The Oculus of York Minster: Understanding the Story of a Window Hidden in Plain Sight
The beauty of York Minster’s windows often captivates the curious eyes of a visitor walking, for the first time, across the nave of the cathedral. Even those who are more familiar with its charms are arrested with fascination and wonder by the kaleidoscopic effects of the changing light shining through the glass. The richness and reputation of York Minster’s windows means that its most magnificent glazing often attracts attention at the expense of its smaller, more peculiar treasures.
The cathedral is filled with these interesting, hidden gems, one of which is most certainly the Oculus (window w2) above the Great West Door. I was astonished to see that, when pointing it out to other people familiar with the York Minster’s glazing, many were surprised by the presence of a glazed tracery in such prominent position, as they had never noticed it before.
It is for this reason that, about a year ago, I decided to pursue a research project on this largely overlooked window, in order to better understand its history. This research, developed as part of my dissertation for an MA in Stained Glass Conservation and Heritage Management at the University of York, explored its history, style and relationship with other windows in the Minster, underpinning my development of a conservation methodology for the window.
This article focuses briefly upon my re-examination of the window’s context, before considering its scant treatment in previous scholarship and the physical and documentary evidence of its history. Together, these strands of investigation have enabled me to present new insights into the window’s past.
The Oculus (Fig.1), window w2, is situated at the west end of York Minster, above the Great West Door. It consists of eight different panels, which pierce the tympanum of the west doorway; three large trefoils alternate with three smaller ones to form the central round stonework, which is flanked on either side by two triangular shaped panels. The Great West Door can be dated to between 1310 and 1339, although the exact date of construction is uncertain.1
However, even at first glance, it is immediately apparent that little or none of the Oculus’ original fourteenth-century glass survives. The current glazing clearly does not date from the fourteenth century, as the panels are composites, incorporating glass from the fifteenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Fig.2). The three large trefoils (B, D, and F) contain fifteenth-century figures of sainted kings and bishops between angels (Fig.3). The small trefoils (A, C and E) contain the fifteenth-century figures of two angels (A and C) (Fig.4) and two naked figures (E). The triangular panels on the sides (G and H) are filled with eighteenth-century foliate and architectural designs, possibly by William Peckitt, and a fragment of a battle scene on the right (H) (Fig.5). Given the great variety of subjects and dating of the fragments, the reader might naturally ask how all these pieces came together in the Oculus and when this happened.
An Oculus or a tympanum?
Before exploring the history of the window, it is necessary to clarify terminology. Window w2 is often referred to as the Oculus, but is it, technically speaking, an oculus at all? Oculi are characterised by their round form, often, but not necessarily, subdivided by stonework, and can be identified as the predecessor of both the wheel window and the rose window.2 Oculi are also often characterised as being large round openings on the façade of churches or transepts, such as the twelfth-century oculi at Canterbury Cathedral, although many early examples are only one or two metres in diameter.3 Looking again at the Oculus in York Minster, the reader will certainly notice some incongruencies with the details just described: w2 is characterised by stone tracery. It is not prominently situated in the middle of the wall, as for example, is the case at Canterbury, but is instead located in the tympanum above the Great West Doors. Therefore, window w2 is technically not an oculus, per se, but a completely different feature, as will be explored below. However, the existing literature that addresses window w2 refers to it as the Oculus over the Great West Doors or the “tracery above the Western Doorway”.4 Therefore, in order to avoid any confusion, since it is already known in the literature and colloquially as “the Oculus”, this article will refer to window w2 by this name.
In Norman and Gothic architecture, tympana are not usually glazed, indeed, the stonework is not pierced in any way. Instead, they are decorated with bas-reliefs, usually representing biblical subjects, saints or symbolic forms, such as the very common vesica piscis.5 The form of the tympanum over the Great West Door at York Minster, which is glazed, and lacks sculptural decoration, is particularly unusual, although there are some examples in Europe.
