Envisioning Heaven: The Five Sisters Window at York Minster

Lauren Winch

Standing at the heart of York Minster, looking towards the north transept, reveals the first sight our medieval counterparts experienced on entering the south door: luminescent lancets reaching heavenwards, now known as the Five Sisters (nXVI, figs. 1-2). Despite its prominent position, and location in the Minster’s oldest above-ground structure, the window is often overlooked amongst York’s rich corpus of medieval glazing.((Stuart Harrison and Christopher Norton, York Minster: An Illustrated Architectural History 627-c.1500, York, 2015, p.34.)) This neglect also stems from the deteriorated condition of the Five Sisters: a jigsaw of post-medieval leading and stop-gaps. Intrigued by these mosaic-like glass shards with tantalising traces of geometry and plant-life, I decided to research the Five Sisters as part of my History of Art master’s course at the University of York.

In this article the purpose served by the window is explored; how it was experienced by worshippers circulating the transepts; and the relationship it shared with its artistic and liturgical setting. The Five Sisters is first contextualised within the new transepts and the development of grisaille glazing. Next, with reference to surrounding commemorative imagery and medieval theories of vision, how the Five Sisters generated an experience of Heavenly Jerusalem and paradise is examined. Finally, the meditative potential of geometrical designs, referencing maps and cosmological diagrams, is examined.

1. The Five Sisters window (nXVI), c.1250. North Transept, York Minster. (Photo © Lauren Winch).

Fig.1 The Five Sisters window (nXVI), c.1250. North Transept, York Minster. (Photo © Lauren Winch).

2. The Five Sisters window exterior, c.1250. North Transept, York Minster. (Photo © Lauren Winch).

Fig.2 The Five Sisters window exterior, c.1250. North Transept, York Minster. (Photo © Lauren Winch).

Contextualising the Glazing

Beginning from the 1220s, the construction of the new crossing and its glazing moved from the south to the north transept, concluding by 1255.((Sarah Brown, ‘Our Magnificent Fabrick’, York Minster: An Architectural History 1220-1500, Swindon, 2003, pp.11-16.)) Established on the foundations of the old structure, with additional aisles, the Minster’s transepts were unprecedently spacious. Both Archbishop Walter de Grey (1180-1255) and John le Romeyn (1230-96), sub-dean then treasurer, oversaw the work, the former issuing indulgences for the fabric fund and the latter providing donations for the belfry and north transept. The crossing marked the culmination of prior building campaigns, as well as the canonisation of York’s local saint, William Fitzherbert (in 1226). Unlike today’s murky fragments, the Five Sisters shone resplendently, contrasting with the intensely coloured glass of Archbishop Thomas of Bayeux’s eleventh-century nave and Archbishop Roger de Pont L’Évêque’s twelfth-century choir.((David O’Connor and Jeremy Haselock, ‘The Stained and Painted Glass’, in G.E. Aylmer and Reginald Cant (eds.), A History of York Minster, Oxford, 1977, p.324))

Successive restorations, particularly in 1715, have introduced substantial areas of later glass.((Elizabeth Hippisley-Cox, ‘The Repair and Restoration History of the Five Sisters Window, York Minster’, unpublished Master’s Thesis, University of York, 2012, pp.80-4.)) However, antiquarian sources can help to revitalise the medieval appearance of the Five Sisters.  A watercolour by Charles Wild (1809) suggests the impact of the window viewed entirely, without its translucency and patterns obscured (fig. 3).((Charles Wild, Twelve Perspective Views of the Exterior and Interior Parts of the Metropolitan Church of York, London, 1809, plate 6.)) From the vantage-point of the south door, Wild portrayed an ascending sheen of white with colours flickering amongst intricate geometrical forms. John Browne’s drawings (1847) provide invaluable insights into the panels’ details. Browne likely combined less damaged sections within each lancet to portray the designs coherently, noting his process: ‘carefully examining the existing good portions which are scattered upon the whole compartments, and not from the remains of any single one.’((John Browne, The History of the Metropolitan Church of St Peter York, London, 1847, p.88.)) Despite some idealisation, Browne re-created the unique yet complementary designs, conveying harmony in diversity (figs. 4-5). Circular rosettes fill the outer-most lights, then move into diamonds and quatrefoils, finally reaching an eight-petal medallion in the central lancet.  Bands of colour and sprouting foliage accentuate the medallions.

