A Communion of St Denis

A Communion of St Denis scene in All Saints, North Street, York and the Feast of Corpus Christi

Amanda Daw


A fifteenth-century miraculous mass scene in the parish church of All Saints North Street in York is often described as showing a Mass of St Gregory. More recent investigations have revealed that this scene in fact shows the Communion of St Denis. The following article is an illustrated summary of previously published research into the identification of this scene and its resonances with the liturgy for the feast of Corpus Christi.1


Fig. 1 All Saints North Street, window s6 (after conservation), mostly mid-fifteenth-century glass.

Fig. 1. All Saints North Street, window s6 (after conservation), mostly mid-fifteenth-century glass (Image © Gordon Plumb, reproduced by kind permission)

Window s6 in All Saints, North Street, York contains three mid-fifteenth-century lights showing, from left to right: St James the Great, the Virgin and Child, and a miraculous mass scene (Fig. 1). In 1965–66 these lights were substantially restored as part of a wider campaign undertaken by York Minster Glaziers, in consultation with the late Dr Peter Newton. Unfortunately, Newton’s notes on the 1965-66 campaign appear to have been lost, leaving Eric Gee’s survey of the All Saints’ glass as the main source of information.2 Visual sources include pre-1922 drawings by Mabel Leaf, pre-conservation photographs by Dr Tom French and photographs in the CVMA Picture Archive.3 Gee’s survey provides a useful overview of the windows, a summary of the antiquarian sources and some suggestions concerning possible movements of the glass.

As Eric Gee’s plan shows, window s6 was originally the site of the south door (Fig. 2). He therefore suggests that the three lights now in this window were originally located in s4, which now contains predominately white glass.4  Pre-conservation photographs show that window s5, which depicts the Nine Orders of Angels, and most of the glass now in s6, were both badly fragmented, necessitating major repair and restoration (Figs 3 and 4). Both Henry Johnston’s drawing of s5, made c.1670, and Gent’s 1730 description of this glass suggest this window remained in some sort of recognisable condition until at least the first quarter of the eighteenth century.5 This suggests that the extensive damage to s5 and s6 must have occurred after 1730. Gee attributes the extraordinary degree of fragmentation to an unrecorded ‘cataclysmic event.’6 This was possibly caused by the parlous condition of the south wall, which was rebuilt in 1846.

Fig. 2 All Saints North Street, CVMA window plan. (Image © Amanda Daw)

Fig. 2. All Saints North Street, CVMA window plan (Image © Amanda Daw)

Fig. 3 All Saints North Street, window s5 (before conservation).

Fig. 3. All Saints, North Street, s5 (before conservation). (Image: Tom French collection © York Minster Archives, reproduced by kind permission)

Fig. 4 All Saints North Street, window s6 (before conservation).

Fig. 4. All Saints, North Street, s6 (before conservation). (Image: Tom French collection © York Minster Archives, reproduced by kind permission)

The third light of window s6, before and after conservation

Fig. 5 All Saints North Street, window s6, panel 3c (before conservation).

Fig. 5. All Saints, North Street, s6 3c (before conservation). (Image: Tom French collection © York Minster Archives, reproduced by kind permission)

Fig. 6 All Saints North Street, window s6, panels 2c and 3c (after conservation).

Fig. 6. All Saints, North Street, s6 3c (after conservation). (Image: Tom French collection © York Minster Archives, reproduced by kind permission)

A pre-conservation photograph of s6, taken in 1964, shows that all three of the main figures were set within a fragmented canopy or tabernacle, with columns that extended downwards on either side to frame the saints (see Fig. 4). These canopies and columns were extensively rearranged during the 1960s campaign (see Fig. 1). In 1730, Gent recorded an image of John the Baptist in the first light. However, Newton later identified this figure as St James the Great, shown in pilgrim’s garb. The pre-conservation photograph mentioned above shows this figure standing on a plinth. As part of the restoration work, plinths were also provided for the other two saints.

Photographs taken before and after the conservation of s6 show that panel 3c was the least damaged and underwent minimal intervention during the 1960s campaign (Figs 5 and 6). Apart from the uppermost areas, this panel is relatively complete and contains the main details of the miraculous mass scene. A nimbed and tonsured saint is shown holding the host as he kneels before an altar on which lie an open missal and a mitre. The saint gazes upwards towards the descending figure of Christ in Glory, who is accompanied by three angels. The head of a fourth angel, set directly above the scroll, has been patched in.

Christ’s hand is raised in a gesture of blessing that draws attention to the inscription on the speech scroll, which flows between him and the saint. A further inscription on the missal reads ‘Simili modo p[os]tquam cenatum est accipiens et hunc p[re]clarum’ (‘In a similar manner, when supper was ended, he took the excellent…’).7 These words, which were spoken in secret after the elevation of the Host, mark the consecration of the chalice.8)

Panel 2c, which has been reconstructed from fragments, shows the bottom half of the saint semi-kneeling on a patched-in plinth. Pre-conservation photos of panel 1c, taken in 1964, show that it was then composed of white diamond quarries (see Fig. 4). It now contains fragments of an inscription, with an assembly of other glass fragments beneath (Fig. 7).9 In 1730 Gent described this panel as showing ‘St. Paul and Silas in prison,’ but there is no sign of this image in the church’s extant glass.10 Equally, there are no signs of an image of the Man of Sorrows, the implications of which need further consideration.

