Selling Wine in York Minster
The sheer quantity of medieval stained glass that has survived at York Minster, compared with other buildings in England, is astounding. The church’s status as the seat of the archbishop of York means that on many levels its windows would have been exceptional. From the scale of the monument one might expect its stained glass to cover a range of styles and subjects, even if this range at such an important site might not be strictly representative. Yet the paucity of surviving examples elsewhere with which to compare the work means that it is harder to distinguish the conventional from the radical. Losses incurred over the centuries become impossible to separate from real gaps or taboos in the artistic tradition. Trying to understand the significance of some of the more unusual iconography can therefore be quite challenging. For example, what sort of a statement was made by the portrayal of the vending of alcohol in the minster’s glass in the fourteenth century?
‘PVR CINK M[A]RS’ proclaims a hooded figure as he taps the head of a barrel with a stick (Fig. 1). The man quotes his price (‘for five marks’) in French, which remained dominant in administration and amongst the nobility for several centuries after the Norman Conquest in 1066. From behind a precarious-looking stack of three barrels a bare-headed man offers up the sum in coin. This unusual scene of a commercial transaction amongst the working class is very unusual amongst the subjects represented in the glazing of this country’s medieval buildings.
Representations of trade or guild activities are however well known from the glazing programmes of the early Gothic cathedrals in France. The narrative window relating the story of St Lubin in the north aisle of Chartres Cathedral is the most obvious comparison for the scene at York Minster. (Images of this window and others at Chartres can be found in the University of Pittsburgh’s online database of digital images D-Scribe Digital Collections: Image Collections). David O’Connor and Jeremy Haselock have noticed the similarity in the depiction of the wine barrels in particular. The Chartres window is an extremely important point of reference for the scene at York Minster. While it was made a century earlier under different social, economic and political circumstances, this window helps us to formulate questions as to how, why and for whose benefit the lower orders of society were sometimes depicted in art. These questions have already been addressed in the context of manuscript illumination in the high and later Middle Ages. By comparing the differences in the rendering of the figures of the shepherds and magi in the twelfth-century Winchester Psalter, T. A. Heslop brought attention to the caricaturing of the lower classes for the gratification of the social elite. Bridget Ann Henisch came to similar conclusions in her study of medieval calendar illustrations, which contain comfortingly placid and bucolic pictures of peasant life for the nobility to enjoy.
There is no surviving documentary evidence confirming who actually paid for the windows at Chartres, and the evidence of the windows themselves is not conclusive when it comes to patronage. However, it is a widely held assumption that the commercial activities depicted in the St Lubin and other windows at Chartres mean they were donated by local trade guilds, and that these mercantile scenes constitute a sort of corporate ‘signature’. The windows have even been compared with the group portraits of civic organizations of later centuries. Based upon this premise, Wolfgang Kemp has drawn an ingenious and intriguing connection between the performances of professional storytellers or jongleurs (who performed at guild banquets), and the narrative character of the windows at Chartres. The proposition has much to commend it and has furthered the study of how stories are communicated through pictures. However, one must caution against the temptation to reduce both jongleur narratives and the Chartres windows simply to guild ‘taste’. There was undoubtedly much more that went into the production of both these art forms than just the interest of a particular social institution.
A major critique of the guild-patronage interpretation of the Chartres windows was published in 1993. In her Marxist approach to the material, Jane Welch Williams considered the economics of the historical situation at Chartres, arguing that the windows functioned as propaganda for maintaining the subservience of the local trade guilds. She suggests the scenes of bread, wine and money were intended to coerce the local population into giving gifts of bread, wine and money to the church. Besides refocusing attention on the dramatic political environment at Chartres, Williams reminds us that being portrayed in art is not necessarily an act of commemoration but can be one of manipulation and exploitation. While it is difficult to reject completely the surviving inscriptions in the glass that suggest group donation (if not specifically guild donation), Williams is surely right to caution against the over-hasty conclusion that being represented in a window is a straightforward indication of patronage.
Kemp and Williams hold opposing views of the Chartres windows, as on one hand self-representation by the increasingly prominent guilds and on the other the propaganda of the church. However they both agree that the main lunette at the base of the St Lubin window depicts a scene taking place outside a tavern (scene 21 of the St Lubin Window in the University of Pittsburgh’s database of digital images of Chartres). This is principally because the figures are adjacent to an architectural feature and the scene is surmounted by the generic sign for hostelries. Kemp quotes from the greeting between an inn-keeper and potential customer in the early thirteenth-century play of St Nicholas by Jean Bodel. Innkeeper: ‘There’s good food to be had in here, warm bread and wine from Auxerre, a barrelful!’ Customer: ‘Ah, holy Benedict, your ring-sign – I’d like to meet it every day.’ The ring-sign, both authors explain, derives from the lateral loops that reinforce the girth of the barrel. In the St Lubin window, the loop or ring is paired with what appears to be a long pointing stick.