Fig.3 The Transept from the S.W. Angle. Charles Wild, Twelve Perspective Views of the Exterior and Interior Parts of the Metropolitan Church of York (London, 1809), plate 6. York Minster Library Special Collections – Yorkshire Collection SC 56-2-20 and SC 56-2-21. (Reproduced by permission of the Chapter of York)

Fig. 4 Lancet a. John Browne, A Compartment of One of the Five Lights, in the North Transept. Plate LXI, The History of the Metropolitan Church of St Peter York, London, 1847. York, Borthwick Institute for Archives: RBY Folio 4.6 (2 Volumes). (Photo © Lauren Winch).

Fig.5 Lancet d. John Browne, A Compartment of One of the Five Lights, in the North Transept. Plate LXVII, The History of the Metropolitan Church of St Peter York, London, 1847. York, Borthwick Institute for Archives: RBY Folio 4.7 (2 Volumes). (Photo © Lauren Winch).

The panels are preeminent examples of English grisaille glazing.((Richard Marks, Stained Glass in England during the Middle Ages, London, 1993, pp.124-32.)) The literature on grisaille often describes it in terms of lack – ‘non-figurative’ and ‘non-coloured’ – exposing the pervasive idea it was an economical, decorative downgrade from historiated panels. Yet, Theophilus’ treatise De Diversis Artibus (c.1125) reveals how complex the production of grisaille was; rather than simply re-tracing motifs, glaziers created unique cartoons for each panel design; precisely cut and painted glass pieces; then re-assembled them post-firing.((Theophilus, De Diversis Artibus, C.R. Dodwell (ed.), Oxford, 1961), 36-51; Sarah Brown, ‘The Medieval Glazier at Work’ in Elizabeth Pastan and Brigitte Kurmann-Schwarz (eds.), Investigations in Medieval Stained Glass: Materials, Methods, and Expression, Leiden and Boston, 2019, pp.15-9.)) The repeated motifs of grisaille demanded greater effort than figurative designs to ensure correct positioning.

The assumption that grisaille held less value is partly explained by its popularity with the Cistercians, often associated with austerity. However, the Cistercians favoured grisaille as a devotional aid, not necessarily due to its price; patterns could lead the mind to contemplation, clarity and God’s light.((Helen Jackson-Zakin, French Cistercian Grisaille Glass, New York, 1979, pp.141-169; Helen Jackson Zakin, ‘Light and Pattern: Cistercian Grisaille Windows’, Arte Medeivale, 3/2, 1994, pp.9-12.)) Cistercian designs likely inspired grisaille in England’s cathedrals. The Minster probably made considerable use of grisaille; twelfth-century panels survive reused in the clerestory of the nave, with thirteenth-century grisaille surviving in the south transept.((Zoe Harrigan, ‘York Minster: The Twelfth-Century Grisaille Glass and Some Near Contemporary Parallels’, Vidimus 91 (May 2015), (https://www.vidimus.org/issues/issue-91/feature/. Accessed 15/12/2022).)) Comparable re-use of older panels occurs at Lincoln Cathedral, suggesting the esteem grisaille enjoyed (fig. 6).((Nigel Morgan, The Medieval Painted Glass of Lincoln Cathedral, London, 1983, p.18.)) Salisbury Cathedral further demonstrates the aesthetic potential of this glazing; clear glass with numerous patterns illuminated wall paintings, evidencing grisaille’s essential role in enhancing significant spaces (fig. 7).(( Sarah Brown, Sumptuous and Richly Adorn ’d: The Decoration of Salisbury Cathedral, London, 1999, pp.86-7.))

Fig.6 Grisaille windows, Lincoln Cathedral North Transept. (Photo © Lauren Winch).

Fig.7 Grisaille windows, Salisbury Cathedral, Southeast Transept. (Photo © Lauren Winch).