A reconstructed Mass of St Gregory?

The most well-known version of the Mass of St Gregory legend relates how Christ, shown as the Man of Sorrows, appeared to Pope Gregory the Great while he was celebrating the Eucharist.11 In its simplest form, a Mass of St Gregory scene depicts this saint participating in the mass while the Man of Sorrows appears either on or above the altar (Fig. 8). Such scenes were rarely accurate representations of the liturgy, nor did they always show the elevation of the Host (Fig. 9). Those who gazed devoutly upon such images were granted an indulgence, which reduced the time they had to spend in Purgatory.12 By the time of the Reformation the number of years granted had risen exponentially.

Fig. 7 Fragments of indulgence text in All Saints North Street, window s6, panel 1c (after conservation).

Fig. 7. Fragments of indulgence text in All Saints, North Street, s6 1c (Image: CVMA Picture Archive, inv. no. 005369 © D. O’Connor)

Fig. 8 Late medieval alabaster carving showing Mass of St Gregory. Church of St Mary and St Michael, Stoke Charity, Hants. (Image © Eric Hardy. Reproduced by kind permission.)

Fig. 8. Late medieval alabaster carving showing Mass of St Gregory. Church of St Mary and St Michael, Stoke Charity, Hants. (Image © Eric Hardy. Reproduced by kind permission)

Fig. 9 St Gregory’s Mass with attached indulgence. Detail of brass commemorating Roger Legh and his wife, St Michael’s church, Macclesfield, Cheshire, c. 1506.

Fig. 9. St Gregory’s Mass with attached indulgence. Detail of brass commemorating Roger Legh and his wife, St Michael’s church, Macclesfield, Cheshire, c. 1506. Adapted from illustration in Remains Historical & Literary connected with the palatine counties of Lancaster and Chester, Chetham Society vol. XCVII (1876), 156.

Previous suggestions that panels 2-3c show a Mass of St Gregory primarily result from a failure to examine pre-conservation records of the glass and to look at the present panel in situ. For example, the RCHME entry for window s6, published in 1972, states that the saint in the third light ‘adores the half-length figure of Christ emerging from the tomb.’13 This is despite extant photographic evidence showing that there was no such figure in the glass at that time, or any evidence of it elsewhere. The perpetuation of this error is also partly due to a general assumption that this panel has been reconstructed from fragments, which thus accounts for the missing figure of the Man of Sorrows. This does not seem to be the case. In fact, nothing in the arrangement of this panel, either before or after conservation, indicates that the figure of Christ in Glory was somehow been used to replace a depiction of the Man of Sorrows. Indeed, none of the visual records suggest that a Man of Sorrows ever formed part of the original design, which substantially reduces the likelihood that panel 3c ever showed a Mass of St Gregory. Nonetheless, the somewhat generic nature of the figure of the saint may suggest that this model was designed for use in more than one miraculous mass scene, reflecting the fairly common practice of reusing cartoons during this period.

R. N. Swanson has identified the fragments of text now in panel 1c, immediately below the mass scene, as belonging to an indulgence text associated with either an image of the Man of Sorrows or a Mass of St Gregory (see Fig. 7).14 As already mentioned, this panel was previously composed of white diamond quarries. This raises the question of where the text fragments were found. In a personal communication to Sarah Brown, the late Peter Gibson confirmed that all the fragments used for repair and restoration came from with the church.15  However, he was not able to recall the previous location of these particular pieces of text. Swanson’s identification of this indulgence text is nonetheless significant because, as he observes, its existence suggests that stained glass images could provide a focus for devotion. Furthermore, since the text now in panel 1c cannot be definitively connected with the mass depicted in panels 2 -3c, its existence also strongly suggests that a Mass of St Gregory was depicted elsewhere in the All Saints’ glass.

One possible and appropriate location for a Mass of St Gregory would be the first light of s6 (s4). The first light of the glass in s4 (now in s6), has been occupied by a figure of James the Great since at least 1730. However, my fairly crude reconstruction drawing suggests that, in terms of composition alone, a St Gregory’s Mass in the first light would have provided a better counter-balance for the Communion scene (Fig. 10). The present monumental figure of St James looks completely out of place in relation to the other two lights, and would have been better placed in one of the other fifteenth-century windows, all of which contain visually balanced groups of standing figures (see Fig. 11). Even allowing for the extensive restoration of this figure and his raised plinth, the way that St James towers over the pre-eminent central figures of the Virgin and Child creates a visual solecism.

The assumption that panel 3c has been reassembled from fragments of a Mass of St Gregory is only one of the factors that have contributed to the misidentification of the miraculous scene in s6. The source of the speech scroll inscription and the added complication of an unusual aspect of the iconography have also contributed to previous confusion about this scene, which in fact can be identified as the Communion of St Denis. Apart from his status as a patron saint of France and his association with Saint-Denis in Paris, a modern English audience may be unfamiliar with the details of St Denis’s vitae. Since a knowledge of these helps to further the understanding of the s6 scene, a summary of his life is outlined below.

Fig. 10 Proposed reconstruction of All Saints’ window s6. The figure of St James in the first light has been replaced by a St Gregory’s Mass with the indulgence fragments at its foot.

Fig. 10. Proposed reconstruction of window s6, showing St Gregory’s Mass, with the indulgence fragments beneath, in the first light (Image © Amanda Daw)

Fig. 11 All Saints North Street, window n5, after conservation, showing standing figures of St Thomas, Christ and St William.

