Medieval Glass at Salisbury Cathedral
As Salisbury Cathedral celebrates its 750th anniversary, Vidimus takes a look at the surviving thirteenth-century glass in what has been called England’s ‘most perfect cathedral’. [Fig. 1. Salisbury Cathedral, © Brian Butcher, Salisbury]. Although Charles Winston’s account of how ‘whole cartloads of glass … [were] removed from the nave and transepts, and shot into the town ditch’, during James Wyatt’s brutal restoration of the church in 1788–91 is often quoted, the cathedral still retains traces of its thirteen-century glazing.
Unlike some other churches of the same date, most of the nave and choir aisles of the cathedral seem to have been glazed in grisaille patterns, both unpainted and painted, from the outset. Five unpainted thirteenth-century designs can still be seen in the south transept of the church. They are one of the most important collections of its type. Three of the five designs employ small amounts of coloured glass. [Fig 2. Grisaille glass with coloured inserts]
In addition, a further fifteen thirteenth-century designs, or parts of designs, of the painted type survive. In the nineteenth century the pioneering glass historian Charles Winston recorded more. Many of these designs are extremely complex and were created by superimposing one decorative layer on top of, and overlapping, another. [Fig. 3. Grisaille design from Salisbury cathedral drawn by Octavius Hudson in 1843. For more designs, see the CVMA Picture Archive] . Overall, it seems as if the cathedral builders deliberately preferred a lighter interior, perhaps to illuminate important wall paintings on the ceilings (see Reeve under Further Reading).
In contrast to the grisaille, historiated glass seems to have been reserved for the more important liturgical spaces, typically above altars. Figurative glass was also installed in the separate chapter house, where the business of the cathedral was discussed.
The most important examples of the original thirteenth-century historiated glass are:
- the remains of a Tree of Jesse scheme, probably made for the Trinity Chapel c.1225 and since 1922–24 displayed in the easternmost light of a nave south aisle window, s33. [Fig. 4. s33 © Salisbury Cathedral Stained Glass]
- panels depicting the Adoration of the Magi and the Annunciation to Zacharias (father of St John the Baptist), probably from an Infancy of Christ scheme, now in the upper part of the westernmost light of s33
- a panel showing the martyrdom of St Stephen, formerly in St Stephen’s Chapel, but now installed in the parish church of Grateley (Hampshire), since its removal from the cathedral in the eighteenth century
- panels from the chapter house, now in the westernmost light of the same south aisle window (s33), adjacent to where the Tree of Jesse panels are displayed
The Tree of Jesse
Although incomplete, the Salisbury Jesse Tree is one of the most important examples of this theme in English medieval art. Depicting Christ’s genealogy on earth, the iconography was popularized by Abbot Suger at Saint-Denis, on the outskirts of Paris in the 1140s. Typically it showed a reclining figure of the patriarch Jesse, from whose loins a tree or vine sprang upwards towards images of the Virgin Mary and Christ. Old Testament prophets and kings were depicted on the supporting branches. Early examples of English Jesse windows survive at York Minster, dating from before 1180, and at Canterbury Cathedral, from around 1200. [Fig.5. Detail of Jesse Tree, Canterbury Cathedral, c.1200]
Although within this tradition, the Salisbury Jesse has some distinctive – and significant – features. The York and Canterbury schemes adopted the Saint-Denis model of frontally disposed figures seated on bench-like thrones grasping the symmetrical framing vine with both hands. The Salisbury Jesse, however, encloses its enthroned figures in vesica shapes, while prophets and angels balance on the vine, leaning forward with movement and vitality, utterly unlike what Sarah Brown has called the ‘static gravitas’ of the earlier designs. [Fig. 6. The Tree of Jesse, Salisbury Cathedral © Salisbury Cathedral Stained Glass]
The differences may be explained by the influence of a distinctive Salisbury workshop that produced a number of outstanding illuminated manuscripts, including the Wilton Psalter, made c.1250 (London, Royal College of Physicians, MS. 409). Unfortunately the window is now badly corroded and many of the finer details are difficult to see. As we go online, the cathedral chapter is exploring ways to conserve this masterpiece of early thirteenth-century glazing. ‘Our first priority is to prevent any further deterioration to the window’, cathedral architect, Michael Drury, told Vidimus last month. ‘Funds permitting, we plan to install isothermal glazing within the next ten years, hopefully sooner. In the longer term, I know that some people would like the glass to be moved to a different window, but our immediate priority must be its protection.’ [Fig. 7. Detail of corrosion on Jesse Tree window © Salisbury Cathedral Stained Glass]
The Martyrdom of St Stephen
This panel was probably made 1220–36 and shows St Stephen being stoned to death. It includes a Lombardic inscription ‘STEPHANUS ORANS EXPIRAT’. The medallion is enclosed within a lozenge with foliate sprays. Before its removal to Grateley Church in the eighteenth century, it probably belonged to a window above the altar in a chapel at the eastern end of the south choir aisle dedicated to St Stephen and All Martyrs. St Stephen was a deacon in Rome and is often called the first martyr of the church. [Fig. 8. The Martyrdom of St Stephen, Grateley Church. © c b newham]
The Chapter House
The chapter house glass was probably made 1260–66. The figurative glass appears to have been confined to the tracery lights and showed figures of bishops and kings flanked by angels. Two panels depicting bishops survive in the westernmost light of s.33. [Fig. 9. Chapter House glass in s33 © Salisbury Cathedral Stained Glass] They are in better condition than the adjacent Tree of Jesse scheme. Figures of Christ and two bishops in the chancel windows at St Peter’s church at East Tytherley (Hampshire) may be by the same glaziers. [Fig.10. Bishop from St Peter’s church, sII, East Tytherley; Fig.11. Bishop from St Peter’s church, SIII, East Tytherley]
Apart from its medieval glass, the cathedral also has an impressive collection of Victorian glass, much of it made by some of the leading firms of the nineteenth century. These include Clayton & Bell, Ward and Hughes, James Powell & Sons, Burlison and Grylls, and Morris & Co.
Twentieth-century work includes a window by Edward Woore, a pupil of Christopher Whall, and the intensely blue Prisoners of Conscience Window by Gabriel and Jacques Loire of Chartres. In 1982, a window commemorating the laying of the cathedral’s foundation stone was installed in the north choir aisle. It incorporates the heraldic devices of people involved in the planning and design of the cathedral and a representation of the ceremony itself. The window was designed and executed by Sam Kelly of the Salisbury Cathedral Stained Glass studio. Trevor Whiffen painted the panel depicting the ceremony. [Fig. 12. ‘Laying the Foundation Stone’ © Salisbury Cathedral Stained Glass] For further images of Salisbury Cathedral see the CVMA picture archive.
S. Brown, Sumptuous and Richly Adorn’d: The Decoration of Salisbury Cathedral, Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England. HMSO, 1999 (in particular the chapter on ‘Glass’, pp. 78–110)
R. Marks, ‘The Thirteenth Century Glazing of Salisbury Cathedral’, in L. Keen and T. Cocke (eds), Medieval Art and Architecture at Salisbury Cathedral, British Archaeological Association Transactions, XVIII, London, 1996
R. O. C. Spring, The Stained Glass of Salisbury Cathedral, Salisbury, 1987
For illustrations of the Canterbury Cathedral Jesse Tree, see M. A Michael, Stained Glass of Canterbury Cathedral, London, 2004; for the thirteenth-century wall paintings, see M. M. Reeve, Thirteenth-Century Wall Painting of Salisbury Cathedral, Woodbridge, 2008.