A Vision of the Holy City
This month’s article focuses on a late fifteenth-century scene depicting the architectural facades of the Holy City of New Jerusalem from St Michael and All Angels’ Church, Thornhill, in West Yorkshire.
Our panel has been selected because of its imaginative depiction of the architectural summit of the New Jerusalem. It forms the top left-hand corner of a perpendicular window showing the Resurrection of the Blessed and their journey to the Holy City [Fig. 1]. The window, c.1493, has five main lights, fourteen cusped trefoil-headed tracery lights and is situated at the east end of the Savile Chapel, adjoined to the north side of the chancel.
In the upper part of the panel a golden radiance emanates from a ruby-winged angel playing a trumpet from a parapet [Fig. 2]. Another angel with blue wings can be seen to his right, although much of this paint detail has faded. Two elect souls can be seen peering out of an ogee-arched window in the lower right corner of the scene [Fig. 3]. One man with a tonsured head looks up to a faded yellow stain figure which is probably a third angel. The other casts his eyes down to survey the pilgrim’s journey below. At the very top, an elliptical arch extends over the angels and the parapet and is supported by a vertical pillar to the extreme left. Beneath it a series of fortifications, rising towers and window openings form an architectural montage of the Holy City of New Jerusalem as described in Chapter 21 of the book of Revelation. In the Christian faith the New Heavenly Jerusalem (also known as the Holy City, Tabernacle of God, Zion, and City Shining on a Hill) is the reconstruction of earthly Jerusalem and an eternal dwelling for saints and believers. St John of Patmos describes his vision of the New Jerusalem ‘coming down out of heaven from God’ in the book of Revelation. According to St John, the City ‘shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal’; ‘The wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass’; ‘The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone’; and ‘The great street of the city was of pure gold, like transparent glass’. (Revelation, 21: 11, 18, 19a 21b) At Thornhill the Holy City is literally composed of glass, a medium which, reliant on light and colour, is entirely appropriate for its representation. The extensive use of white glass and silver stain, characteristic of much 15th-century stained glass, evokes the golden glow of a shining celestial city. The sumptuous architectural decoration of the New Jerusalem is conveyed through painted and stained detail; silver-stained patterned friezes emulate the rich and precious jewels said to adorn the city walls, crockets and finials adorn pinnacles, and tiles have been carefully painted onto roofs.
Style and Iconography
The subject of the Savile Chapel’s east window has been variously described. Prior to the late nineteenth-century restoration of the glass by the firm of Burlison & Grylls, James Fowler referred to it as a ‘Doom’ window depicting the Last Judgement. Yet, as Leslie Jones and Richard Marks have since stated, there are no references to the damned despite the presence of the Archangel Michael with his flaming sword and balance [Fig. 4]. The window has been more accurately described as a ‘Resurrection window of the Blessed and their admission into New Jerusalem’. Emphasis is placed on the salvation of the elect rather than the judgement of the damned. At the bottom of the window the dead are raised from their graves by angels blowing trumpets [Fig. 5]. The souls ascend on a journey to the Holy City via St Michael and St Peter holding the keys at the gates of heaven [Fig. 6]. A series of staircases zig-zag across the entire window and mark the route of the elect into the City.
The window is a unique design and an important variation of the Last Judgement theme which was a popular monumental subject in the Middle Ages. Its subject may have derived from Guillaume Deguileville’s poem ‘Le Pèlerinage de la vie humaine’ (1330–32) in which a monk has a vision of The New Jerusalem, the life-goal of all believers. He describes the architecture of the ‘citee’ as well as the numerous souls from all echelons of society attempting to enter it. Similar medieval depictions of the architecture of the Holy City survive in other media; the round turrets, high walls and parapets can be seen in a late fourteenth-century French tapestry [Fig. 7] and a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, which is contemporary with the Thornhill glass [Fig. 8] It is thought that a York workshop was responsible for executing the window. Nathaniel Westlake suggested that the glass at Thornhill was York work, considering it ‘especially free from that foreign influence visible in the southern portions of the country’. There are certainly parallels with 15th-century York glass, such as that at St Michael’s Church, Spurriergate, where Principalities in the ‘nine orders of angels’ window have similar features to the angels at Thornhill and include the same tiny étoiles in the background. [Fig. 9]
The ‘Resurrection of the Blessed’ window dates from 1493, and was erected as part of the extension of the Savile Chapel by William Savile. An English inscription in the east window, records this building work and the donor: ‘Pray for the good prosperitie, mercy and grace of William Sayvile, o-on of the company of Grayes Inn, and for the soul of Syr John Sayvile and Dame Alice Grayes, his wife, fodyr and modyr to the said William, and for the good prosperitie, mercy and grace of Syr John Sayvile and Dame Alice, which William Sayvile enlarged this guire at hys cost at the oversight of Syr John hys neveu, wherewith pray we all that God be pleasyd, the whiche warke was finished in the year of our Lord, 1493’.
