Panel of the Month

Panel of Geometric Grisaille, c.1200–1250

Panel of geometric grisaille

Panel of geometric grisaille, c.1200-1250


Fig. 1: Detail of Grisaille Panel, c.1200-1250, The Stained Glass Museum (Museum No. 1990/4). © The Stained Glass Museum.

Fig. 1: Detail of Grisaille Panel, c.1200-1250, The Stained Glass Museum (Museum No. 1990/4). © The Stained Glass Museum.

The term ‘grisaille’ derives from the French word for grey – gris – and describes the invariably monochrome effect of non-figurative decorative white glass. There are two main types of grisaille; geometrical designs which are primarily formed by their lead patterns, and organic types which have a painted pattern, such as foliage, on white glass. In some cases, such as the ‘Five Sisters’ window at York Minster, the lead and paint lines interlace. The panel of geometrical grisaille at Ely is a small single lancet with a slightly pointed apex, measuring 265mm by 790mm. It appears that the panel has been removed from its original setting and adapted for installation into a new architectural frame, as the border at the apex has been trimmed. [Fig. 1] The panel almost entirely comprises unpainted white glass with slight tints showing impurities in the raw material. The glass is arranged in a bold geometric pattern formed by the lead lines. The panel has a narrow border, also of white glass. Within the border lead lines form three circles, each containing a smaller circle, arranged vertically from top to bottom of the panel. A criss-cross pattern of interlacing lead cames runs through the centres of the smaller circles giving the illusion of depth and dividing them into four. These quadrants contain the only pieces of coloured glass in the panel. The pieces of streaky ruby, pot metal blue, and yellow glass enliven and embellish the design whilst simultaneously strengthening the geometric pattern.


Grisaille Panel, c.1200-1250, Purchased by Sam Fogg Ltd.

Fig. 2. Grisaille Panel, c.1200-1250, Purchased by Sam Fogg Ltd.

The original location of the grisaille panel at Ely is unknown. It was acquired by J. Powell & Sons in the late 19th century and taken to the studio at Whitefriars, London where it was restored. Presumably at the same time, a replica window was made, which is now in the chancel at St Mary’s Church, Haddenham (Buckinghamshire). [see the Buckinghamshire Stained Glass website]. The medieval grisaille panel remained in Powell’s studio until it was rediscovered in a drawer in 1973. It was then conserved for display in ‘The Age of Chivalry’ Exhibition held at the Royal Academy in 1987–8. It was purchased by the Stained Glass Museum in 2005. Another unpainted grisaille panel of similar date but different geometric design was also discovered at Powell’s in 1973. [Fig. 2] This panel underwent conservation in 2003 and was purchased by Sam Fogg Ltd, a London-based company dealing in medieval, Islamic and Indian art.

The Cistercian Connection

The anecdotal association of the Stained Glass Museum panel with a Cistercian foundation may have been suggested by the early Cistercian tradition of grisaille glazing. Statutes issued by St Bernard of Clairvaux in the mid-12th century forbade colour, figures and images in painted windows. St Bernard preached: ‘There is here (in contemplation), as I think, no need or use for material, sense-transmitted images of Christ’s flesh or cross, or any other representations which belong to the weakness of His mortality.’ (Sermon 45 on the Song of Songs, as quoted in Lillich, 1984, 218)

Moses dividing the red sea, c.1200-1250, Panel 4a, Window nII, Lincoln Cathedral

Fig. 3. Moses dividing the red sea, c.1200-1250, Panel 4a, Window nII, Lincoln Cathedral

The Cistercians initially rejected coloured windows and representational art in favour of creating an abstract visual language. Elaborate patterns, emblems and abstract forms found in grisaille glass were used to aid meditation. It was St Bernard’s belief that imageless patterns freed the mind from obstacles to the perceptions of light, which represented both God’s first and life-giving creation and God himself. Both vegetal and geometrical grisaille patterns were used for the glazing of Cistercian buildings and have been interpreted by Meredith Lillich and Helen Zakin as having symbolic meanings. Grisaille in the form of, or with painted, vegetation is thought to represent Christ the Creator symbolising truth, the Resurrection and the Tree of Jesse. Geometric grisaille represents the divine and rational order of creation. St Bernard instructed that: ‘From the beginning, my brethren, God has shown his predilection for order, and nothing out of order has ever been acceptable to him whose very essence is order’. (Second Sermon for the Feast of Circumcision, Sermons for the Seasons, as quoted in Lillich, 1984, 221) The geometry of our grisaille panel at Ely might be interpreted symbolically; the interlacing leads represent symmetry, clarity, order and the complexity of God’s creation, continual unity and eternity.

Of all the Cistercian houses once scattered across England and Wales, only one, Abbey Dore, retains some medieval glazing, although excavations of Cistercian sites, such as those at Bordesley, Newminster, Warden, and Fountains Abbey have unearthed fragments of unpainted white glass. Many more examples of 12th- and 13th-century Cistercian glazing have survived in France, Germany and Spain, including remains at Obazine, in France, and Eberbach, in Germany (now in Museum Wiesbaden). The sources for Cistercian grisaille patterns are vast. Amongst those which Zakin identifies as possibly influencing French Cistercian grisaille are Roman mosaic pavements; Celtic, Langobardic, Merovingian and Carolingian patterns; window borders; tiles; and Romanesque patterns in sculpture and frescoes. Pattern books such as the Reuner Musterbuch, 1208–13 (Vienna Österreich Nationalbibliothek, cod. 507) may have also provided sources for medieval glaziers. From the mid-13th century, however, Cistercians began to use painted decoration and more indigenous glazing designs in their windows. As Marks has claimed, by this time both in England and on the Continent, the Cistercians ‘had moved away from a repertoire which was peculiar to their order, if indeed there ever was a distinctively Cistercian glazing style’. (Marks, 1993: 136)

The Bigger Picture

Fig. 4a. Types of Grisaille found in Salisbury Cathedral, c.1200-1250.