The west doors at Reims each have a very elaborate glazed tympanum, and the tracery of the central door resembles a rose window. Whilst the glass is now a twentieth-century restoration, installed after the destruction of the earlier glass during the First World War, it is very likely that these tympana had always been glazed since their creation in the 1250s.6 At St Urbain, Troyes, the doors in the transept (Fig.6), built 1266, all have glazed tympana. This is particularly significant, as relationships between the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century architecture of St Urbain and York Minster have been identified. Sarah Brown has argued that the source for the use of arches and gables in York Minster, firstly in the Chapter House (begun c.1280) and then in the nave, is ultimately from Troyes.7 The influence from Troyes is also found in the French Rayonnant traits in the architecture of the Nave, associated with John le Romeyn (Archbishop of York, 1285-96), who is known to have visited Troyes in 1291.8 Given the evidence of these links with Troyes, it is therefore possible that the idea of a glazed tympanum at York was inspired by the earlier examples at Troyes, albeit expressed using contemporary architectural forms.
A third European example can be found above a side door of the Lower Basilica in Assisi, Italy, built in the second half of the thirteenth century. This glazed tympanum (Figs.7-8) is closer in form and scale to the Oculus over the West Door of York Minster. As at York, the doorway is divided by a central column and culminates with a pointed archway, in which glazing and stone tracery coexist, subdivided into a central circular shape flanked by two smaller openings. Differences in the forms of the tracery are understandable, given the difference in date between the two examples. Unsurprisingly, the design at Assisi is typical of thirteenth-century Italian gothic architecture, while the ogee forms in York are characteristic of the early fourteenth-century. Nevertheless, the broad similarities between the two doorways might suggest a possible Italian influence, or at least an awareness of such architectural ideas, during the design of the doorway at York. It is known that the stylistic ideas of the Italian Trecento had made their way to England at this time, introducing important innovations within visual media and specific iconographic features. Indeed, it has been agreed by several scholars that Italianate iconographies and forms can be found in windows s35 and s36 in York Minster.9
These European examples reveal that the Oculus at York fits within a small, but geographically diverse group of glazed tympana, spanning the mid-thirteenth to the late-fourteenth centuries. This group is characterised by buildings with strong influences on contemporary European architectural and artistic trends.
The iconography of the original glazing of w2 is as enigmatic as its formal design. However, the glazed tympana of Reims and Troyes offer two contrasting approaches to decoration that could have been applied at York. Meredith Lillich has suggested that the original glazing of the tympanum at Reims could have incorporated a depiction of the Virgin and Child, to whom the cathedral is dedicated.10 In contrast, the tympana at St Urbain are filled with geometric grisaille. It is worth noting that the Troyes tympana are situated in the transepts, rather than the west façade. The glazing of the Oculus at York, set within the west wall, in a location comparable to that at Reims, might therefore have been more likely to include an image of St Peter, the patron of York Minster, or images related to him, such as the crossed keys. Such iconographic choices would also have corresponded with the monumental display of bishops and archbishops of York beneath the apostles in William de Melton’s (Archbishop of York, 1316-40) west window (w1), which is located directly above the Oculus. Indeed, Melton’s involvement in the glazing of w2 cannot be ruled out, although there is no evidence to confirm it.
The current glazing: sources and past scholarship
Although firmer conclusions regarding the construction and original glazing of the Oculus cannot be proposed, it has been possible to refine our understanding of the history of its current glazing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the wealth of the stained glass in York Minster, very little has previously been written about the history of this window. In the limited number of sources that mention the Oculus, it is the focus of only a few words or paragraphs. This is perhaps in part due to the similarly scant references to the window in archival and antiquarian sources.
