Guards of Christ’s Tomb: Three 14th-century Soldiers
This month’s panel focuses on a group of three soldiers in a scene of Christ’s Resurrection from the well-known church of All Saints, North Street, York. An astounding fourteen of the church’s sixteen windows contain medieval glass. Our panel comes from the ‘Life of the Virgin’ window which contains some of the earliest surviving glass in the church, dating c.1310–40. The panel gives us the opportunity to discuss the iconography of Christ’s Resurrection, 14th-century depictions of soldiers and the work of York glass-painters.
Survival and Restoration History
Almost all the windows in All Saints have been rearranged and moved since they were originally installed. In 1730 the three-light Life of the Virgin window was recorded as the east window of the chancel. It is uncertain when the window was relocated to its present position at the east end of the north aisle, but it was certainly here by the mid-19th century. In 1843–44 the Life of the Virgin window was restored by William Wailes of Newcastle, along with several other windows in the church. As part of this restoration Wailes replaced several pieces of medieval glass. During this period he was engaged in several restoration projects in York including work at the Minster, where he patched and replaced shields in the clerestory after the 1840 fire. The Life of the Virgin window was later releaded in 1877 by J.W. Knowles of York. It was cleaned and repaired in situ by the York Glaziers’ Trust during the 1960s, when many pieces of 19th-century glass were removed.
The Life of the Virgin window
Although the three-light window includes several pieces of 19th century ‘replacement’ glass, its iconography is unchanged. [Fig. 1] The three quatrefoil tracery lights each contain a single figure; the crowned Virgin Mary at the top, with St Michael and St George below. Each light has borders of flowing foliage, castles, windows and other architectural details. The main lights depict six narrative scenes associated with the Virgin Mary’s life, arranged in two rows of three. The upper row of scenes in the main lights is set beneath elaborate architectural gable canopies decorated with crockets and finials painted yellow with silver stain. From left to right the upper scenes show the Adoration of the Magi, Christ’s Crucifixion and the Virgin Mary’s Coronation as Queen of Heaven. The lower row of scenes is set beneath battlements and a shallow architectural niche in the shape of an ogee arch; from left to right they are the Annunciation, the Nativity and Christ’s Resurrection.
The Resurrection Panel: Iconography and Techniques
The Resurrection panel depicts Christ climbing out of his burial tomb against a ruby rinceaux background with a group of soldiers below, each huddled under one of three arches beneath the green tomb. [Fig. 2] An open coffin lid marked with a cross in rich green glass and relieved by black paint can be seen to the right. An angel with huge wings, in bright white glass painted with silver stain, perches on the tomb to the left. The nimbed Christ figure adorns a gold cloak which gapes at the centre to reveal his upper torso and wound. In His left hand is a cross-staff and His right hand gestures a sign of blessing. At the centre of the panel Christ’s right leg can be seen hanging over the edge of the tomb in mid-poise as he climbs out of the burial chamber. This movement has awoken one of the soldiers below. The angel and soldiers are the only complete surviving pieces of medieval glass in the Resurrection scene and are excellent examples of good draughtsmanship and painting techniques. Both the soldiers and the angel have been executed entirely in black trace lines and silver stain on only one or two pieces of white (clear) glass (although now a few additional mending leads are visible). The application of silver stain is minimal but used to great effect; such restraint is also evident in the Peter De Dene window in York Minster (1307–08, nXXIII). The black outlines of the soldiers’ figures are set against a painted black surround which brings them to life against their background of rich green glass and gives the illusion of a shadowy arched recess. Christ’s leg, which overhangs the tomb, gives a sense of spatial depth to the panel. The scene is well-balanced; the two sleeping soldiers both face outwards which gives the design a certain degree of symmetry. The central soldier’s contorted s-shape figure serves to further emphasise Christ’s protruding foot, and thus the dramatic moment of His resurrection. Whilst Christ’s Resurrection is recorded in all four of the Gospels, the ‘soldiers’ who guarded the stone tomb only appear in the book of Matthew (Chapter 28: 4). According to this passage, an angel of the Lord rolled away the stone to Christ’s tomb and upon His Resurrection the guards were filled with fear. The All Saints panel expresses Christ’s unfolding Resurrection in one dramatic scene. The angel, all in white, kneels and gestures towards Christ and three soldiers appear crouched in architectural niches underneath the tomb. Startled by the appearance of the angel and Christ’s foot stepping out of the tomb, the awakened soldier’s posture is twisted and he raises his right arm in front of his body to cover his eyes in both fear and amazement. [Fig. 3] On either side two soldiers continue to slumber, huddled in the small space with their heads resting on their hands.