Fig. 11. All Saints, North Street, n5, showing St Thomas, Christ and St William (Image: CVMA Picture Archive, inv. no. 005323, © D. O’Connor)

St Denis’s vita and other textual sources for the Communion legend

The Communion legend was just one of several embellishments of the account of Denis’s vita popularised by Hilduin, a ninth-century abbot of Saint-Denis, in his Passio sanctissimi Dionysii (The Martyrdom of St Denis).16 Hilduin’s account conflates the biblical Dionysius the Areopagite with two other figures: Dionysius the pseudo-Areopagite, the author of The Celestial Hierarchies, and St Denis, the first bishop of Paris. Hilduin’s account had a widespread influence on later versions of Denis’s legend, especially Voragine’s account in his influential Legenda Aurea and its various translations. The following summary, which provides some context for the Communion scene, is largely based on The Gilte Legende, a 1438 English translation of Jean de Vignay’s fourteenth-century Légende Dorée (The Golden Legend).17

According to Vignay’s account Dionysius the Areopagite, an Athenian, witnessed the eclipse that occurred on the day of Christ’s crucifixion and interpreted it as a sign of an unknown true god. The conversion of ‘Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus’ by St Paul is recorded in Acts 17:34. This biblical character became bishop of Athens and achieved the conversion of the entire city. He learned about the celestial hierarchies from St Paul, witnessed the dormition of the Virgin, and visited Peter and Paul in prison. Following Peter and Paul’s martyrdoms, Pope Clement I sent Dionysius and his companions, Eleutherius and Rusticus, to evangelise Paris, where their success in making converts led Emperor Domitian to order them to be taken prisoner. Following a series of tortures they were sentenced to death by Fescennius, the Roman governor of Paris. As Dionysius was celebrating a final mass for his fellow prisoners, Christ appeared and administered Communion to him, while also promising that his suffering would be rewarded. All three saints were subsequently beheaded at Montmartre. Famously, Dionysius continued to preach while he carried his severed head, only expiring after he had walked for two miles to the site where the abbey of St Denis would be founded. English representations of St Denis usually show him as a cephalophore, holding his severed and mitred head in hands.

The cult of St Denis in England

The life of St Denis features in Aelfric’s 10th-century Lives of the Saints and in Goscelin’s eleventh-century vita of St Edith of Wilton. The latter has been regarded as an important source, as it includes a description of a lavishly painted chapel dedicated to St Denis. However, modern scholars have questioned the veracity of Goscelin’s emphasis on Edith’s devotion to St Denis, which may also indicate that this chapel did not contain extensive images from his vita.18 One indication that Denis’s cult was not particularly widespread in later medieval England is that no surviving English manuscripts are entirely devoted to his life. Instead, the textual sources of Denis’s legend are mainly found in Latin breviaries or in legendaries. As discussed below, there is also a solitary reference to a York play.

The feast of St Denis and his companions on 9 October is listed in all English calendars before 1100. Before the Reformation about thirty-six English churches were dedicated to this saint, only a few of which were located in northern England.19 In c.1421 St Mary’s, Manchester was rededicated to ‘The Blessed Virgin, St Denys and St George,’ but this seems to have been the last time a medieval English church was dedicated to Denis.

Very few surviving English manuscripts contain extensive iconographies of St Denis. Two fourteenth-century English productions, the Queen Mary Psalter and the Taymouth Hours, contain at least two scenes from the martyrdom of St Denis.20 Both manuscripts show signs of French influence, but neither contains a Communion scene. Lucy Freeman Sandler catalogues only one manuscript that illustrates a number of episodes from Denis’s vita, including his last Communion.21 She tentatively identifies this as belonging to the English section of this manuscript.

There was also a political aspect to the English cult of St Denis. As a quintessentially French saint, Denis inevitably featured in the propaganda of the two opposing sides. Laying claim to the patronage of St Denis was part of England’s claim to France. Following Henry V’s victory at Agincourt in 1415, Denis also became an English royal saint and, as such, was often linked with St George. The majority of fifteenth-century images of St Denis seem to have been made during the dual monarchy of Henry VI, King of England and France (1452–55).

Relatively few images of St Denis have survived in York. As a martyred saint Denis is represented in York Minster window n26, known as the Martyrdom Window.22 This early fourteenth-century glass is York’s earliest surviving image of St Denis. Unusually, the beheaded saint is shown between two executioners, while his soul is taken up to heaven by two angels. Although there is no record of an altar dedication, York Minster also had relics of St Denis, and of his companions, Rusticus and Eleutherius. In St Martin’s Coney Street, York, mid-fifteenth-century glass in N3 once held an image of St Denis.23 It may be no coincidence that this figure was adjacent to similarly dated figures of SS Christopher and George in N2. The only extant image of St Denis in a York book of hours appears in the suffrages of the early fifteenth-century ‘Pavement Hours.’24

By the fifteenth century, the parish church of St Denys Walmgate seems to have provided the main focus for York devotions to this saint. Agnes Newton’s will of 1426 mentions lights for the altars of St Denis and St George in this church. During the first reign of Henry VI (1422 to 1461), a depiction of Denis as a cephalophore saint was inserted into the east window.25 In 1513 parishioner Margaret Middleton bequeathed a pound of wax to be burnt before ‘the heid halow.’26 This is a reference to the church’s principal image, which presumably showed St Denis as a cephalophore, holding his ‘holy head.’ Although it is highly likely that this church once contained images showing other aspects of Denis’s vita, no records of these have survived.