The first evidence relating to the Oculus can be found in James Torre’s record, “The antiquities of York Minster”, written around 1690.11 When looking for information on the history of York Minster, its architecture and windows, James Torre’s manuscript is often an invaluable source. Sadly, this is not the case for the Oculus; Torre states that there is “a little round window” over the West Doors, but does not give any further description.12 He provides a drawing of the doorway, as part of the central section of the west wall. Torre’s treatment of the Oculus suggests that it could have been plain glazed at that point in time, as the drawing shows quarries in the openings of the tympanum. However, this is not certain; in other parts of the manuscript, Torre usually mentions if a window has been plain glazed. Moreover, in many cases, including w1 in the same drawing, Torre uses the same pattern to represent other windows, which are then described as painted. It could also be that Torre was focussing mainly on other windows and did not want to spend time on this small window, or it could mean that the glass had been lost. Consequently, it is uncertain whether the original glazing of the Oculus had been lost by 1690.
Shortly after Torre’s description, in the fabric account for 1693, appears a receipt from Charles Crosby, which records that he: “[…] Delivered white glass for the Chapter House window that I did by greatt and the litle window at the West End 6 tables at 18 pence per table”.13 This could well suggest that work was being carried out on the Oculus at this time. Moreover, if the little window is indeed the Oculus, the use of white glass may indicate that this was the point at which the original glass was first removed. Yet it is equally possible that the pre-existing white glass was being replaced.
The evidence from eighteenth-century sources is similarly ambiguous. In his 1770 report on the state of the Minster, architect John Carr highlighted the poor state of the archway and tympanum of the Great West Door, due to severe weathering, but did not comment on the glazing.14
A drawing by Joseph Halfpenny in 1795, seems to show the Oculus containing fragments (Fig.9).15 The shapes seem generic, and the rendering of the glass is the same as the tracery of larger, painted windows in Halfpenny’s other engravings.16 However, he represents plain glazed windows with quarries,17 suggesting that the type of pattern used for the Oculus may indicate painted glass fragments.
Clearer evidence is provided by records from the nineteenth century. In 1819, John Britton published a volume on the history of York Minster, including a series of engravings: he is the first one to mention “a circular glazed compartment, with tracery” above the doorway.18 Britton’s engraving is also the first to provide details of the glazing (Fig.10), suggesting that, at the time of its execution, the window contained painted fragments. The details seen are very simplified, but the shapes within the glass broadly resemble the present glazing of the window.
York City Archives hold a collection of photographs of the west end dating between 1840 and 1865 showing the Great West Door. It is not specified if the 1840s photographs were taken before or after the disastrous nave fire of 1840, but they all show glass in the tracery, with leadlines resembling the same outline seen today.
More detailed descriptions of the window started to be written from the end of the nineteenth century, broadly describing the Oculus as it is today. In 1899, Arthur Clutton-Brock published a detailed description of the Minster, in which he provided the first specific record that the Oculus is “filled with ancient stained glass”.19 Around the same time, in a draft of his volume The Stained Glass of York Minster, written between 1890 and 1914, J. W. Knowles was the first to give a brief summary of the content of the Oculus, including a drawing of the “lady with a pyx” in panel E, now lost.20
In 1927, Canon Frederick Harrison, published an important description on the Oculus, providing the first historical outline of the window. Harrison was also the first to propose that the extant glass was installed after the 1840 fire in the nave, a claim that was repeated in subsequent scholarship.21 Harrison also suggests that the original glass could have been destroyed by the 1840 fire, but this thesis is not supported by sources.22
In 1952, Dean Eric Milner-White discussed the glass after having re-organised and introduced new fragments in the panels, offering suggestions regarding the provenance of the glass. He did not provide sources for his claims about the history of the glass, and so his account must be treated with caution. Nevertheless, his discussion confirms that the panels were re-leaded in the 1920s, and underwent significant alterations during restoration work in 1951-2, including the addition of medieval fragments.23
Finally, the most extensive and scholarly study of the Oculus was published by Thomas French and David O’Connor, in their 1987 CVMA Catalogue volume, which provided detailed analysis and descriptions of all the windows in the west wall.24 French and O’Connor proposed a historical reconstruction of the Oculus, in which they agree with Harrison’s claim that the current Oculus glazing was installed following the 1840 fire, and additionally suggested that some of the fragments installed at this date had been removed from windows damaged in the 1829 fire.25 Their historical contextualisation was based upon a detailed comparison of styles, which allowed them to make convincing suggestions for the possible provenance of each piece.26 This panel-by-panel analysis led French and O’Connor to suggest that the majority of the glass originated in the Minster’s choir aisle and clerestory windows, based on stylistic analysis and the presence of fire damage. They also proposed that several pieces, specifically many of the angels, may have come from glass acquired by the Minster in 1722, from the church of St Martin-le-Grand, Coney Street, York.27 French and O’Connor firmly attributed fragments in panels G and H to William Peckitt, although they did not explore the possible reasons of the presence of Peckitt fragments in the window.
