Panel of the Month

An Excavated Angel from Furness

Angel, perhaps by John Petty, c.1475-1500, excavated from Furness Abbey. © Bill Wakefield.

Angel, perhaps by John Petty, c.1475-1500, excavated from Furness Abbey. © Bill Wakefield.

This month we feature a panel included in Penny Hebgin-Barnes’ new CVMA volume The Medieval Stained Glass of Lancashire, available at a discounted rate until 31 July 2009. Part of an angel excavated at Furness Abbey provides fascinating evidence of late 15th-century Cistercian glazing, which – as discussed in our May issue – was by this date no longer distinguishable from the stained glass of other religious institutions. It may have been made by the York-based glass painter Sir John Petty (d.1508), offering us an opportunity to consider the influence of York glazing in the North West and to discuss the life and work of this glazier.

The Panel

The figure, which is thought to be an angel, has a scalloped nimbus and long curly golden hair. It faces three-quarters dexter and wears an alb. The panel has been entirely executed in pigment and yellow stain. First the figure has been traced onto the glass with brown pigment and then a grey wash has been applied to shade the face and alb. The angel’s long and curly golden hair has been painted with thick brush strokes of pigment on top of yellow stain, the surface of which has been picked out with a needlepoint to reveal thin strands of hair. The angel’s facial features have been carefully drawn; several thin lines of paint draw attention to the shape of the eyelids and corner of the eyes. In contrast, much thicker short vertical brush strokes have been used to paint the eyebrows.

Furness Abbey

Fig. 2. Plan of Furness Abbey

Fig. 2. Plan of Furness Abbey

Fig. 1. Furness Abbey ruins as they appear today.

Fig. 1. Furness Abbey ruins as they appear today.

Furness Abbey was founded in 1127 when the site was given to the Sauvignac Order, which amalgamated with the Cistercian Order in 1147. The first abbey church was erected between 1127 and c.1170 and consisted of a nave, chancel and transepts. During the early 15th century the transept aisles and presbytery were enlarged, and at the end of the century the west tower was built. [Fig. 1] By this time Furness Abbey was one of the wealthiest Cistercian houses in England. The Abbey was surrendered to King Henry VIII in 1537 and King James I later granted it to the Preston family, from whom it passed to the Lowthers and then the Cavendishes. It was during this time that the Abbey fell into disrepair and presumably the stained and painted glass was smashed, and/or sold, lost and misplaced.

The abbey site underwent basic excavation in the mid-19th century, and has since been the subject of a number of archaeological digs and restoration programmes. Several interesting artefacts and fragments of glass were recovered. In 1924 ‘3 small pieces of old glass from window (sic)’ were found in a location described as ‘Cemetery (guest house?)’. The cemetery guesthouse was located at the northernmost corner of the Abbey buildings, adjacent to the stream, as can be seen on a plan of the Abbey. [Fig. 2]

The three pieces of glass discovered were found to fit together perfectly to form the angel figure. Originally a single piece of painted white glass, it is now fractured in two places; once across the angel’s forehead and again across the chin. The three pieces of glass have been recently back plated and mounted together in a Perspex stand. Given that the panel was excavated from the soil it is in surprisingly good condition, with only a few patches of surface corrosion on the exterior surface. There has also been some paint deterioration. None of the lead has survived, but grozing marks are visible on its edges.

After its discovery the angel was displayed first in the Abbey Museum (then housed in the chapel). It was later exhibited in Barrow library and the Dock Museum, Barrow, before it was returned to the present museum building (built 1982) in the Abbey grounds in 1993–94.

Although now part of Cumbria, Furness was a detached part of Lancashire until 1974, and is therefore catalogued in Penny Hebgin-Barnes’ new CVMA volume, The Medieval Stained Glass of Lancashire (2009). Hegbin-Barnes describes the piece in detail and at a total size of 14cm by 10cm suggests the panel was originally part of a tracery light or a canopy. She dates it to the last quarter of the 15th century (c.1475–1500). Almost nothing is known about the medieval glazing at Furness Abbey except for the fact that John Petty (also Pety, Pete), a York-based glazier, worked at the Abbey from c.1470 until his death, a period contemporary with the production of the angel panel.

York Glaziers in Cumbria

Fig. 3. A canonised bishop, Greystoke Church, east window, panel 4b.

Fig. 3. A canonised bishop, Greystoke Church, east window, panel 4b.

Fig. 4. Cartmel Priory, Piper Chapel, north window nIII, panel A3.