The row of kneeling donor figures beneath the inscription include William Savile himself in lawyer’s clothing, with members of his family. All the windows in the Savile Chapel are filled with medieval stained glass and were given by members of the Savile family. The glass in the three remaining windows on the north side dates from the mid-fifteenth century and is contemporary with the building of the Chapel by Sir Thomas Savile, c.1447. Several significant monuments to members of the Savile family are also housed in the chapel, including an alabaster effigy of Sir Thomas Savile (d. 1449) and his wife [Fig. 10], and a more unusual three-person effigy of Sir John Savile (d. 1504) and his first and second wives Alice Vernon and Elizabeth Paston.
Restoration and Conservation History
Writing in 1869, James Fowler wrote that the window was very ‘patched and broken’. Between 1877 and 1880 all the medieval glass was restored by Burlison & Grylls during G.E. Street’s rebuilding of the church. Our panel is unusual in retaining a high proportion of its original medieval glass; only one piece of glass, the lower part of the ogee window with two peering figures, is a nineteenth-century insertion. Tracings of the medieval glass made by Burlison & Grylls survive in the V&A Museum, that of the Savile Chapel east window providing evidence of the window prior to the Victorian restoration, and revealing the severe deterioration of the glass in the twentieth century. The tracings also inform us that the horizontal glazing bars which divide each light into sections are modern insertions; the only original medieval division is that above the bottom row of donor figures. So the window should be perceived as one coherent subject spanning across the architectural mullions and our chosen panel should be considered in relation to the entire scene. Further to the Victorian restoration, some conservation work was undertaken in 1953, but unfortunately no records of this work were kept. It appears that the work was done in situ and consisted mostly of repairing leads and filling gaps.
The window’s present state remains poor, perhaps because it was poorly fired in the first instance, or because the old heating system, consisting of a coke boiler which produced acidic deposits, caused the glass to deteriorate.
Our panel of the month reveals a unique medieval representation of the New Jerusalem and embodies the church’s dedication to ‘St Michael and All Angels’. The location of the window in a family memorial chapel is significant; the hopes of the dead are expressed in the window which shows the blessed soul’s spiritual journey and eternal dwelling. There is a visual and symbolic intercessory relationship within the window, channelling from the donors at the bottom to the souls on the journey to the Holy City to the saints in the tracery lights; and beyond the window, extending to the family effigies and inscriptions. Some of the shrouded figures may even represent members of the Savile family. Richard Marks has suggested that one soul may represent William Savile as it is directly above his donor portrait, and that several of the ‘shrouded figures may well be other members of the family awaiting their entry into Heaven’.
For Thornhill Church:
T. Charlesworth, A Guide to the Church of St Michael and All Angels Thornhill (undated. Third Edition)
J. Fowler (R.S.A.), ‘On the Painted Glass at Thornhill’, Yorkshire Archaeological and Topographical Journal, Vol. 1 (1869–70), pp. 69–78; pp. 107–109
L. S. Jones, Unpublished BPhil Dissertation. St. Michael and All Angels, Thornhill: A Catalogue of the Medieval Glass Contained in Seven Windows of the Church Together with Material Relating to the History and Restoration of the Same, University of York, 1971
For Deguilleville’s Poem:
A. Henry (Ed.), The Pilgrimage of the Lyfe of the Manhode translated anonymously into prose from The First Reclension of Guillaume Deguileville’s Poem ‘Le Pèlerinage de la vie humaine’, London, 1985
For Stained Glass in York:
J. A. Knowles. (F.S.A.), Essays in the History of the York School of Glass-Painting, London, 1936
A. L. Laishley, The Stained Glass of York, York, 1971
J. D. Le Couteur, English Mediaeval Painted Glass, London, 1926
R. Marks, Stained Glass in England during the Middle Ages, London, 1993
N. H. Westlake, A History of Painted Glass, 4 Vols, London, 1881–1894