From the limited evidence provided by historical sources, it seems likely that the window’s original glass had been lost by 1690, although the precise date and reason for its loss is unclear. The evidence for the content of the glazing between 1690 and the 1840s is also inconclusive. Milner-White suggested that William Peckitt had glazed the Oculus and that this glazing could have been lost with the nave fire.28 However, although Peckitt had been providing glass for the restoration of the windows since the 1750s, and is known to have worked on the West Window (w1), there is no mention of the glazing of w2 in Peckitt’s commission book.29
The twentieth-century scholars and commentators are in agreement that much of the present glazing of the Oculus was composed following the nave fire of 1840. As noted above, French and O’Connor argued that the panels were made using fire-damaged glass extracted during the restoration of the choir glazing damaged in the 1829 fire, due to the presence of extensive fire cracks across the majority of the medieval pieces included in the composition. However, my re-examination of the condition of the window, as well as the documentary sources, suggests an alternative date for the installation of the current glazing.
The current glazing: a re-interpretation of evidence
A reconsideration of the historical evidence and a detailed visual analysis of the window, raises several questions regarding the theory that the current glazing was composed and installed following the 1840 fire, as proposed in previous scholarship.
Firstly, let us consider the suggestion that the current glazing of the Oculus incorporates reused glass damaged in the 1829 fire. One could ask why severely damaged glass (As seen on Fig.3), which had previously been removed from other windows because it was judged to be unstable, was used to create new panels. The doorway had endured severe damage during the 1840 fire. The architect responsible for the subsequent restoration work, Sydney Smirke, specified which windows were repaired with historic fragments; his records do not indicate that the Oculus was repaired in this way, nor that the glass was completely replaced.30 Moreover, in the nineteenth century, fragments of historic glass used for repairs tended to be of reasonable quality, and new glass was also often used for restoring windows. It therefore seems highly unlikely that the restorers of the Oculus would decide to use fire-damaged glass to replace panels that had themselves been destroyed by fire.
Secondly, and more significantly, close examination of the glass itself reveals that it is not only the fragments identified as originating in the choir of York Minster that exhibit fire damage. Signs of fire damage are also evident in the glass which, it has been suggested, came from St Martin-le-Grand, Coney Street (Fig.11) and, crucially, part of the Peckitt glass, specifically the roundel in panel G (Fig.12). Neither the glass from St Martin’s, nor the Peckitt glass, is likely to have been in a location vulnerable to the 1829 fire. Peckitt, in fact, had only provided glass for the nave and the south transept, and it is very unlikely that the roundel in panel G could have been in the choir clerestory during the 1829 fire. This suggests that the glass in the Oculus was damaged not in the 1829 fire, but in the nave fire of 1840. The fire in 1840 certainly could have caused the damage evident in the glass, and we know for certain that the stonework needed repair after this event.31 Moreover, this presents a more convincing explanation for the condition of the current glass, than the reuse of glass damaged in the 1829 fire.
