Hardback, 624 pp, approx. 650 colour illustrations. (Oxford: Oxford University Press for The British Academy, 2021), £160. ISBN 9780197267189.
Reviewed by Professor Jeanne Nuechterlein, University of York
This remarkable catalogue, the seventh in the Corpus Vitrearum series for Great Britain (Fig. 1), is the product of a close collaboration between the CVMA national committees of Great Britain and Belgium. The high-quality stained glass studied here was created between 1532 and 1539 for the female Cistercian abbey of Herkenrode near Hasselt in the southern Netherlands, during the abbacy of Mathilde de Lexhy. Herkenrode was one of the many religious institutions forcibly secularized during the French occupation at the end of the eighteenth century. In 1802 the glass was removed by one of the site’s new industrial owners, Pierre Libotton, and sold to the Midlands aristocrat Sir Brooke Boothby, who was then travelling on the continent. Boothby offered it at cost price to Lichfield Cathedral, where it was erected in the Lady Chapel between 1804 and 1807 (Fig. 2), with a few other panels or fragments placed elsewhere in the church. One fragment of the Crucifixion window ended up in St Mary, Shrewsbury; separately, a Crucifixion window from the abbess’s private chapel was removed in the 1820s and installed in St Giles in Ashtead.
Despite its nineteenth-century transportation from the continent to the UK and the extensive rearrangements that ensued from its installation at a new site, the Herkenrode cycle is unusually well preserved, and most of the stop-gap repairs carried out in the nineteenth century used other old glass, whether from Herkenrode or elsewhere. The Lichfield windows are thought to contain ‘more original sixteenth-century glass than survives in present-day Belgium’ (p. 68), in contrast with the extensive restoration that was carried out in the nineteenth century on glass that remained in Belgium (pp. 98, 150). This book offers a detailed study of the Herkenrode cycle and its complex history, and it will be an invaluable resource for many years to come, not only as an in-depth investigation of this particular series, but as an important exemplar for wider studies of sixteenth-century Netherlandish art and the nineteenth-century revival of interest in it. The attribution here of the design to Pieter Coecke van Aelst and his workshop (see below) will be of great interest for scholars of Netherlandish painting and tapestry as well as glass.
A preliminary introduction by Isabelle Lecocq and Yvette Vanden Bemden presents an authoritative overview of the history and architecture of Herkenrode Abbey, whose remnants still exist as a cultural heritage site in Belgium, although the church is now a mere outline on the ground, having been destroyed by fire in 1826. They conclude with a persuasive reconstruction of the original sequence of the glass in the choir of the abbey church (pp. ciii-cv). The book’s main section on Lichfield Cathedral opens with John McNeill’s history of its architecture, which—in contrast to the Herkenrode glass fitted into it—has suffered extensive damage and repair over the centuries. Written for readers with extensive knowledge of medieval architecture, it offers fascinating analysis of the distinct technical and stylistic features of the building.
Marie Groll draws upon unpublished archival sources to offer a detailed account of the sale, transportation and installation of the glass in the early nineteenth century, concluding with an account of conservation work carried out in the later nineteenth century and the temporary removal of the windows during the WWII. A great deal of complex information is here deftly interwoven into a clear narrative and interpretation. Prior to the arrival of the Herkenrode cycle, little stained glass remained in Lichfield’s Lady Chapel (having suffered extensive damage in the Civil War), with an intriguing exception in a modern enamel-painted Resurrection Window created by Francis Eginton in 1795 for the east end. Groll argues that the initial plan was probably to keep this window in place and install the Herkenrode glass around it, but by 1806 it was decided to sell it off to another church (St Chad’s, Shrewsbury), at least in part because the enamel technique did not stand up well to varied levels of lighting (pp. 28-32). The nineteenth-century history of the Herkenrode cycle at Lichfield, both its installation in 1804-7 and the various adjustments and restorations made decades later, reveal a great deal about changing tastes and the capacity for glass-making in Britain in this era.
Keith Barley and Alison Gilchrist next summarize the conservation work carried out in the 2000s. Following various reports on the deterioration of the stonework and the problematic environmental conditions for the glass (which suffered from frequent condensation), testing of potential solutions began in 2003, concluding several years later with installation of protective exterior glazing. A full programme of conservation was carried out on the Lady Chapel windows (though not other Herkenrode panels elsewhere in the cathedral) by Barley Studios between 2011 and 2014, in consultation with Lecocq and Vanden Bemden; the conserved windows were reinstalled, now inside the exterior glazing, in 2015. The glass and leading were generally found to be in good condition, other than some extensive areas of paint loss, so the work primarily consisted of cleaning, removing or improving mending leads, and cold-painting reverses of some areas of glass to improve its legibility (usually faces of key figures only).