The Five Sisters and its grisaille participated in broader shifts within medieval glazing, focusing upon greater transmission of light.((John Gage, Colour and Culture: Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction, London, 1993, pp.70-73.)) This paralleled heightened exploration of optics and metaphysics amongst ecclesiastics, such as Bishop Robert Grosseteste of Lincoln (c.1168-1253), building upon Aristotelian and Arabic scholarship.((Katherine Tachau, ‘Seeing as Action and Passion in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries’, in Jeffrey Hamburger (ed.), The Mind’s Eye: Art and Theological Argument in the Middle Ages, Princeton, 2006, pp.338-344; Michael Camille, Gothic Art, Glorious Visions, New York, 1996, pp.40-45.))  A leading theologian, Grosseteste united Biblical emphasis on luminosity – Christ as Light – with scientific inquiry.  According to him, the visual rays (lumen) diffused celestial light (lux) which, holding God’s presence, multiplied infinitely in all directions to emanate spiritual grace.((John Cunningham, ‘Lumen de Lumine: Light, God and Creation in the Thought of Robert Grosseteste’ in Nicholas Temple (ed.), Bishop Robert Grosseteste and Lincoln Cathedral, Farnham, 2014, p.83.))  Far from being decorative, grisaille radiated divine luminescence into sacred space.

Anticipating Heavenly Jerusalem

The Five Sisters invoked a particular sacred space: an anticipation of Heavenly Jerusalem.((Sarah Brown, Stained Glass at York Minster, London, 2017, pp.22-23.)) The vast wall of shimmering glass resonates with John of Patmos’ vision in Revelation:

‘he shewed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God… And the building of the wall thereof was of jasper stone: but the city itself pure gold, like to clear glass. And the foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with all manner of precious stones… And the twelve gates are twelve pearls…’((Revelation 21:10-21.))

Further comparisons with eschatological literature and images can deepen our understanding of how the Five Sisters imagined the prophesised eternal city.((Laurence Stookey, ‘The Gothic Cathedral as the Heavenly Jerusalem: Liturgical and Theological Sources’. Gesta 8/1 (1969), pp.35–41.))  The glazing suggests precious stones and metals, particularly when compared to images of the Heavenly Jerusalem in manuscript paintings, such as the Trinity and Queen Mary Apocalypses.((United Kingdom, Cambridge, Trinity College, Ms R.16.2, fol.25r-25v: https://mss-cat.trin.cam.ac.uk/Manuscript/R.16.2; United Kingdom, London, British Library, Royal MS 19 B XV, fols.40v-43v: https://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Royal_MS_19_b_xv)) Descending to earth, the celestial city of the Trinity Apocalypse includes lancets below quatrefoils in vivid red, blue and green, echoing both the forms and coloured outlines of the Five Sisters (fig. 8). Next, the city appears from above with shimmering gilding, suggesting ‘pure gold, like to clear glass’ (fig. 9). Seemingly paradoxical, these words reveal the Biblical notion that unseen, spiritual gold possessed brilliant transparency.((Cynthia Hahn, Strange Beauty: Issues in the Making and Meaning of Reliquaries, c.400-1204, Pennsylvania, 2012, p.40.)) Medieval Christians often equated silver and gold as sacred precious metals; the Five Sisters silvery sheen could evoke the ethereal golden city.((Barbara Boehm and Melanie Holcomb (eds.), Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven, New York, 2016, p.284.)) In the Queen Mary Apocalypse, lozenge-shaped gems frame twelve towering lancets (fig. 10). Similar to the Five Sisters, the illumination includes diamond and circular medallions surrounded by small gemstones, and repeating vertically heavenwards.

Fig.8 New Jerusalem descending, The Trinity Apocalypse, c.1250. Cambridge, Trinity College, Ms R.16.2, fol.25r: https://mss-cat.trin.cam.ac.uk/Manuscript/R.16.2 (Photo © Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge).