A re-examination of the historical sources supports this theory. Britton’s engraving, published in 1819, but overlooked in previous studies, is particularly suggestive. Comparison of the appearance of the external surface of the glazing in the engraving, with the nineteenth-century photographs and the present glass reveals many similarities. Despite not engraving specific details, Britton’s representation of the Oculus indicates a window glazed with painted fragments, which resemble the present subjects and layout. This suggests that the glass in w2 could have been inserted earlier than the fire in the nave, and therefore supports the theory that the present glazing was installed prior to 1840.
If the glass in the Oculus had been inserted by 1819, when was the glass believed to have come from the windows in the Minster’s choir and St Martin-le-Grand, Coney Street, removed from the original position? As noted above, the glass from St Martin-le-Grand was acquired in 1722. The earliest evidence of its installation in York Minster is provided by an engraving of c.1840 by Browne, which shows it in windows s27 and s28.32 However, Katie Harrison has observed that the glass in these windows does not represent the entirety of the original window in St Martin-le-Grand,33 making it possible that some of the remaining glass had been stored and was available for use as a repair material by the Minster glaziers, in the so-called ‘glass bank’.
The choir windows underwent a restoration campaign around the 1790s and some windows, such as S9, still bear the date of the intervention in their tracery or in glaziers’ graffitti on the glass. It is therefore possible that fragments were removed during these interventions and similarly stored to be used in repair work. The possibility that fragments from both sources were present in the Minster glaziers’ glass bank in the late-eighteenth or early-nineteenth century, offers a straightforward mechanism by which they might have been used to form panels in the Oculus.
A more precise date for the composition of the panels can be proposed by considering the restoration of the Great West Door between 1802-1816.34 As observed above, John Carr had mentioned the damaged state of the doorway in his report of 1770. Repairs to the stone would have required any glass to be taken out, presenting the opportunity for the current glazing to have been assembled and inserted into the Oculus. As the restoration work was complete by 1816, the Oculus would probably have been in place by the time Britton created his engraving, in c.1819.
As noted above, the mechanism by which the Peckitt fragments came to be in the Oculus has not yet been explored in detail. There is no documentary evidence suggesting that Peckitt had provided glass to glaze the Oculus and it is frustrating that Milner-White does not offer any sources for his claim. The possibility that the Oculus was glazed with Peckitt glass – perhaps during the restoration of the Great West Window in the 1750s – would fit in with the rendering of the window in Halfpenny’s 1795 drawing. This hypothetical glazing would have then been modified and rearranged at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when the medieval glass could have been added. However, the lack of clear evidence means that the source of the Peckitt glass warrants exploration in future research.
By reconsidering the documentary and historical sources, as well as undertaking a new visual analysis of the window, it has been possible to propose an earlier date for the assembly and installation of the present Oculus glazing. The combined evidence, suggests that much of the present glazing had been assembled and installed between the end of the eighteenth century and 1819, most likely during the restoration of the Great West Door in 1802-1816. This new proposed dating would therefore place the glass in the Oculus by the time of nave fire, explaining the homogeneous presence of fire cracks over the glazing present at the time, including the Peckitt and Coney Street fragments.
In addition to refining our understanding of the complex history of this window, this study also highlights the necessity of further exploration of the Peckitt glass associated with the Oculus, and, likewise, additional research into the information on a possible provenance of each fragment, to build upon French and O’Connor’s findings.
While it is unlikely that the iconography of the original glass will ever be known, the Oculus nevertheless provides valuable evidence of the treatment of stained glass within the Minster over time. It presents, in microcosm, a history of loss, replacement, damage and rearrangement, that is shared by many of York Minster’s windows. In evoking the history and events that have shaped the fabric of the building as we see it today, it acts as a symbol of the Minster’s past, hidden in plain sight.