The 1455 will of Robert Lasingby, parish clerk of St Denys Walmgate, York contains the only known reference to an English play about St Denis.27 Lasingby bequeathed his copy of ‘ludum oreginale Sancti Dionisii’ (the original play of St Denis) to his church as part payment for his burial. This suggests that the manuscript held some intrinsic value for the church of St Denys. Lasingby’s use of the word ‘oreginale’ suggests this was ‘a prompt-copy’ for the play, which may have contained the narrative for a tableau, or possibly the script for a more elaborate dramatic performance.28 However, nothing further is known about the play’s contents, or the language in which it was written. It may have had points of similarity with the surviving text of Le Geu Saint Denis (The Play of St Denis), a late-fourteenth or early-fifteenth-century play written in a northern French dialect.29 This play contains a series of scenes based on Denis’s vita, including the Communion of St Denis. Although the text for this scene is brief, it is strongly evocative of the scene in the All Saints’ glass.

Charlotte Lacaze has suggested that a liturgical play of St Denis was once performed in Latin at Saint-Denis in Paris, but this does not necessarily mean that French saint plays had any direct influence on the form of their English counterparts.30 Surviving sources do not record if the York version of this play was liturgical, if it was ever performed, or the language in which it was written. Although Lasingby’s will offers no more than a tantalising glimpse of this play, its existence nonetheless suggests that aspects of St Denis’s vita were once familiar to at least one group of York parishioners. Nonetheless, an isolated Communion scene, divorced other aspects of the saint’s vita, seems a rather obscure way of representing St Denis, especially for an English audience. In fact, as far as I am aware, All Saints North Street window s6 contains the only surviving representation of the Communion of St Denis in English stained glass. If so, the commissioner of this image may not have had access to a visual model.  

Visual models for the All Saints’ North Street Communion scene

Most extant depictions of the Communion of St Denis are French. Two hundred and eight-nine miniatures showing St Denis can be viewed via the online catalogue of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, only eight of which depict the Communion of St Denis.31 Most of these examples appear with other scenes from his vita, sometimes as part of a martyrdom sequence. In terms of patronage, the greatest proportion occur in manuscripts that were produced by or for large abbeys, for French royal households, or for the nobility.32 Non-liturgical contexts for this scene include vita manuscripts and Vignay’s translation of Speculum historiale by Vincent of Beauvais.

Other continental examples of the Communion scene survive in stained glass, stone carvings, murals, alabasters and ivories. My own survey, which covers a wide variety of media, has so far identified thirty-five extant instances, excluding the All Saints’ scene. Of these, one is probably English, three are Flemish, one is German, one is of uncertain origin, and the remaining twenty-nine are French. Examples include the early thirteenth-century stained glass of Bourges Cathedral (Fig. 12), the thirteenth-century choir clerestory glass of Tours Cathedral (Fig. 13), and the partially restored portal carvings of the abbey of Saint-Denis.

The cult of St Denis was also popular in other parts of Europe, including ninth-century Germany, where more than a hundred monasteries were dedicated to him. Some evidence of a longer-term devotion to this saint in Germany survives in the form of a fifteenth-century wall-painting showing Denis’s vita in the chancel of St Dionysius, Schmiden.

However, these continental examples differ from the All Saints’ version of this scene in two important respects: most of them make some visual reference to Denis’s prison and all of them depict Christ ministering to St Denis. Since the All Saints North Street scene lacks these visual ‘markers,’ the inscription on the speech scroll warrants greater attention.

The significance of the speech scroll

Fig. 12 Christ administers Communion to incarcerated St Denis, Bourges, Saint-Etienne cathedral, window 11, panel 8b, c. 1210-15.

Fig. 12. Christ administers Communion to incarcerated St Denis, Bourges, Saint-Etienne cathedral, window 11, panel 8b, c.1210-15 (Image © Katie Harrison)

Fig. 13 Christ administers Communion to incarcerated St Denis. Saint-Gatien Cathedral, Tours, France, window 211, panel 2a, c. 1250-75.

Fig. 13. Christ administers Communion to incarcerated St Denis. Saint-Gatien Cathedral, Tours, France, window 211, panel 2a, c.1250-75 (Image © Katie Harrison)

Liturgical texts such as those in s6 often feature in stained glass inscriptions and it is important to consider their source, their accessibility and their possible broader significance.33 Both the Sarum and York liturgies marked the feast of St Denis and his Companions. In both uses the lessons for this feast relate a selection of episodes from his legend, including his final Communion. However, only the York breviary uses the precise wording that appears on the speech scroll in panel 3c.34 These words form part of the breviary account of the Communion legend in lesson five. A version of this legend also forms part of the responses at the end of lesson four, while another is used for an antiphon in lesson six. A noted York breviary of c.1400-1450 uses almost identical wording.35 For the ease of the reader, the text from Lawley’s edition of a 1493 printed York breviary has been used here, as this can be accessed online.36 Phrases that appear on the speech scroll in panel 3c have been underlined.

