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York: Art, Architecture and Archaeology

York: Art, Architecture and Archaeology. Edited by Sarah Brown, Sarah Rees Jones and Tim Ayers, The British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions, XLII. Paperback, 256 pp. 107 colour and b/w illustrations plus diagrams and line drawings. (London and New York: Routledge, 2021). £27.99, ISBN 9781032019642. 

Reviewed by Amanda Daw, University of York

This volume brings together a wide range of papers on medieval York that were first delivered at the British Archaeological Association conference there in 2017. A full list of titles and contributors can be found on the BAA website (https://thebaa.org/publication/york-art-architecture-and-archaeology/). The majority of articles offered for publication focus on York Minster, using its archaeology, architecture and stained glass to examine aspects of patronage, devotional interests and makers. The remaining papers cover a wide range of topics, including the citys vernacular buildings and its merchants and infrastructure, culminating in an investigation of the role of Yorks trade crafts in the production of the York Plays. The only slight disappointment is that only one paper focuses on a York parish church. This review is limited to three articles devoted to medieval stained glass, but readers are also referred to Alex Holton’s paper, ‘The constructional context of the Great East Window at York Minster,’ pp. 108-132, which also contains references to the glazing. 

 

 

Fig. 1 York Minster, window nII, St James the Greater. Photo by the York Glaziers Trust, reproduced by kind permission the Chapter of York.

Fig. 1 York Minster, window nII, St James the Greater. Photo by the York Glaziers Trust, reproduced by kind permission the Chapter of York.

 

Christopher Norton’s paper (‘York Minster at the time of the Black Death: the stained glass and chantry-chapel of Archbishop Zouche,’ pp. 63—107) offers a convincing resolution to two long-standing conundrums; the provenance of a group of c.1340 stained glass panels reused (predominantly) in the later choir windows, and the whereabouts of the chantry chapel of Archbishop William La Zouche (1340–52). His proposals, which are supported with useful photographs and reconstruction diagrams, further add to Nortons significant contributions to our understanding of developments in York Minsters architecture and stained glass. A plan of the Minster shows the location of the glass under discussion, two panels of which survive in window s35, near the west end. A further single panel has been inserted into Lady Chapel window n2 (Fig. 1). The remaining panels form eighteen relatively complete lights in Lady Chapel windows s2, S2, S3 (Fig. 2), S4 and n5. As Norton notes, owing to their dimensions, these panels would not have fitted into any Minster windows of their own date.

The eighteen lights in the Lady Chapel contain rows of standing figures depicting saints, prophets and apostles. Above them is an incomplete series of narrative scenes painted in grisaille on tinted glass. This series would once have included the c.1340 panels now in s35 and n2. Norton’s proposal, that together these panels originally filled seven windows is amply supported by illustrations suggesting the ordering and appearance of both the surviving glass and, more tentatively, that of the now-lost panels. Norton builds a clear case for rejecting previous proposals for the origins of this glass, including an earlier suggestion of his own. His detailed analysis of the extant panels includes suggestions for the identity of missing scenes and saints and corrects earlier misidentifications of the Shepherds scene now in s35. His proposals concerning the location of these panels in relation to the figures of saints below are illustrated using photographs and diagrams. Norton persuasively links this glass to the patronage of Archbishop William Zouche and proposes a solution to the previously unresolved question of the whereabouts of the Zouche Chapel.

Fig. 2 Lady chapel clerestory window SIII, omitting the bottom row of panels of plain glazing. Photo by the York Glaziers Trust, reproduced by kind permission the Chapter of York.

Fig. 2 Lady chapel clerestory window SIII, omitting the bottom row of panels of plain glazing. Photo by the York Glaziers Trust, reproduced by kind permission the Chapter of York.

In his will, dated 1349, Archbishop Zouche left 300 marks to establish a perpetual chantry in York Minster, which was to be dedicated to St Mary Magdalene and St Martha. A separate document, containing his instructions for this no-longer extant chantry, has not survived and there are no other records of its whereabouts. As Sarah Brown has already demonstrated, the so-called Zouche Chapel off the south choir aisle cannot be identified as the archbishop’s lost chantry. Norton persuasively argues that the c.1340 panels originally formed part of the glazing of the Zouche Chapel, a project thwarted and unfinished. His proposal is partly based on their iconographies, which he links to the known devotional interests of its patron. Norton argues his case so tightly that it reads like a riveting detective plot that culminates in a previously unconsidered proposal for the site of this lost chapel. It would be churlish to reveal the denouement here!

In ‘Looking for John Thornton: the Great East Window of York Minster revisited,’ (pp. 133—156) Sarah Brown brings her formidable analytical skills to bear on the question of Thornton’s role in the making of the Great East Window, which she describes as ‘the only firmly documented work that can be attributed to him.’ Her study of the surviving documentary and visual evidence for the production of the Great East Window offers a far more comprehensive and nuanced picture of Thornton the master glazier than has previously been provided. Her arguments convincingly counter a former over-emphasis on the cult of the individual artist’. Instead, she takes account of workshop practices, which would have necessitated the involvement of different hands, while also focusing on Thorntons additional skills as a designer, which included an ability to edit, adapt and combine scenes.