Fig.9 The Heavenly Jerusalem, The Trinity Apocalypse, c.1250. Cambridge, Trinity College, Ms R.16.2, fol.25v: https://mss-cat.trin.cam.ac.uk/Manuscript/R.16.2 (Photo © Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge).

Fig.10 The walls of the New Jerusalem, The Queen Mary Apocalypse, first quarter of the fourteenth century. London, British Library Royal MS 19 B XV, fol.41v: https://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Royal_MS_19_b_xv (Photo © Courtesy of the British Library Board).

Whilst the examples above illustrate twelve gemstones and gates according to Revelation, artists adapted this numerology. For instance, mosaics at Santa Maria Maggiore feature a castellated city with hundreds of pearls and gems, epitomising all stones (fig. 11).((United Kingdom, London, British Library, Add MS 47672, fol.473r:  https://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Add_MS_47672.))  Similarly, the Five Sisters did not illustrate Revelation, but generated the effect of Heavenly Jerusalem.  Further resonances between the glazing and celestial city reinforced this, related to the passage:

‘And he shewed me a river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the midst of the street thereof, and on both sides of the river, was the tree of life…’((Revelation, 22:1-2.))

Swirling trefoil leaves, similar to foliage painted upon the Five Sisters, flourish upon the Trinity Apocalypse conveying the tree of life. In the Queen Mary Apocalypse, spiralling tendrils bloom above vivacious waves, resonating with the aqueous translucence of the Five Sisters (fig. 12). The clear glass of grisaille also resembled rock crystal which, thought to be congealed water, signified the river of life.((Stefania Gerevini, ‘Christus Crystallus: Rock Crystal, Theology and Materiality in the Medieval West’, in James Robinson (ed.), Matter of Faith: An Interdisciplinary Study of Relics and Relic Veneration in the Medieval Period, London, 2014, pp.94-95.))

Medieval Christians further extended the vitreous qualities of glass, crystal and water to marble, revealing correlations between the Five Sisters and surrounding monochrome Purbeck masonry (fig. 13). Patterned marble surfaces were said to stimulate meditation, as revealed by Henri d’Avranches’ poem on Lincoln cathedral in the Metrical Life of Saint Hugh (c.1235).((Mary Carruthers, The Experience of Beauty in the Middle Ages, Oxford, 2013, pp.191-2.)) Henri compared contrasting white and black Purbeck marble to illusionistic flashes of light and gemstones: ‘Looked at closely this stone can suspend our minds, doubtful whether it be jasper or marble…’. Notably jasper, first amongst Revelation’s stones, was often referred to as crystalline.((Hahn, Strange Beauty, 41.)) Purbeck marble featured in England’s major ecclesiastical monuments and has been linked to the assertion of nobilitas or an ‘episcopal style.’((Virginia Jansen, ‘Salisbury Cathedral and the Episcopal Style in the Early Thirteenth Century’, in Laurence Keen (ed.), Medieval Art and Architecture at Salisbury, British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions XVII, Leeds, 1996, pp.32-35.)) However, the connection Henri drew between the material and jasper suggests its shimmering qualities also connoted the Heavenly Jerusalem, highlighting the reciprocity between the Five Sisters and its setting.

Fig.11 The Heavenly Jerusalem, mosaic upon the triumphal arch, Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome. c.434-440. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Maria_Maggiore#/media/File:RomaSantaMariaMaggioreArcoTrionfaleDxRegistro4.jpg (Photo © Wikipedia Commons).

Fig.12 tree of life and river, The Queen Mary Apocalypse, first quarter of the fourteenth century. London, British Library Royal MS 19 B XV, fol.43v: https://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Royal_MS_19_b_xv .(Photo © Courtesy of the British Library Board).

Fig. 13 Details of the Five Sisters window and architectural masonry. North Transept, York Minster. (Photo © Lauren Winch)

Fig.14 The Chasse of Ambazac,c.1180-1190, Limoges, France. Gilded copper, champlevé enamel, rock crystal, semiprecious stones, faience, and glass. New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Ch%C3%A2 sse-reliquaire_d%27 Ambazac_-1.JPG (Photo © Wikipedia Commons).