Other depictions of soldiers at the Resurrection
Although only mentioned in one of the Gospels the angel and soldiers appear in numerous medieval representations of Christ’s Resurrection. Although I have found no representation of soldiers at the Resurrection in stained glass prior to the early 14th century, some Romanesque and Early Gothic manuscripts include similar scenes. The unfinished full page miniature of the Marys at the tomb, c.1140–50, which may have come from a Psalter made in St Albans Abbey (Oxford, Corpus Christi College MS 2*) includes an angel standing on the tomb and soldiers sleeping below, although the figure of Christ is absent. The later Missal of Henry of Chichester, c.1250, made in Salisbury (Manchester, John Rylands Library. Lat. 24, f. 152v) contains a full page miniature of Christ stepping out of the tomb with two musician angels and three sleeping soldiers in chainmail below.
However the most direct comparisons can be made with other surviving medieval stained glass panels in the city of York. The contemporary east window of St Michael-le-Belfry church (c.1330) contains a Resurrection scene almost identical to that at All Saints. [Fig. 4] In his extensive book on medieval glass-painting in York, John Knowles suggested that these two windows could be the work of the same man, and it seems certain that they were executed from the same design with minor adaptations and a different colour scheme. Another Resurrection panel in the north side of the clerestory of York Minster (early 14th century) shows the risen Christ with the same gesture, the angel on the tomb and three sleeping soldiers below framed by the same architectural niches in the tomb (window NXXIII, panel 4c). Three crouched soldiers and an extra sleeping soldier appear again in the west window of York Minster, c.1338, in scenes of Christ’s Resurrection. The soldiers in the west window are very similar to those in All Saints’ Church in arrangement and stylistic features, although more coloured glass has been used and the Resurrection scene is spread across two lights. Thomas French noted that the reclining soldier in one of the Minster panels leans on a shield painted with the same grotesque head as the sleeping soldier on the far right in the All Saints’ panel. [see Fig. 5 and Fig. 6] The west window’s connections with the Parisian illuminator Jean Pucelle (d.1334), who introduced grisaille figures to manuscript illuminations, are also important in our consideration of the soldiers whose figures are almost entirely executed in white glass and silver stain.
The later 14th-century west window of All Saints Church, Pavement, York (originally in the church of St Saviour, made redundant in 1954) contains scenes from the Passions of Christ including a striking image of Christ’s Resurrection. [Fig. 7] Although the figure of Christ and the general composition of this panel are very different to the All Saints panel, the sleeping soldier on the far right has similar characteristics. The solider is executed entirely in grisaille and silver stain and shown sleeping with his head on one hand and a spear in the other. This scene also shows a developed use of perspective; Christ stands in front of his three-dimensional tomb whilst the soldiers are depicted around the sides of the tomb.
Similar soldiers in Resurrection scenes can be seen in contemporary depictions in other media. A fantastic Easter Sepulchre (c.1330) in All Saints’ Church Hawton, Nottinghamshire, traditionally used to contain the consecrated bread and wine over the Easter period, features four sleeping soldiers sculpted under canopies at its base beneath the Apostles and risen Christ. [Fig. 8] These soldiers are remarkably similar in posture to those at All Saints and we must conclude that during this period the representation of sleeping soldiers was a familiar part of the Resurrection story and its iconography. As also demonstrated, the soldiers enabled medieval artists and craftsmen to introduce perspective and drama to their illustration of the Resurrection.