The introductory material on Lichfield concludes with a richly illustrated summary analysis of the glass by Lecocq and Vanden Bemden, who also authored the ensuing catalogue entries. They begin with an overview of the degree of original glass, the significance of old and more recent insertions, the material condition, and examples of the improvements made in the 2011-14 conservation. A complete set of illustrations and restoration diagrams of the Lady Chapel windows on pp. 96-97 (with an explanation of the colour coding on p. 98) indicates sixteenth-century vs later glass, and it is remarkable to see how much of the windows are original; even the old stop-gaps are remarkably few. Further details and larger-scale diagrams are given in each catalogue entry.
After establishing the condition and degree of authenticity, the authors turn to questions of iconography, technique, style, and attribution. In Herkenrode the cycle began in the northwest with the Annunciation and Visitation, followed by a Passion cycle with seven pre- and seven post-Crucifixion subjects, centred on the Crucifixion in the east axial window; each scene other than the Crucifixion was accompanied underneath by kneeling donor figures, with the four most important (and largest) sets of patrons—including Érard de La Marck, prince-bishop of Liège—in the windows flanking the Crucifixion, which were of the same width but taller than the rest of the series. At Lichfield, in contrast, the majority of the kneeling figures have been gathered together into two windows: the four large ones in nIV, smaller ones in nIII—including one of Mathilde de Lexhy and two of her sisters (Fig. 3) who were also nuns—with a few of the smaller figures placed elsewhere. The Crucifixion is absent from the Lady Chapel sequence—its few remaining fragments are elsewhere in the cathedral and in St Mary’s, Shrewsbury—and the other religious subjects have been rearranged to fit the space. Groll’s text explains how the early nineteenth-century installation included complete rebuilding of some of the mullions (using what turned out to be inadequate materials, p. 58) to fit the glass panels into the Lichfield window openings.
Although much of the paint fired onto the glass is lost, enough remains to demonstrate its high quality, including careful attention to shadows and modelling (Fig. 4). Another distinctive feature of the cycle is the wide range of colours and the creativity in how they are employed. Lecocq and Vanden Bemden propose that Pieter Coecke van Aelst (who ran an extremely large workshop in Antwerp and whose oeuvre is still to be definitively established) must have been involved in designing the sequence. They highlight a stylistic evolution between the earliest windows dated 1532 or 1534 and the more ‘mannerist’ windows dated 1538-39, with a group in between stylistically assigned to 1535-39. The stylistic development is attributed to exposure to the work of Rosso Fiorentino and Francesco Primaticcio in Fontainebleau (pp. 127-30), while the figural compositions are demonstrated to draw upon Albrecht Dürer and Italian artists in the circle of Raphael (pp. 137-38).
The final sections of the overview highlight similarities with other sixteenth-century Netherlandish artworks, in various media, and make the case for attributing the design work—including, most likely, production of the (lost) full-scale cartoons—to Coecke and his studio. Both the design work and the glazing appear to have been carried out by several different hands, as would be expected for large-scale workshop productions, although they cannot be definitively identified. The window donated by Érard de La Marck is documented (Appendix 2) as having been executed and installed by master-glazier Lambert Spulberch (Speelberch) of Mechelen; another master-glazier from Antwerp, Maarten Tymus (Tymans), could have been involved in other windows (pp. 158-59). It is unknown whether the nuns would have commissioned the windows from Coecke or from a glazier.
The ensuing long catalogue substantiates and extends the previous summary observations through the systematic assessment of each Lichfield window, extensively illustrated with pre- and post-restoration photographs, restoration diagrams, details, and comparisons. This catalogue will be an essential reference for any scholar pursuing further study of this cycle. The final two catalogue sections examine the fragment from the Crucifixion window (part of St John) that ended up in St Mary in Shrewsbury, and finally Mathilde de Lexhy’s chapel window that went to St Giles in Ashtead (overviews by Penny Hebgin-Barnes and Joseph Spooner; catalogue entries by Lecocq and Vanden Bemden). The volume concludes with an eight-part appendix, including in Appendix 4 extensive transcriptions of Lichfield archival material that informed Groll’s essay, and in Appendix 8 an overview of glass that has previously been erroneously associated with Herkenrode.
Despite the range of authors involved in this large volume, under the guidance of series editor Joseph Spooner, Lecocq and Vanden Bemden have successfully crafted it into a seamless whole. It is striking that in 1802, it took only eleven days to remove all of the glass panels from the abbey church (p. 35), whereas the construction phases took several years each: at least eight years for the initial design and installation in the 1530s, and four years of planning and installation after the panels arrived at Lichfield in 1803. The recent conservation, analysis, and cataloguing has likewise taken over a decade of work by several individuals. It must be immensely satisfying to all involved that, like the glass itself, the result is so magnificent.