Fig. 4a. Types of Grisaille found in Salisbury Cathedral, c.1200-1250.

Fig. 4b. Types of Grisaille found in Salisbury Cathedral, c.1200-1250.

Fig. 4b. Types of Grisaille found in Salisbury Cathedral, c.1200-1250.

Grisaille glass did not only feature in Cistercian buildings. During the Middle Ages it was used extensively for church and cathedral glazing across Europe, especially from the late-12th to early-13th centuries. Non-Cistercian grisaille glass exists in France, Germany, Switzerland and England, where there are important survivals in cathedrals at Lincoln, Salisbury, Westminster and York as well as in many parish churches. At Lincoln the remains of a series of grisaille windows with historiated scenes can be seen in the east windows of the Angel choir aisles (nII and sII). The 13th-century grisaille panels here show white glass painted with vegetal patterns surrounding the coloured narrative scenes. [Fig. 3] In contrast, the surviving Salisbury grisaille dated 1220–1258 includes several different geometrical patterns without any figurative accompaniment. [Figs. 4a and b] Richard Marks has described Salisbury Cathedral as ‘the largest single repository of 13th-century grisaille

Grisaille Panel, 13th century, Hastingleigh Church, Kent.

Fig. 6. Grisaille Panel, 13th century, Hastingleigh Church, Kent.

Grisaille panel, 12th century, nII, Brabourne Church, Kent.

Fig. 5. Grisaille panel, 12th century, nII, Brabourne Church, Kent.

designs not only in England but probably in Europe’ (Marks, 1993: 127). Later in the 13th and 14th centuries, grisaille glass was used in combination with coloured panels in the increasingly popular ‘band windows’, examples of which can be seen at Merton College, Oxford and in the Chapter House at York Minster. There are several reasons for the popularity of grisaille in the Middle Ages. First, white glass allows more light to enter a building than coloured glass and it therefore enhances the sculptural and architectural qualities of an interior. At Salisbury, unpainted grisaille windows in the upper levels of the choir allowed more light into the building and onto its important painted vault. Grisaille was also affordable; white glass was cheaper to make than coloured glass, not least because it was manufactured in Britain, while coloured glass had to be imported. The grisaille panel in the Stained Glass Museum has parallels with early grisaille panels from both Cistercian and non-Cistercian buildings in England, such as the lancet windows in Kent churches at Brabourne (12th century) [Fig. 5] and Hastingleigh (13th century). The white glass in the Hastingleigh lancet is also unpainted and interspersed with small pieces of coloured glass at the meeting points of the intersecting lacework. [Fig. 6]

Conservation and Restoration

Fig. 7

Fig. 8

Restoration of the grisaille panel has revealed much about its technical composition. The original glass is muff glass of varying thickness and the same tint. The rough surface of the lead shows that it has been planed, and the lead was cast in moulds rather than rolled. Prior to restoration both our Panel of the Month and the associated Fogg panel were in poor condition and had been previously mended. There were broken leads and missing pieces of glass but lengths of copper had been soldered to the joints to prevent disintegration. [Fig. 7] A heavy lead had also been attached to the perimeter of the panel and a steel hook at its apex for hanging. When the Ely panel was restored in the 1980s some pieces of 19th-century ‘dark white’ glass were inserted. Damaged pieces were removed from the lead for repair and medieval leads were retained. Several pieces of glass were bonded. The panel was cleaned by various methods, including: EDTA, for pockets of soft corrosion; glass fibre brush; scalpels; and airbrasive treatment. Pitting and scale corrosion can still be seen on the glass surface today. [Fig. 8] However, previous restoration work and the placing of this important surviving English grisaille panel within the Stained Glass Museum, the UK’s national museum devoted entirely to stained glass, has secured its future survival as an example to all of the types of decorative grisaille glazing which once filled several 12th and 13th-century buildings.

The Stained Glass Museum is located in the south triforium of Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire and is open seven days a week.

Jasmine Allen


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  • M. Parsons Lillich, ‘Monastic Stained Glass: Patronage and Style’ in T. G. Verdon (ed.) Monasticism and the Art s, New York, 1984, pp. 207–225
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  • R. Marks, Stained Glass in the Middle Ages, London, 1993
  • P. A. Newton, The County of Oxford, A Catalogue of Medieval Stained Glass, CVMA, 1, p. 148 and pl. 38f
  • H. J. Zakin, French Cistercian Grisaille Glass, New York and London, 1979
  • H. J. Zakin, ‘Light and Pattern: Cistercian Grisaille Windows’, Arte Medeivale: Periodico internazionale di critica della arte medieval, II serie, Anno VIII, n. 2, Roma, 1994, pp. 9–22

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