‘Ubi dum sanctus dionysius missam celebraret: hora qua frangeretur panis sanctus quo ipse et populus communicarentur: in luce magna apparuit dominus Jesus Christus cum multitudine angelorum; et accipiens panem sanctum dedit ei dicens. Accipe hoc chare37 meus quod mox complebo tibi una cum patre meo: et pro quibuscunque petieris impetrabis.’38

‘While Saint Denis was celebrating mass there: at the time that the saint should break bread with which himself and the people should communicate: Jesus Christ appeared in a great light with a multitude of angels; and taking the bread gave it to him saying. Receive this my beloved: with which soon I, together with my father, will fill you: and whatsoever you ask I will give to thee.’39

The above description of Christ appearing in a great light and accompanied by angels closely corresponds with the upper part of panel 3c (see Fig. 6). However, as a stand-alone figure, the depiction of St Denis could equally provide a model for saints in other miraculous mass scenes, including that of St Gregory. As already stated, all other examples of the Communion scene that were examined during this research show Christ administering the Host to St Denis. Consequently, the use of a more generic model in s6 has contributed to previous confusion about this scene’s identity. The Latinity of both the inscription and its textual source also had implications for lay understanding of the scene.

Despite a growing market for portable breviaries amongst wealthier members of the laity, their Latinity limited both their readership and audience. York wills proved up to 1497 contain bequests of 478 breviaries, many of which were portable.40 However, these were probably not as lavishly illuminated as breviaries produced in Paris for the English market, and are unlikely to have provided any visual model for the Communion scene. When the All Saints’ Communion scene was made, there were two main English sources of the Communion legend in circulation. These were the late-thirteenth-century South English Legendary and the early-fifteenth-century English translation known as The Gilte Legende.41 Only eight copies of the latter have survived and, although more copies may have been produced, their circulation would not have matched that of Caxton’s much later printed version, published in 1483.42 Estimating the circulation of vernacular translations is difficult because, in accordance with the protocols for writing Latin wills, all book titles were given in Latin. Although John Friedman’s survey of York wills lists sixteen bequests of the Legenda Aurea, only some these predate the glass in s6.43 Consequently, most lay parishioners at All Saints probably had limited access to vernacular versions of Denis’s legend.

Using evidence which partly relates to All Saints North Street, Eleanor McCullough has argued that, at least by the late Middle Ages, the laity had acquired ‘a much more active grasp of and participation in the liturgy than is commonly supposed.’44 Even so, the text used for the All Saints’ Communion scene is both in Latin and, in liturgical terms, is relatively obscure. It therefore seems highly likely that some degree of clerical knowledge played a role in the commissioning of this scene. Without any help, most lay viewers would also have struggled to identify this scene as showing part of Denis’s vita. Nevertheless, as a depiction of a miraculous mass, they may have understood that this scene held some visual resonances with the Feast of Corpus Christi. Whether such an audience also grasped the more specific association between the legend of St Denis’s last Communion and the liturgy for this feast is another matter.

The Communion of St Denis and the Feast of Corpus Christi

As mentioned above, Communion of St Denis scenes normally showed Christ as the minister and Denis as the communicant. Such depictions strongly resonated with the liturgy for the feast of Corpus Christi. In the York breviary this was based on the Roman office and began with the antiphon, ‘Christ, a priest forever, according to the order of Melchisedek.’45 Melchisedek is first mentioned in Genesis 14:18, which relates how, in his role as a king and high priest, he brings bread and wine to Abraham. Typologically, Melchisedek brings the redemptive body and blood of Christ, and is indirectly referenced in St Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews 7:17 where God describes his Son as the eternal high priest. As priest, Christ thus sacrifices his own redemptive body and blood at the altar.

Fig. 14 Common Seal of the York Corpus Christi Guild granted 1459.

Fig. 14. Common Seal of the York Corpus Christi Guild granted 1459. Adapted from engraving in preface to R. Skaife, ed., The register of the guild of Corpus Christi in the City of York, Surtees Society, no. 57 (Durham, 1872)

As Miri Rubin notes, developing iconographies for the feast of Corpus Christi took some time.46 The vast majority of images used to mark this feast showed a Corpus Christi procession, a mass scene, the Host and Chalice, or a monstrance (Fig. 14). Despite clear differences between the Communion legend and that of the Mass of St Gregory, the Eucharistic elements of both images, particularly the presence of Christ at the mass, made them equally suitable to mark the feast of Corpus Christi.

In France, pre-existing models for the Communion of St Denis provided an innovative and apposite solution to depicting the feast of Corpus Christi. Two French breviaries of Franciscan use demonstrate an early and direct connection between this feast and the Communion scene. Both manuscripts are lavish Parisian productions and were specifically produced for royal households. Denis, as the patron saint and protector of kings, would normally be depicted in the suffrages. However, the 1325 Breviary of Jeanne d’Evreux contains a Communion scene above the incipit of the first antiphon for Corpus Christi, thus creating a direct link between Christ’s ministry to Denis and the words ‘Sacerdos in eternum’ (A priest forever).47 Another Communion scene appears above the first reading for Corpus Christi in the Breviary of Jeanne de Bourbon (d. 1378), made between 1330 and 1350.48 This reading praises the sacrifice of the incarnate Christ and extols the gift of the Sacrament. The dating of these breviaries suggests that the Communion scene became associated with the iconography of Corpus Christi fairly soon after this feast was established in 1317. Nonetheless, surviving examples of a Communion scene in this context are relatively rare.