Throughout the 15th century soldiers continued to be frequently represented in scenes of the Resurrection, often with more exaggerated use of perspective. A stained glass panel from the east window of East Harling church, Norfolk (c.1480) provides a later comparison outside of Yorkshire. [Fig. 9] In this scene a total of four guards in armour are gathered around Christ’s tomb, whilst Christ rises from the tomb in radiant glory. The scene explodes before us as we look upon it from a slightly elevated angle; this brings the viewer closer to the miraculous event and enhances our understanding of the soldiers’ amazement.
Later, in the 16th century, such use of perspective culminated in such designs as the stained glass from Herkenrode, Belgium, now in the Lady Chapel of Lichfield Cathedral. [Fig. 10] In this window the risen Christ stands victorious on his tomb, which recedes into the depth of the background. In the foreground are two soldiers painted with three-dimensional modelling and an illusion of pictorial depth. The momentum of the soldier in the bottom left-hand corner is so great that he appears to almost fall out of the glass in front of us. This movement is further emphasised by the solider on the right, who leans in an opposite direction and away from us.
The work of York glaziers?
Our medieval stained glass panel in All Saints’ Church is part of a unique assortment of soldiers with local significance. As Knowles stated: ‘When military costume had to be represented, York artists illustrated it as they knew it, with all the slight divergencies and local characteristics by which armour, as worn in the north, differ from that in other places’ (Knowles, 1936: 87). The soldiers in the All Saints glass have both comparisons in the local vicinity and characteristics which concord with national depictions of 14th-century soldiers and armour as other surviving examples testify. Most famously the knights depicted in the windows of the choir clerestory at Tewksbury Abbey (c.1338–40) are a commentary on armour of the period and show contemporary knights wearing metal helms over a chain mail coif and a surcoat, as was the 14th-century fashion.
.The characteristics and style of the All Saints’ soldiers and their similarities with other stained glass panels in York suggest they were executed in a York workshop. Other distinctive stylistic features associated with workshops of York glaziers are evident in the All Saints’ panel, especially if we return to look at the Life of the Virgin window as a whole. The borders and canopy details contain several York characteristics, including chequey ornament of the canopy shafting (see Fig. 6); this also occurs in the window in the 14th-century east window of the south aisle in All Saints, as well as St Martin’s Church Micklegate. The wiry étoiles in the trefoils in the canopies also appear in the York Minster west window and are one of many other examples.
Most significantly it appears that the designs for our huddled sleeping soldiers in niches under Christ’s tomb were reused and adapted several times for other windows in the city and were a common part of the York glaziers’ repertoire. The prominence of grisaille and silver stain may derive from Pucellian art, but was widely used by glaziers working in York in the 14th century. More broadly, local and national glaziers as well as other medieval artists and craftsmen included representations of soldiers in order to emphasise the dramatic and miraculous moment of Christ’s Resurrection and arouse affective devotion and sentimental piety.
•G. Benson, The Ancient Painted Glass Windows in the Minster and Churches of the City of York, York, 1915, pp.125–137
•T. W. French and D. O’Connor, York Minster: A Catalogue of Medieval Stained Glass, CVMA, Oxford, 1987, pp. 54–55
•E. A. Gee, The painted glass of All Saints’ Church, North Street, York, Society of Antiquaries of London, Oxford, 1969
•F. Harrison, The Painted Glass of York: An Account of the Medieval Glass of the Minster and the Parish Churches, London, 1927, pp. 173–185
•J. A. Knowles, Essays in the History of the York School of Glass-Painting ,London, 1936
•C. P. D. Maclagan, The Old Stained Glass of All Saints, North Street, York, York, 1908
•All Saints’ Church Website