Medieval eschatological literature illuminates the sacrality of gemstones like jasper. The monk Bede (c.673-735), known to have been a rich historical and theological source for York’s late-medieval clerics, identified the twelve gemstones with saintly virtues in his Commentary on Revelation.((Bede, Bede: Commentary on Revelation (trans.) Faith Wallis, Liverpool, 2013, pp.265 -276.)) Jasper ‘indicates the greenness of faith that never withers’, and sapphire ‘the loftiness of celestial hope.’ Whilst the multivalent interpretations of gems amongst various medieval writers cautions against assigning them specific meanings, Bede’s words underscore the duality of these glittering materials: formed from earthly matter yet bound to the heavens, often through their association to saints’ bejewelled reliquaries.((Hahn, Strange Beauty, 31.)) The Châsse of Ambazac (c.1180-90) evidences this, sharing a striking resemblance to the Five Sisters (fig. 14).((Boehm and Holcomb, Jerusalem, 286; Chasse of Ambazac, c.1180-1190, Limoges, France. Gilded copper, champlevé enamel, rock crystal, semiprecious stones, faience, and glass. New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/652551#:~:text=Chasse%20of%20Ambazac%201180%E2%80%9390&text=Although%20French%20in%20origin%2C%20the,ceramic%20associated%20with%20that%20region)) Indeed, glaziers and metalworkers worked closely, as exemplified by Theophilus’ instructions on fixing fictive jaccinths and emeralds to windows.((Theophilus, De Diversis Artibus, 57.))  The Châsse evokes both a church with windows and towers, and a sarcophagus.((John O’Neill ed., Enamels of Limoges 1100 – 1350, New York, 1996, pp.208-210.)) It unusually relies upon aniconic imagery to realise the effect of Heavenly Jerusalem: its surfaces blaze with gemstones, crystal and filigree. Quatrefoil plaques filled with rosettes recall the Five Sisters medallions, whilst foliate repoussé echoes the panels’ painted plant-life.

Saints, Commemoration and Healing

Fig.15 Tomb of Archbishop Walter de Grey. South Transept, York Minster. (Photo © Lauren Winch).

Given the relationship between gemstones, heaven and saints, the imagery formerly surrounding the Five Sisters is highly significant. Since the Minster’s pulpitum was situated east of the crossing, lay worshippers had unusual access to the transepts. Consequently, the crossing was a busy area, popular for commemoration. As purgatory gained intensified focus, tombs required utmost visibility, prompting prayers for the deceased’s soul.((Paul Binski, Medieval Death: Ritual and Representation, London, 1996, pp.25-27.)) Passing through the south doors, visitors encountered a clerical mausoleum to their right, inaugurated by Archbishop Grey’s tomb in Saint Michael’s chapel (1241, fig. 15).((Brown, Our Magnificent Fabrick, pp. 37-41.)) Grey’s successors joined him in chapels dedicated to saints:  Archbishops Sewal de Bovil (d.1258) and Geoffrey de Ludham (d.1265), with Deans Roger de Insula (d.1233) and William de Langton (d.1279).((H.G. Ramm, D.W. Black et al. eds., ‘The Tombs of Archbishops Walter de Gray (1216-55) and Godfrey de Ludham (1258-65) in York Minster, and Their Contents’, Archaeologia, 103, 1971, pp.101–4.)) The north transept and crossing pier included the chantry of John le Romeyn at the altar of Saint Andrew (c.1240-50); the tomb of Archdeacon Lawrence (c.1245); and various chantries at Saint Nicholas’s altar.((Eric Gee, ‘The Topography of Altars, Chantries and Shrines in York Minster’, Antiquaries Journal, LXIV, 1984, pp.344-5.)) As a floorplan of burials made by antiquarian James Torre demonstrates, the crossing became saturated in remembrance over the medieval period, such that visitors constantly walked upon memorial-slabs.((James Torre, The Antiquities of York Minster: Considered in its Fabric, (1690-91). York Minster, Archives of the Chapter of York, Ms L1/7, fol. 75v.))