Another Communion scene featured on the carved alabaster altarpiece also commissioned by Queen Jeanne d’Evreux in c.1340 for the high altar of the Cistercian abbey of Maubuisson. The centrepiece of this now-broken alabaster altarpiece showed the Last Supper. On the left were the figures of Moses, King David and a prophet, followed by a Communion scene in which Christ is shown holding a chalice as he administers the host to an imprisoned St Denis.49 To the right of the central panel were figures of three prophets and an angel carrying two cruets. Images of the patrons are no longer extant. This altarpiece’s depictions of the Last Supper, the Communion of St Denis and the Angel with Two Cruets, all held strong Eucharistic connotations, which would have been further strengthened by their location at the high altar.

The ‘Martyrdom of St. Denis’ altarpiece by Henri Bellechose, painted for the charterhouse of the Holy Trinity at Champnol c.1416, is dominated by the broken and bleeding body of the crucified Christ, depicted as the second person of the Trinity.50 His blood flows from the foot of the Cross, towards a second figure of Christ, who administers the host to St Denis through the prison bars, while the martyrdom of St Denis is shown on the far right. The conflation of these three scenes serves to emphasise Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross and the host as a symbol of that sacrifice. Although the central subject of the Trinity most obviously reflects the dedication of the charterhouse for which it was commissioned, it also falls into a category that Paul Binski describes as ‘self-consciously eucharistic.’51

The choice of the Communion scene for All Saints window s6 may similarly reflect the devotional interests of its donors, all of whom were members of the York Corpus Christi Guild. In 1618 Dodsworth recorded an inscription ‘In a w[indow]: Orate pro animabus Richardi Killingholme et Johanne et Margarete vxoribus eius’ (Pray for the souls of Richard Killingholme and of his wives Joan and Margaret.’52 Richard Killingholme was a tanner (d. 1451) who, with his first wife Johanna, was admitted to the York Corpus Christi Guild in 1428.53 Gee uses a process of elimination to suggest that this inscription can only have been in window s4, which he argues was the original location of the glass now in s6.54 Burials sometimes involved more than one consideration, so the siting of Killingholme’s grave slab opposite window s6 may not be significant.55 As there is no mention of this window in his will, the glass may have been given in his lifetime or made sometime between the death of Johanna and his remarriage to Margaret.56

Allan Barton has suggested merchant Robert Colynson (d. 1458) as the donor of s6.57 Killingholme’s likely involvement does not preclude this possibility, since Colynson may have helped to fund this window as part of a joint enterprise with other members of the York Corpus Christi Guild. Colynson became a freeman in 1426, was admitted to the Corpus Christi Guild in 1429 and became Lord Mayor in 1457.58 He was buried in the south aisle of the church, more or less opposite window s4.59 Other possible donors include William Stokton, also a mercer and Lord Mayor (d. c.1471). Stokton joined the Corpus Christi Guild between 1433-1435 and married Colynson’s widow Isabella.60 Both Stokton and Isabella were buried alongside Colynson.59 The proposed combination of an incarnational image of the Virgin and Child, flanked by an indulgenced Mass of St Gregory and a Communion of St Denis would have made this window an ideal focus for the devotions of this guild’s members.

Fig. 15 ‘Corpus Christi’ panel from St John’s, Micklegate, York, c.1450-75. Now in York Minster window n20.

Fig. 15. ‘Corpus Christi’ panel from St John’s, Micklegate, York, c.1450-75. Now in York Minster window n20. (Image © Gordon Plumb, reproduced by kind permission/https://flic.kr/p/8DjKDR)

It seems unlikely that these proposed lay donors were capable of devising and commissioning such a window without any clerical assistance. The choice of a Communion scene was unusual and diverged considerably from the mid-fifteenth-century ‘Corpus Christi’ images which J. W. Knowles linked to their eponymous guild.61 Four surviving panels of York’s fifteenth-century glass contain this form of imagery, which is sometimes known as a Not Gottes (The Sorrow of God); it is only referred to as ‘a Corpus Christi’ in York. Such images show God the Father holding his Son, whose wounded body slumps in his Father’s arms, as if recently removed from the Cross, while the dove of the Holy Spirit hovers nearby (Fig. 15). The feast of Corpus Christi follows directly after that of Holy Trinity and the Trinitarian nature of such images reflects an intertwining of the iconographies of these two feasts. This is particularly apparent in French art and drama, where the Communion of St Denis legend was explicitly connected with the veneration of the Holy Trinity. Examples include the Bellechose altarpiece, mentioned earlier, which makes a clear connection between St Denis and the Trinity, and the Communion scene in ‘Le Geu St Denis,’ where Christ promises St Denis that he will see the Trinity ‘Face à face en felicité’ (Face to face in bliss). However, these overtly Trinitarian references are omitted from the York Breviary account, in which Christ promises that Denis will soon join him and his Father in heaven.


It is not clear why the Communion scene in All Saints North Street is the only surviving example that omits the crucial depiction of Christ as Ministrant. Although it is possible that this form of representation was typically English, the absence of any other surviving examples makes this impossible to assess. The commissioner of this image was clearly familiar with the full breviary text. Consequently, he may have thought that Christ’s role as Ministrant was sufficiently indicated by the inscription on the speech scroll. However, this would not apply to a non-Latinate audience, for whom it may have sufficed to see this scene as simply depicting a miraculous scene. Perhaps the simplest explanation is to see the All Saints’ version of this scene as a form of iconographical error, possibly resulting from the reuse of a more generic model to represent St Denis. If so, this further suggests that whoever commissioned this scene did not have access to a visual source and had to rely on the breviary account of the Communion legend. The relative obscurity of this account increases the likelihood of clerical involvement in the commissioning of the Communion scene, while its funding was probably a collaborative exercise, involving lay parishioners who were also members of the York Corpus Christi Guild.