- Sarah Brown, ‘Our Magnificent Fabrick’: York Minster, an Architectural History c1220-1500, Swindon, 2003, p.110. For more on the dating of the west wall, see also T. French, D. O’Connor, York Minster: a catalogue of medieval stained glass, fasc.1, Oxford, 1987; G.E. Aylmer, R. Cant (eds.), A History of York Minster, Oxford, 1977.
- Painton Cowen, Rose Windows, London, 1979, p.33.
- Cowen, Rose Windows, 33.
- George Benson, ‘The ancient painted glass windows in the Minster and Churches of the city of York’, in Annual Report of the Council of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society for 1914, York, 1915, p.69.
- M. H. Bloxam, The Principles of Gothic Ecclesiastical Architecture, Elucidated by question and answer, Oxford, 2006, p.56
- Meredith Lillich, The Gothic Stained Glass of Reims Cathedral, University Park, 2011, p.212.
- Brown, Magnificent Fabrick, 64.
- Brown, Magnificent Fabrick, 71.
- French, O’Connor, Catalogue of Medieval Stained Glass, 22-23; Brown, Magnificent Fabrick, p.134; David O’Connor, Jeremy Haselock, ‘The Stained and Painted Glass’ in G. Aylmer, R. Cant (eds.), A History of York Minster, Oxford, 1977, p. 379
- Lillich, Reims Cathedral, 212.
- York, Minster Library and Archives, MS L1/7, Torre, James. “The Antiquities of York Minster Collected out of the Records of the Said Church and Some Other Authorities”, c.1690-1.
- Torre, Antiquities, f18v.
- In Ann Hilary Moxon, ‘York Minster’s Chapter House and its Painted Glass Narratives’, PhD Thesis, University of York, 2 vols., II, p.18.
- In Lucrezia Cuniglio, ‘1829 and 1840: the York Minster Fires. Restoration and Repair’, Masters dissertation, University of York, 1998, p. 102.
- Joseph Halfpenny, Gothic Antiquities in the Cathedral Church of York, Leeds, 1795-1800, pl. 80.
- For example, compare Halfpenny, Gothic Antiquities, pl. 82.
- As seen on Halfpenny, Gothic Antiquities, pl.68
- John Britton, The History and Antiquities of the Metropolitical Church of York, London, 1819, p.40.
- Arthur Clutton-Brock, The Cathedral Church of York: A description of its fabric and a brief history of the Archi-Episcopal See, London, 1899, p.79.
- York, City of York Council/Explore Libraries and Archives Mutual, KNO/4/21a, Knowles, John Ward, The Stained Glass of York Minster, c. 1890-1914, p.309.
- Frederick Harrison, The Painted glass of York, London, 1927, p.200.
- F. Harrison, Painted Glass, 200.
- Eric Milner-White, Friends of York Minster Annual Report, York, 1951, p.33.
- French, O’Connor, Catalogue of Medieval Stained Glass, 67-69
- French, O’Connor, Catalogue of Medieval Stained Glass, 67.
- French, O’Connor, Catalogue of Medieval Stained Glass, 68-69.
- To know more about the glass donated to the Minster in 1722, see Katie Harrison, ‘“There is no trace of it in the Minster glass now”: an investigation into the east window of St Martin’s Coney Street and its eighteenth-century acquisition by the Minster’, York Historian, 32, 2015, pp. 2-29.
- Milner-White, Annual Report, 33.
- J. T. Brighton, T. Brighton, ‘William Peckitt’s Commission Book’, The Volume of the Walpole Society, May/54, 1988, p.59.
- Transcribed in Cuniglio, The Fires, Appendix A. The use of “scrap pieces” is described by Smirke in his letter, in order to repair windows.
- As suggested by Smirke’s reports, transcribed in Cuniglio, The Fires, Appendix A.
- K. Harrison, Coney Street, 4.
- K. Harrison, Coney Street, 12.
- Brown, Magnificent Fabrick, 110.