Fig. 4. Cartmel Priory, Piper Chapel, north window nIII, panel A3.

Although Petty was based in York, more than 100 miles from Furness, he was commissioned to execute glass for the Cistercian Abbey and there is much evidence to suggest that this was fairly common practice in the Middle Ages. York glaziers appear to have been working in Cumbria from the early 14th century. Although David O’Connor has recently refuted claims that the medieval tracery at Carlisle Cathedral was executed by the workshop of Master Robert of York (see O’Connor, 2004), the parish church of St Cuthbert in Carlisle contains fragments of medieval glass which are the work of York glaziers. Similarly other windows in Cumbria, such as the figures of the Virgin and a canonized bishop at Greystoke; [Fig. 3] glass at Cartmel Priory; [Fig. 4] and the east window of Bowness-on-Windermere [Figs. 5 and 6] are thought to be the products of York workmanship.

Fig. 5. East window, St Martin’s Church, Bowness-on-Windermere.

Fig. 5. East window, St Martin’s Church, Bowness-on-Windermere.

Fig. 6. Moses with the tablet of stone. William Peckitt, c. 1796, sIII, south transept, York Minster.

Fig. 6. Moses with the tablet of stone. William Peckitt, c. 1796, sIII, south transept, York Minster.

York glaziers also worked in other areas in the North West outside Cumbria. Windows in County Durham and Northumberland, such as those at Morpeth and Ponteland, were produced by York glaziers, and other windows such as those at Bothel have stylistic affinities with York glass. This confirms that many patrons turned to the ecclesiastical and administrative Northern capital for their stained glass, as others did for luxury goods. Although there are difficulties in knowing whether these links were formed by the patrons themselves, or whether York glaziers were an omnipresent group, we can be sure that such relationships persisted right up to the Reformation. In particular two York glaziers active in the North West in the late 15th century are known to us by name, Robert Preston (d. 1506) and John Petty (d. 1508).

John Petty – A Man of Substance

John Petty’s life is well documented and demonstrates the status that a successful glazier could enjoy in the late Middle Ages. Petty’s surviving will gives details of some of the places he worked as well as his wealth and possessions. He left 13s and 4d to the monks of Furness Abbey stating in his will ‘I have wroght mych wark there’ (Test Ebor IV, Surtees Soc, Vol. 53, p.333). Petty came from an established family of York glass painters whose names all appear on the Fabric Rolls of York Minster. His father Matthew (d.1478) is known to have carried out repairs on glass during 1446–47 and worked on the heraldic glazing of the Lantern Tower (windows NI–NIV and SI–SIV) in 1471. Matthew Petty was buried in the churchyard of the York Glazier’s Guild Church, St Helen’s on Stonegate. Matthew’s other son and John’s brother, Robert (d.1528), was also a glass painter who, between the years 1449–1488, was variously employed at the parish church of St Mary Magdalene in Durham, Durham Cathedral Priory, and Finchdale Priory (a dependant of the Abbey of Durham). Robert too repaired glass in the Minster in 1472 and during 1509–10.

Fig. 7. Seventeenth-century annotated sketch of John Petty as he appeared in the sixteenth-century stained glass window, formerly sIII, south transept, York Minster.

Fig. 7. Seventeenth-century annotated sketch of John Petty as he appeared in the sixteenth-century stained glass window, formerly sIII, south transept, York Minster.

Yet John was the most prominent of them all. Alongside his work as a glass painter, which involved carrying out glazing repairs in the Minster during 1470–71 and 1498–99, Petty upheld a number of distinguished and important civic roles in the city of York. He became Freeman Glazier in 1470 and his rising career following this is most impressive. In 1488 he was made First Chamberlain of the city, became Sheriff in 1494–95, and was elected Alderman by the Mayor himself in 1504. Upon taking office Petty was ordered to leave his inn, which he made a supplementary income from. In 1508 Petty received his highest civic accolade when he was elected Lord Mayor of the city, a role he held until his death later in the year and which gained him the title ‘Sir’. His funeral was a grand affair which reflected his municipal status. After death he was further honoured through the erection of a memorial window in the south transept of York Minster in the early 16th century.