Whether or not the proposed St Gregory’s Mass was located in the first light of s6, the Communion scene remains a particularly apposite image to represent both the liturgical feast of Corpus Christi and to commemorate members of its eponymous guild. One thing seems certain: All Saints North Street in York contains the only surviving image of the Communion of St Denis in English stained glass. The presence of this unusual iconography in All Saints’ window s6 also further confirms the remarkable nature of this church’s medieval glass.


  1. Amanda Daw, “The Communion of St Denis and the Feast of Corpus Christi in the 15th-Century Stained Glass of All Saints North Street in York,” in JBAA, vol. 168. (2015), 142–164. (Also available on the Academia website).[]
  2. Eric Gee, “The painted glass of All Saints’ Church, North Street, York,” Archaeologia, 102 (1969), 151–202.[]
  3. Tom French slide collection, York Minster Archives; Mabel Leaf Archive, ref. LEAF, Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York (some of Leaf’s drawings are published in P. Shaw, An Old York church, All Hallows in North Street: its Mediaeval Stained Glass and Architecture (York 1908); CVMA Picture Archive, https://www.cvma.ac.uk. Last Accessed 5 Feb. 2021[]
  4. Gee, “The painted glass of All Saints’,” 174. Gee’s suggestions concerning the movements of the glass are discussed more fully in Daw, “The Communion of St Denis.”[]
  5. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Top. Yorks. c14; Gent’s account of s5 is cited in Gee, ibid, 193.[]
  6. Gee, ibid., 153[]
  7. I am indebted to the late Ann Rycraft for her help with this translation.[]
  8. J.  Harper, The Forms and Orders of Western Liturgy from the Tenth to the Eighteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 114–24. (Words spoken in secret were whispered, thus ensuring that they could not be heard by the congregation.[]
  9. For a more detailed description see Gee, “The painted glass of All Saints’,” 175.[]
  10. Cited in Gee, “The painted glass of All Saints’,” 195.[]
  11. See, for example, Esther Meir, Die Gregorsmesse: Funktionem eines spätmittelalterlichen Bildtypus, (Cologne: Böhlau Verlag, 2006); For an alternative view of such images see Caroline Walker Bynum, ‘Seeing and Beyond, The Mass of St Gregory in the Fifteenth Century’, in The mind’s eye: art and theological argument in the Middle Ages, ed. J. Hamburger and A. Bouché (Princeton 2006), 208-240.[]
  12. R. N. Swanson, Indulgences in Late Medieval England: passports to paradise? (Cambridge: CUP, 2007), 258-63.[]
  13. RCHME An inventory of the historical monuments in the city of York, vol. 3: Southwest of the Ouse (London: HMSO, 1972), 9.[]
  14. R. Swanson, “Fragments of an Indulgence Inscription in a Window at All Saints, North Street, York,” Antiquaries Journal, 88 (London 2008), 308–12.[]
  15. I am grateful to Professor Sarah Brown, Director of York Glaziers Trust, for passing on this communication from Mr Peter Gibson, a former superintendent of the York Glaziers Trust and formerly a member of York Minster Glaziers.[]
  16. D. Luscombe, “The reception of the writings of Denis the Pseudo-Areopagite into England,” in Tradition and Change: Essays in Honour of Marjorie Chibnall, ed. M. Chibnall, D. Greenway et al. (Cambridge: CUP, 1985), 118, n. 5.[]
  17. The Gilte Legend, ed. R. Hamer and V. Russell, Early English Text Society, O.S.328, 2 vols (Oxford, 2007), vol. 2, 751–58.[]
  18. S. Hollis, “St Edith and the Wilton Community,” in Writing the Wilton Women: Goscelin’s Legend of Edith and Liber confortatorius, ed. S. Hollis (Turnhout: Brepols, 2004), 245–80.[]
  19. F. Wormald, English Kalendar before 1100, Henry Bradshaw Society, vol. 72 (London, 1934); F. Arnold-Foster, Studies in Church Dedications, 3 vols (London, 1899), vol. II, 479–80.[]
  20. London, British Library MS Royal 2.VII, fols 270r–272v; London, British Library MS Yates Thompson 13, fols 192v–193v.[]
  21. Described and illustrated in L. Freeman Sandler, Gothic Manuscripts Illuminated in the British Isles, 1285–1385 (London c. 1986), vol I, cat. nos 76 and 82 and vol. II, fig. 190.[]
  22. https://stainedglass-navigator.yorkglazierstrust.org/window/martyrdom-window/explore (Last accessed 15 Feb 2021).[]
  23. F. Harrison, The Painted Glass of York: An Account of the Medieval Glass of the Minster and the Parish Churches (London: SPCK, 1927), 36[]
  24. York Minster Archives MS XVI K6, fol. 92v.[]
  25. York, Borthwick Institute, ProbReg. 2, fol. 504r.[]
  26. York, Borthwick Institute, ProbReg 8, fol. 115[]
  27. York, Borthwick Institute, Prob Reg 2, fols 342Av-343r.[]
  28. G. Wickham, The Medieval Theatre, 3rd edition (Cambridge: CUP, 1987), 74.[]