The transepts’ prime position in the hierarchy of sacred space equally derived from proximity to saints’ relics. A great rood donated by Archbishop Roger hung above the pulpitum, containing various saints’ remains, including those of the Minster’s patron Peter.((Phillipa Turner, ‘Image and Devotion in Durham Cathedral Priory and York Minster, c.1300-1540’, unpublished PhD Thesis, University of York, 2014, p.108.))  It lay on an axis to the tomb of York’s Saint William in the east end of the nave, near the saint’s altar dedicated by Canon Elias Barnard (1230).((Gee, ‘Topography’, 346.)) William’s tomb became a devotional focus following his posthumous miracles (1177) and canonisation (1226).((Christopher Norton, St William of York, Woodbridge, 2006, pp.149-157.)) Glorifying York’s saint with an impressive backdrop was a key driving force behind the new transepts and their glazing, rivalling the canonisation of Saint Hugh of Lincoln and translation of Saint Thomas Becket of Canterbury (1220). It is now known that the first shrine erected over William’s tomb shared a similar design to Grey’s, which by the 1260s had been enhanced with a canopy featuring foliage capitals and crocketed gables.((Stuart Harrison, ‘The Shrines of St William of York Reconstructed’, in Sarah Brown, Sarah Rees-Jones and Tim Ayers (eds.), York: Art, Architecture and Archaeology, British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions XLII, Abingdon, 2021, pp.1-25.)) Created with Purbeck marble echoing surrounding architectural masonry, Grey’s tomb associated him with the crossing he oversaw and the saint he canonised. Featuring pointed arches, both Grey and William’s shrines used micro-architecture which commonly denoted Heavenly Jerusalem, complementing the Five Sisters.((Nicola Coldstream, Medieval Architecture, Oxford, 2002, p.160.)) The gem-like panels also enriched the use of precious stones and metals throughout the crossing; painting and gilding resembling gems enhanced Grey’s tomb, whilst William’s shrine may have supported a silver-gilt and bejewelled feretory or head reliquary, created following his translation (1284).((Inventory in James Raine, The Fabric Rolls of York Minster, Surtees Society XXXV (1859), pp.221-225; Benjamin Nilson, The Cathedral Shrines of Medieval England, Woodbridge, 1998, p.55.)) 

The healing potential of contact with Saint William provides a means to understand pilgrims’ experience of the Five Sisters. Many miracles involved restoring sensory deprivations, particularly blindness, which during the medieval period meant moral redemption with divine light.((Christopher Woolgar, The Senses in Late Medieval England, London, 2006, pp.8-9.))  On one occasion, a blind girl visiting William’s tomb witnessed a man dressed in clothing so white it made snow appear black.((Woolgar, Senses, 162.)) This account reveals the broader envisioning of saints’ bodies as radiant, crystalline white, due to their incorruptibility and purity.((Catherine Jamieson, ‘“As the Rose Is the Flower of Flowers, so This Is the House of Houses”: Using a Phenomenological Approach to Understand Medieval Aesthetic Experiences of York Minster Chapter House’, unpublished Master’s Dissertation, University of York, 2022, pp.36-30.))  Inspired by such tales, thirteenth-century pilgrims could move east from the dimly-lit nave and encounter the brilliant Five Sisters, offering luminous clarity. Like a monumental reliquary, the window glorified the miraculous healing potential of saints, resonating with the medicinal efficacy medieval people attributed to gems. For instance, Albertus Magnus’ (c.1200–1280) Book of Secrets advised medius ‘nourisheth hurt and weak eyes’ whilst sapphire ‘maketh the mind pure and devout towards God.’((Albertus Magnus, ‘Of the Virtues of Stones’ in Michael Best (ed.), Studies in Tudor and Stuart Literature: The Book of Secrets of Albertus Magnus, Oxford, 2019, pp.30-48.))