O’Connor’s 2005 article in the Journal of the British Society of Master Glass Painters has investigated in detail this window, probably executed posthumously under the supervision of Robert Petty. Although the window no longer survives, having been replaced by a figure of Moses by William Peckitt around 1796, [Fig. 6] it was seen and described by antiquarians James Torre (1649–1699) and Henry Johnston (c.1640–1723) in the 17th century. Johnston’s Church Notes and Drawings 1669–70 (Oxford Bodleian Library, MS Top. Yorks. C.14, fol. 941) included an annotated sketch of the window, now the only surviving visual evidence of its existence. [Fig. 7] The sketch shows John Petty at a prayer desk wearing his fur-lined scarlet Mayoral robes, kneeling below the Virgin and Child with the arms of the Glazier’s Guild behind. Such a depiction of a medieval glazier in stained glass is rare (only occurring three times in this country) and testifies to Petty’s importance in the community.

Petty is not the only medieval glass painter to have been actively involved in the running of towns and cities. In the 14th century Matthew de Verrier was bailiff of Colchester for a number of years. Glass painter William Heyward became chamberlain in Norwich in 1499. Across the channel, glaziers also held important civic roles; Peter Hemmel served as a municipal magistrate in 1475–76 in Strasbourg, France.


In conclusion the excavated panel from Furness Abbey provides evidence of a late 15th-century Cistercian glazing scheme. The panel is an interesting survival which confirms that Cistercian windows did include figurative designs in the late Middle Ages, despite the tendency of earlier Cistercian glazing schemes to rely upon non-figurative patterned grisaille with limited use of colour, as instructed by St Bernard of Clairvaux. We may never know precisely what the glazing at Furness Abbey depicted in the 15th century, or how extensive the scheme was. However we can be sure that John Petty worked there during the same period the angel panel was produced and that he deemed the commission important enough to mention it in his will and bequeath money to the Abbey’s monks.

The employment of a York glazier, John Petty, demonstrates that the Cistercian Abbey at Furness commissioned prestigious glazing schemes in the years before the Dissolution. The prominence of York work in the North West, particularly those areas which we now know as Cumbria, Lancashire, County Durham and Northumberland, demonstrates the dominance of York glaziers and that the city was an important local, provincial and national centre for stained glass.

John Petty’s life is of much interest to the historian of medieval stained glass. His life confirms that civic and municipal roles were often performed by those with trade and manufacturing occupations. Petty, first and foremost a glazier, was involved in the innermost circle of civic affairs in the city of York, an important seat of the North. He was also a member of the elite religious guild of the Corpus Christi. Petty’s life reveals that in the late 15th and early 16th centuries cities were ruled by a mercantile oligarchy, within which the glazier played an important part.

Jasmine Allen


* S. Brown and D. O’Connor, Medieval Craftsmen: Glass-Painters, London, 1991

* J. C. Dickinson, Furness Abbey, Lancashire, London, 1965

* P. Hegbin-Barnes,The Medieval Stained Glass of Lancashire, CVMA GB Summary Catalogue 8, 2008, pp. 118–119

* J. A. Knowles, ‘Glass-Painters of York VII: The Petty Family’, Notes and Queries, 12th Series, Vol. ix (No. 169, 9 July 1921), pp. 21–22

* J. A. Knowles, ‘Glass-Painters of York: Robert Petty’, Notes and Queries, 12th Series, Vol. ix (No. 173, 6 August 1921), pp. 103–104.

* J. A. Knowles, ‘Glass-Painters of York: Sir John Petty’, Notes and Queries, 12th Series, Vol. ix (No. 171, 23 July 1921), pp. 61–64

* J. A. Knowles, Essays in the History of the York School of Glass-Painting, London, 1936.

* R. Marks, Stained Glass in England During the Middle Ages, London, 1993

* R. Marks, ‘Cistercian window glass in England and Wales’, in Norton, C. and D. Park., Cistercian Art and Architecture in the British Isles, Cambridge, 1986, pp. 211–228

* D. O’Connor, ‘”The dim shadowing of the things which should be”: The Fourteenth-Century Doom in the East Window of Carlisle Cathedral’, in Carlisle and Cumbria: Roman and Medieval Architecture, Art and Archaeology, BAA, Leeds, 2004, pp. 146–175

* D. O’Connor and J. Haselock, ‘The Stained and Painted Glass’ in G. Aylmer and R. Cant (eds.). A History of York Minster, Oxford, 1977, pp. 332–334

* D. O’Connor, ‘John Petty, glazier and Mayor of York: an early 16th-century memorial window formerly in the south transept of York Minster’, Journal of the British Society of Master Glass Painters, Vol. XXIX, 2005, pp. 30–44

* T. West, The antiquities of Furness; or, an account of the Royal Abbey of St. Mary, in the vale of Nightshade, near Dalton in Furness, belonging to the Right Honorable Lord George Cavendish, London, 1774

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