  29. Le Geu Saint Denis: du manuscrit 1131 de la Bibliothèque St Geneviève de Paris, critical edition by B. J. Seubert (Geneva 1974), 117–18; c.f. G. A. Runnalls, “Un siècle dans la vie d’un Mystère: Le Mystère de Saint Denis,” in Le Moyen Age, XCVII (1991), 407–30.[]
  30. C. Lacaze, The Vie de St Denis Manuscript: Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Ms. fr. 2090–2092 (NewYork: Garland, 1979), 102–06.[]
  31. http://mandragore.bnf.fr (Last accessed 14 Feb. 2021).[]
  32. See for example, London, BL MS Egerton 1070, fol. 90v. ‘The Hours of René of Anjou’, Paris, c.1410. Note that Denis’s suffrage is followed by that of St George. http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=egerton_ms_1070_f090v  (Last accessed 15 Feb. 2021).[]
  33. N. J. Morgan, “What are they Saying? Patrons & their Text Scrolls in Fifteenth-Century English Art,” in Patronage, Power and Agency in Medieval Art, ed. C. Hourihane (Princeton, 2013), 175–93; R. Marks, ‘Picturing Words and Text in the Late Medieval Parish Church’, in Image, Text and Church, 1380–1600: Essays for Margaret Aston, ed. L. Clark, M. Jurkowski and Colin Richmond (Toronto, 2009), 162–208.[]
  34. Breviarium ad usum insignis ecclesie Eboracensis, ed. S. Lawley (Surtees Society, no. 75), 2 vols (Durham, 1883), vol. II, col. 607.[]
  35. Lambeth Palace Sion College MS. L1: the noted breviary of York, ed. A. Hughes (Ottawa, 2000), 815.[]
  36. https://archive.org/details/breviariumadusu02yorkgoog/page/n326/mode/1up[]
  37. The use of chare instead of care is almost certainly a printing error that may have featured in the 1493 printed breviary or perhaps occurred during the publication of Lawley’s edition.[]
  38. Breviarium ad usum … Eboracensis, vol. II, cols 607-608.[]
  39. I am grateful to the late Ann Rycraft for her help with this translation.[]
  40. J. Friedman, Northern English Books, Owners, and Makers in the Late Middle Ages (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1995), 8.[]
  41. The South English Legendary, ed. C. d’Evelyn and A. Mill, Early English Text Society, O.S.235, 236 and 244 (London, 1956–59), vol. 2, 434–39.[]
  42. The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints Compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, Englished by William Caxton, First Edition 1483, ed. F. S. Ellis, 7 vols (London, 1940), vol. 5, 246–55.[]
  43. J. Friedman, Northern English Books, 8[]
  44. E. McCullough, ‘Praying the Passion: Laypeople’s Participation in Medieval Liturgy and Devotion’ (unpublished P.D. thesis, University of York, 2011), 209.[]
  45. ‘…sacerdos in aeternum, secundum ordinem Melchisedech,’ Hebrews 7:17, Latin Vulgate.[]
  46. Miri Rubin, Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (Cambridge, 1991), 204–08.[]
  47. Chantilly, Musée Condé, MS 51, fol. 155v. Described in V. Leroquais, Les breviaires manuscrits des bibliothèques publiques de France, vol. 1 (Paris: 1934), no. 156, 271–74.[]
  48. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Latin 1288, fols 297r and 297v. https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b8447293p (Last accessed 13 Feb. 2021).[]
  49. The Communion scene and other parts of the Maubuisson altarpiece are in the collections of the Louvre Museum and can viewed online. http://cartelfr.louvre.fr/cartelfr/visite?srv=car_not_frame&idNotice=1599&langue=fr (Last accessed 13 Feb 2021) and www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/angel-carrying-two-cruets (Last accessed 13 Feb 2021). The above account of this altarpiece relies heavily on the accompanying notes by Valérie Montalbetti. A photo-montage that reassembles the surviving fragments is illustrated in Françoise Baron, “Le maître-autel de l’abbaye de Maubuisson au XIVe siècle”, Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, Comptes rendus des séances de l’année 1970, Paris, 1971, pp. 538-541, Fig. 2.[]
  50. www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/altarpiece-martyrdom-st-denis (Last accessed 13 Feb. 2021).[]
  51. Paul Binski, “The English Parish Church and Its Art in the Later Middle Ages: A Review of the Problem,” Studies in Iconography 20 (1999),” 48, n.6.[]
  52. Cited in Gee, “All Saints Church,” 188.[]
  53. Borthwick Institute, York, ProbReg. 2, fol. 223v; c.f. R. Skaife, ed., The register of the guild of Corpus Christi in the City of York, Surtees Society, no. 57 (Durham, 1872), 28.[]
  54. Gee, “All Saints Church,” 188-189.[]
  55. For a copy of Tate’s 1866 plan, showing All Saints North Street burial slabs, see P. Shaw, All Hallows.[]
  56. Gee, “All Saints Church,” 188.[]
  57. A. Barton, A Guide to the Church of All Saints, North Street, York (York 2003), 17.[]
  58. Skaife, Register, 29.[]
  59. Shaw, All Hallows (see n.49).[][]
  60. Skaife, Register, 32.[]
  61. J. A Knowles, Essays in the History of the York School of Glass Painting (London: SPCK, 1936), pp. 169-172.[]

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