The author provides a detailed account of two seventeenth-century summaries of an entry in a no-longer extant Chapter Act book for the period 1390 to 1410 concerning a now-lost indenture drawn up in 1405. These antiquarian summaries are now the only surviving records of an agreement between John Thornton, glazier of Coventry and the Dean and Chapter of York for the making of the Great East Window. In brief, the terms of Thornton’s reimbursement stipulated that he was to finish the work within three years and that unspecified historical images and other painted works’ were to be portrayed with his own hand’. Brown suggests that these works were probably detailed in a set of now-lost vidimuses, from which Thornton would have developed his own cartoons. There was a further requirement that he must paint some of the glass himself, as directed by the Dean and Chapter. All of these requirements had to be fulfilled alongside recruiting and overseeing his workforce and sourcing all necessary materials. 

Brown addresses the questions of when and how Thornton came to York in relation to recent chemical analyses of the glass and to potential ecclesiastical patrons. She challenges suggestions that there was a shortage of York glaziers after the Black Death, citing significant contributions to the Minsters glazing by Thornton’s contemporary, York’s own master glazier John Burgh. Instead, Brown suggests that it was Thornton’s additional skills, such as the ability to adapt the iconographies of now-lost cartoons, as in 7f, that made him particularly suited to the complex task of glazing the Great East Window (Fig. 3). Whereas previous assessments of Thornton’s role in other Minster windows have focused on questions of style, Brown looks for evidence of his design skills. She identifies the St William Window as the only other example of Minster glazing that can safely be attributed to Thornton and his workshop, as this contains clear examples of his editing abilities. She cites the example of panel 7c, where three separate death-bed events have been combined into a single scene (Fig. 4). Brown’s re-assessment of the extent and nature of Thorntons role in the Minster’s glazing convincingly establishes that the breadth of Thorntons skills were more important than the question of who painted what.

Fig. 3 York Minster, Great East Window, panel 7f after conservation. Photo by the York Glaziers Trust, reproduced by kind permission the Chapter of York.

Fig. 3 York Minster, Great East Window, panel 7f after conservation. Photo by the York Glaziers Trust, reproduced by kind permission the Chapter of York.

Fig. 4 York Minster, the St William Window (nVII, 7c). Photo by the York Glaziers Trust, reproduced by kind permission the Chapter of York.

Fig. 4 York Minster, the St William Window (nVII, 7c). Photo by the York Glaziers Trust, reproduced by kind permission the Chapter of York.

In the volume’s penultimate article (‘The early-sixteenth-century stained-glass programme of St Michael-le-Belfrey, York’, pp 209—238), Lisa Reilly and Mary B. Shepard address a significant gap in the literature on the architecture and glazing of the parish church of St Michael-le-Belfrey, which stands in close proximity to the west end of York Minster. In the early sixteenth century the Dean and Chapter undertook extensive rebuilding work on this church, while the parishioners were responsible for the new glazing, which was commissioned and executed from the 1520s to the 1530s. After setting the glass within its architectural framework, the authors focus on the style and iconographies of these windows and the extent to which all three factors reflect the changing nature of late-medieval lay piety in a port city. In addition to providing a well-illustrated and valuable account of the glass, Reilly and Shepard make some interesting connections between its patronage, style and function. The authors identify three separate groups within the surviving glass, including the fourteenth-century glass in the east window and a group of sixteenth-century panels, now divided between the eastern end of the north nave aisle and the east window of the Minster’s chapter house, showing scenes from the life of Thomas Becket. The authors present a clear case for focusing on a third group of panels in the north and south nave aisles, the significance and unusual style of which has remained largely unremarked. The date of 1530 to 1536, makes this one of the latest surviving cycles of English medieval stained glass and one in which the donors can be identified.

As the authors observe, St Michael-le-Belfrey is a ‘hall’ church making it more spacious than most English medieval churches. They argue that this ‘open’ layout reflected changing devotional practices, replacing an emphasis on individual private prayer with a more communal form of participation in both liturgy and ritual. Parishioners would have had clear views of the nave aisle windows, each of which contains a series of standing figures of saints. The inscriptions beneath are post-World War II insertions based on antiquarian records (Fig. 5). As well confirming the dating of the glass, Reilly and Shepard suggest that their calls to prayer, together with the images of saints, would have acted as a constant reminder of purgatory and the need for intercession.

Fig. 5 York, St Michael le Belfrey, sV. Modern recreation of a sixteenth-century testimonial to John Coltman. Photo © Gordon Plumb.

Fig. 5 York, St Michael le Belfrey, sV. Modern recreation of a sixteenth-century testimonial to John Coltman. Photo © Gordon Plumb.

The authors’ stylistic assessment of the saints in this glass consider the range of colouring, theirexpansive proportions,’ and the three-dimensionality of their modelling (Fig. 6). Previous attributions of their style to the influence of continental artistry are explored using comparative images from English and continental sources, including prints and sculpture, although a limited surviving pool of comparable English glass hampers this part of their analysis. The authors link the choice of saints and their style to continentally made prints that were widely available in port cities such as York. Reilly and Shepard conclude by returning to the affective qualities of these imposing heavenly figures which, they suggest, played an active role in connecting worshippers with the heavenly community of saints. 

This entire volume is highly recommended for its new and fascinating insights into medieval York. It is very much hoped that the British Archaeological Association will eventually return to look at other aspects of York’s medieval parish churches.

Fig. 6 York, St Michael le Belfrey, sV, St George. Photo © Gordon Plumb.

Fig. 6 York, St Michael le Belfrey, sV, St George. Photo © Gordon Plumb.