Returning to the panel at York Minster, we find that the same two objects lie at the heart of our panel’s composition. The merchant taps the hooped rim of the top barrel with the tip of a pointing stick as he conducts the transaction. While the barrel hoop and pointing stick are fully integrated into the scene, they are also strategically placed visual signs for ‘tavern’ that would have been legible to a medieval audience. The emphasis is not upon the production of wine, or even the barrels that hold it, but upon the professional sale and distribution of the alcohol. More importantly, the panel does not depict any of the traditional gestures of donors. Neither of the figures presents a symbol of their donation (usually a miniature version of their donation such as building, book, or in this case a window) to Christ or the saints (Richard Tunnoc is depicted in just this manner in a contemporary window in the minster’s nave (Fig. 2).) Nor is either of the two figures even engaged in prayer, an act sometimes employed as a visual metaphor for benefaction. (The donor Peter de Dene is represented in this attitude in another early fourteenth-century window in the north aisle of the Minster’s nave (Fig. 3).) In fact, the scene of wine selling at York has nothing to recommend it as a portrait of a donor and must be understood as a component of a larger window.
The location of this panel depicting the selling of wine in York Minster has undergone a number of changes over the years. By the turn of the twenty-first century, it was installed with a series of four other panels in its present position in the north nave clerestory. The present arrangement is pleasing on a number of counts that support their grouping as products of the same programme of work. Firstly the distinctive ovoid frame, lobed at the four corners, is common to all five panels. The other four panels depict a woman kneeling in prayer, St James Major (dressed as a pilgrim to Compostella), a man kneeling in prayer, and a scene of a man sitting at a table with barrels of wine receiving money from another man (Figs 4–7). The latter scene of commercial activity forms an appropriate counterbalance to our principal scene of wine selling (Fig. 7), and the kneeling figures are facing in complementary directions so that they comfortably flank the figure of the saint (Figs 4–6). Curiously, the kneeling man and the wine merchants in both scenes wear parti-coloured robes (see main image and Figs 6–7). Upon closer inspection, their footwear is rendered identically (see main image and Fig. 6). The broad, rounded, closed-toed shoes have a single strap across the instep and even the hose are painted with the same all-over crosshatch shading.
As at Chartres, there is no surviving documentation for the commissioning or donation of this window in York Minster. However, if the present arrangement of the panels in window NXXI does reproduce the original relationship between the five panels, then we could begin to hypothesise about patronage and the people depicted in it. The two kneeling figures are the obvious candidates for the donors of the window (Figs 4 and 6). The single most striking feature about the arrangement is the position of the kneeling man and woman. Contrary to artistic convention, the woman is to dexter of St James (viewer’s left) while the man is to sinister (viewer’s right). Corine Schleif has surveyed the iconographic tradition in medieval art of consistently positioning the man to dexter of the holy figure when a couple is represented flanking a saint or divinity. This convention can however be dispensed with in situations where the female figure is in fact of higher status than the male figure. Divergence from the norm can also indicate that the wife rather than the husband was the main agent of the benefaction (especially in the context of an absent or deceased husband who is nonetheless pictured). At York Minster, unless the panels have been re-installed back to front, the woman is in the more favoured position, depicted in profile praying towards the viewer’s right, while the man is opposite, depicted in profile praying towards the viewer’s left. In this instance, therefore, it seems the woman is the primary donor.
What, then, is the significance of the wine selling scene with which we began? Rather than representing corporate donation of windows to the minster, as is commonly believed of the windows depicting trade guilds in Chartres, the scene of wine vending is an auxiliary image that casts light the identity of the window’s true donor. Dean Milner-White suggested the kneeling male figure might depict Francis Orsini, the treasurer of the Minster in 1335. However, as O’Connor and Haselock pointed out, ‘no medieval treasurer would have been represented in lay costume with a wife.’ Remembering that this male figure supporting a heraldic shield is shown neither in armour nor in costly dress but rather in bi-coloured robes similar to those of the wine merchants, we might consider whether he and the two merchants are liveried members of the female donor’s household. The device on the shield has not to my knowledge been conclusively identified, so it seems worth entertaining the possibility that the heraldry belongs to the kneeling woman rather than to the male figure, and that the scenes of wine selling describe her commercial enterprise rather than a trade corporation. There is still much to verify and uncover.
The panels in the minster are potentially very unusual and interesting. However, the dearth of panels depicting similar trade activity in English cathedrals hampers further comment about attitudes towards mercantilism in England. One wishes there was more with which to compare or contrast this example. Although these thoughts on the patronage of this month’s panel are skeletal and speculative, they are offered as an example of how well-known images continue to be susceptible to reconsideration by way of visual comparisons or formal analysis.
Sarah Brown, Stained Glass at York Minster (London: Scala Publishers, 1999)
Bridget Ann Henisch, The Medieval Calendar Year (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999)
T. A. Heslop, ‘Romanesque Painting and Social Distinction’, in England in the Twelfth Century. Proceedings of the 1988 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. by D. Williams (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1990), pp. 137–52
Wolfgang Kemp, The Narratives of Gothic Stained Glass (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)
John Knowles, Essays in the History of the York School of Glass-Painting (London: Macmillan, 1936)
Thomas Legge, ‘Trade Guild Windows’, Glass Painters Journal, 4 (1931), pp. 51–64
Richard Marks, Stained Glass in England During the Middle Ages (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993)
David O’Connor and Jeremy Haselock, ‘The Stained and Painted Glass’, in A History of York Minster, ed. G. E. Aylmer and R. Cant (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979)
Corine Schleif, ‘Men on the Right – Women on the Left: (A)symmetrical Spaces and Gendered Places’, in Women’s Space: Patronage, Place and Gender in the Medieval Church, ed. by Virginia Chiefo Raguin and Sarah Stanbury (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2005), pp. 207–49
Jane Welch Williams, Bread, Wine & Money: The Windows of the Trades at Chartres Cathedral (Chicago, ILL: University of Chicago Press, 1993)