Visionary Experience and Divine Order

Medieval optics and aesthetic theories can provide deeper insights into how worshippers engaged with the Five Sisters. Vision gained immense importance during this period as interest in Aristotelian philosophy heightened. Scholars explained sight as a vital force, enhanced by a shift from ‘extramission’ to ‘intromission’ theory, whereby visual rays projected from an object to be actively grasped by the eyes.((Michael Camille, ‘Before the Gaze: the Internal Senses and Late Medieval Practices of Seeing’ in Richard Nelson (ed.), Visuality Before and Beyond the Renaissance, Cambridge, 2000, pp.202-206.)) Epistemologically, based on Aristotelian principles, the senses provided a basis for all knowledge. Once captured by the eyes, rays were interpreted by the brain’s cognitive faculties: the ‘mind’s eye’. Seeing was said to involve progressive stages.((Madeline Caviness, ‘Images of Divine Order and the Third Mode of Seeing’, Gesta, 22/2, 1983, p.115.)) Viewers commenced with mundane corporeal vision of material images, moving to spiritual vision entailing imagination and mystical insights. Finally, intellectual sight meant immaterial contemplation without images, apprehending divine truths.((Cynthia Hahn, ‘Visio Dei: Changes in Medieval Visuality’ in Richard Nelson (ed.), Visuality Before and Beyond the Renaissance, Cambridge, 2000, pp.171-174.)) Importantly, given the diverse audiences using the Minster’s transepts, these theories were not esoteric matters exclusive to educated clerics, but rather enhanced ordinary worshippers’ experience.((Denis Denery, Seeing and Being Seen in the Later Medieval World, Cambridge, 2005, pp.4-5.)) The Fourth Lateran Council (1215), attended by Grey, encouraged intellectual currents to reach a broader populace through novel forms of pastoralism.((Denery, Seeing and Being Seen, 46-52.)) Grosseteste was particularly committed to this, using light and sensory metaphors to explain penance and God’s enlightening power.((Celia Panti, ‘Robert Grosseteste’s Cosmology of Light and Light Metaphors’ in Nicholas Temple (ed.), Bishop Robert Grosseteste and Lincoln Cathedral, Farnham, 2014, pp.66-69.))

          Medieval visuality is exemplified by Abbot Suger’s famous passage on the glazing of Saint Denis, in which true sight transcends visible things:

‘the multicoloured appearance of the gems may call me away from ordinary concerns… from material things to immaterial ones, may persuade [me] to focus on the diversity of the virtues of the saints… and then by anagogical practice be able to be translated God willing from this lower to that higher.’((Carruthers, The Experience of Beauty, p.39.))

Bejewelled church ornaments transported Suger (1081–1151) from envisioning worldly matter to meditate upon the immaterial. His words reveal a vital aspect of medieval aesthetics, persuasion: a bridge between the ‘sensitive soul’ (sensation) and the ‘intellectual soul’ (understanding), whereby images could stimulate meditation and affirm religious beliefs, offering ‘a confident consent to believe.’((Carruthers, The Experience of Beauty, pp.14; 41-2.)) Suger’s persuasion towards an anagogical glimpse of Heavenly Jerusalem could apply to the Five Sisters; it persuaded worshippers that entering the Minster anticipated paradise, inhabited by the saints.  This is further affirmed by Marbode of Rennes’ hymn Cives celestis patrie, a poetic summary of Bede’s Commentary, which conveys the faith glittering materials inspired:

‘These precious stones stand for human beings of flesh and blood; the variety of colours is their multiplicity of virtues… O holy king of the celestial city, grant us after the course of this transient life a share in fellowship above: among the companies of the saints let us sing songs to Thee.’((Peter Kitson, ‘Lapidary Traditions in Anglo-Saxon England: Part II, Bede’s ‘Explanatio Apocalypsis’ and Related Works’, Anglo-Saxon England 12 (1983): 119-120.))

Casting divine light towards the tombs of the crossing, the Five Sisters imaginatively enacted the deceased’s hopes for salvation in Heavenly Jerusalem ‘amongst the companies of saints.’ Moreover, the placement of the shrines between the south entrance and the Five Sisters conveyed the intercessory role of saints and clerics, directing worshippers towards heaven, conjured by towering grisaille panels.

