (fig. 1). In England, Helen’s alleged connections with King Coel gave her a particular significance, and she was represented in a variety of ways across a range of media. In late medieval stained glass, the remains of narratives relating to her life survive in panels from Dale Abbey (Derbys.) and Tattershall (Lincs.) (fig. 2), whilst single images of her wearing a crown and holding a cross can be found throughout the country (figs 3 and 4). At Ashton-under-Lyne, the life of St Helen as an iconographic choice, and the location of the glass in the church’s most important window, relates to the medieval habit of representing prominently a church’s dedication saint.
The Production of the Panel
The production of the St Helen window can be dated with some accuracy. One of the inscriptions in the window was recorded in the late sixteenth century as reading (in translation): ‘Pray for the good estate of Thomas Ashton, knight, Agnes his wife and pray for the souls of his wives Elizabeth and Anne’. Anne, Ashton’s second wife, after Elizabeth, died c.1497, and Sir Thomas married his fourth wife, Joan, in 1512. The window was therefore given whilst Sir Thomas’s third wife, Agnes, was alive, and must date from c.1497–1512. More precisely, it has been noted by Reddish that fragments inscribed with ‘quadri’ and ‘noag’ imply that the window was donated in the late 1490s.
No record has been found of who was responsible for painting the St Helen window. A number of the glass’s characteristics are common to much English glass of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, such as the relatively linear painting style and an interest in a rich colour palette compared with glass produced in the first half of the century. But the St Helen panels seem particularly related to glass painting attributed to the workshop of Richard Twygge and Thomas Wodeshawe, active in the last quarter of the fifteenth and the early sixteenth centuries. The facial features of the Ashton figures, for example, are very similar to those in the remains of a window depicting the Seven Sacraments from Tattershall (figs 5 and 6). There are parallels too between the elaborately cusped and vaulted canopies used to frame the panels at Ashton and those used in glass by Twygge-Wodeshawe. Apparently based in the Worcester area, the workshop is known to have travelled widely to fulfil the painting demands of its patrons which included among their number leading ecclesiastical and courtly figures of the day. As such, the similarities between work by Twygge-Wodeshawe and the St Helen panels at Ashton may either be attributable to the direct involvement of these glaziers there or serve as testimony to the wide spread influence of this high-status workshop.
Bibliography and Further Reading
H. Reddish summarizes the history of the St Helen cycle at Ashton and proposes a reconstruction of the original scheme in ‘The St Helen Window, Ashton-under-Lyne: A Reconstruction’, Journal of Stained Glass, xviii (2), 1986–87, pp. 150–65. Virginia Raguin’s on-line resource, ‘Mapping Margery Kempe’, accessible through the website of the College of the Holy Cross and focusing on late medieval lay devotion in England also includes a section on the St Helen panels. The glass will also be discussed and recorded fully in the forthcoming CVMA survey of the stained glass of Lancashire. The Twygge-Wodeshawe workshop is discussed in the context of medieval glass painting in England in Richard Marks, Stained Glass in England during the Middle Ages, Buffalo/Toronto/London, 1993.
The CVMA (GB) Picture Archive includes a number of further images of the glass at Ashton-under-Lyne.
Heather Gilderdale Scott