Fig.16 Matthew Paris, Map from London to Jerusalem, Historia Anglorum, Chronica Majora, c.1250-1259. London, British Library Royal MS 14 C VII, fol.5r: https://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/ FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Royal_MS_14_c_vii (Photo © Courtesy of the British Library Board).

Geometrical patterns in the Five Sisters furthered the progressive visuality medieval Christians valued, stimulating meditation whilst participating in the use of ideal shapes to emphasise celestial and terrestrial Jerusalem’s sanctity with perfect geometrical order.((Bianca Kühnel (ed.), The Real and Ideal Jerusalem in Jewish, Christian and Islamic Art, Jerusalem, 1998, xxiii-xxxv; Bianca Kühnel, ‘Geography and Geometry of Jerusalem’ in Nitza Rosovsky (ed.), City of the Great King: Jerusalem from David to the Present, London, 1996, pp.288-319.))  Geometrical designs feature in pilgrimage maps such as those of Matthew Paris, offering a mental journey through cities on route from London (fig. 16). Jerusalem appears as a crenelated square containing its sacred monuments, represented with squares, diamonds and circles.((United Kingdom, London, British Library, Royal MS 14 C VII, fol.5r: https://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Royal_MS_14_c_vii,; United Kingdom, Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 016I, fol.iiiv: https://parker.stanford.edu/parker/catalog/rb378fk5493; P.D. Harvey, Medieval Maps of the Holy Land, London, 2012, 60-88.)) Similarly in the Vatican map, the Holy Land’s cities are star-shaped, formed from squares and diamonds, whilst below is a rosette-shaped Garden of Eden; medieval Christians located paradise in terrestrial Eden, alongside earthly and heavenly Jerusalem.((Italy, Rome, Vatican Library, Vat. Lat. 6018, fols.63v-64r:  https://digi.vatlib.it/view/MSS_Vat.lat.6018; Marcia Kupfer, ‘The Jerusalem Effect: Rethinking the Centre in Medieval World Maps’ in Bianca Kühnel (ed.), Visual Constructs of Jerusalem, Turnhout, 2015, 354-358.))

Paris’s maps not only echo geometrical representations of Heavenly Jerusalem, but also cosmological diagrams; medieval Christians drew together geography, astrology and eschatology to emphasise earthly Jerusalem as the gateway to heaven.((Boehm and Holcomb, Jerusalem, 271-275.)) Both squares and circles indicated geometrical perfection and suggested cosmic order interchangeably; echoing the Trinity Apocalypse’s birds-eye view of Heavenly Jerusalem as square. The Valenciennes Apocalypse portrays the celestial city with twelve concentric roundels and gates at cardinal points.((France, Valenciennes, Bibliothèque Municipale, MS. 99, fol.38r. The Valenciennes Apocalypse, ninth century: https://portail.biblissima.fr/ark:/43093/mdata4756fb3a293c7188c3cfeeca6e7387cea42d513))  The Valenciennes painting evokes cosmological diagrams showing planets and stars moving in circles, visualising the belief that celestial bodies orbited an immobile earth as the cosmic centre.((Germany, Wolfenbüttel Digital Library, Cod. Guelf. 1 Gud. Lat. 4305, fol.43v: https://diglib.hab.de/mss/1-gud-lat/start.htm)) These various images echo the harmonious, concentric designs of the Five Sisters with its use of horizontal and vertical reflections; radical symmetry around the central rosettes; and vertical translation of designs within each lancet.  The window’s cascading foliage enhanced these geometrical forms, inspiring meditation over the divine harmony and fecundity of God’s creation, especially as the sun’s movements created the illusion of leaves being in continual flux and growth.


Overall, this study has revivified the overlooked and deteriorated Five Sisters as amongst England’s most remarkable expanses of grisaille. Illuminating multi-layered meanings whilst adopting a holistic approach, integrating the glazing into the crossing’s imagery, reveals the Five Sisters to be a sophisticated devotional experience. Its eschatological allusions persuaded viewers to have faith in the promise of salvation in Heavenly Jerusalem. Far from being merely decorative or economic, the Five Sisters glorified the heart of worship in the medieval Minster.

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