Panel of the Month

The Holy Trinity from Ampleforth Abbey, North Yorkshire

Central light, South window, Crypt. Ampleforth Abbey North Yorkshire. Photo: author.

Fig. 1. Central light, South window, Crypt. Ampleforth Abbey North Yorkshire. Photo: author.

This month’s panel comes from the south window of the crypt of Ampleforth Abbey in North Yorkshire. It is one of the most complete surviving representations of the Holy Trinity within medieval stained glass. However, little has been written on the history of this building, which possesses a fantastic surviving example of an extremely common medieval iconographic theme.

Description of Panel

A solemn bearded God the Father, wearing a deep sapphire mantle, sits atop a stone throne highlighted with yellow stain, his right hand raised in blessing. [Fig. 1] Before him is a figure of Jesus crucified, entirely executed in paint and yellow stain. The dove of the Holy Spirit hovers over God’s breast between their two heads. The figures, on a ground of four-petalled yellow flowers, are set in a trefoil-headed tracery light, now framed in modern plain quarries. The image represents the Holy Trinity.

History of the Abbey and Church

After the Reformation and ensuing anti-Catholic legislation very few Benedictine monks survived in England. Many chose to flee to France to pass on the rights and privileges of the ancient English Benedictine Congregation. Some Catholic families retained their own priests, often secretly. During the eighteenth century, Friar Anselm Bolton, the chaplain of Lady Anne Fairfax at Gilling Castle, just two miles away from the present abbey (now the site of the Preparatory School), had taken up residence in a lodge at Ampleforth which Lady Anne had built for him just before she died. In 1802 Friar Anselm then handed the house over to his brethren to be their new monastery. In the following year the new monastery school was opened.

The abbey church was built between 1924 and 1961, replacing a two-cell Victorian church.

It is centrally planned on an east-west axis, its central space occupied by the High Altar and sanctuary. The nave and choir are aisled, with four chapels to the south of the nave and choir. There are an astonishing twenty-five chapels in the crypt, from where our panel derives.

History of the Panel

South window, Crypt. Ampleforth Abbey North Yorkshire. Photo: author.

Fig. 2. South window, Crypt. Ampleforth Abbey North Yorkshire. Photo: author.

Sts Peter and Paul Church Birtsmorton Court, Worcestershire. © Newbold Bequest. Fig. 3 Sts Peter and Paul Church Birtsmorton Court, Worcestershire. © Newbold Bequest.

Our panel, one of a number located in the main crypt chapel [Fig. 2], is of late fourteenth-century date, the figure having the heavy eyelids characteristic of the Litlyngton Missal (produced c.1385). A comparable style can be seen in glass of the parish church of St Peter and St Paul, near the stunning medieval manor house Birtsmorton Court, Worcestershire. [Fig. 3] The panel’s fourteenth-century location is unknown but for the first half of the twentieth century it could be found in the private chapel at Moreton Paddox, Warwickshire, the extraordinary ‘Jacobean’ house built in 1909 for the Catholic Irish-American millionaire Robert Emmet. Emmet filled the windows of his house with Continental and English historic glass, including our panel. Sadly, nothing is known about how – or from where – Emmet obtained his glass. The Emmet family moved to Ireland in 1945, leaving the house empty. Used variously as an old people’s home and workers’ retreat, it was demolished in 1959, when one of Emmet’s descendants gave the glass to Ampleforth (Corbould 1961, see Further Reading). Today, the village of Moreton Paddox incorporates some of the original ancillary buildings and garden of the hall.

The Holy Trinity in Medieval Art  

Alabaster Trinity, late 15th century. Victoria & Albert Museum, London (Kamerick 2002).

Fig. 4. Alabaster Trinity, late 15th century. Victoria & Albert Museum, London (Kamerick 2002).

The dogma of the Trinity – three persons in one God – was formulated by St Augustine. He wrote that whenever the Christian speaks of God, ‘…he means ‘neither the Father nor the Son nor the Holy Ghost, but the one and only and true God, the Trinity itself’’ (Francis 1961).

One of the first portrayals of the subject appeared in a tenth-century manuscript of St Dunstan which featured two figures in royal robes, with crowns and sceptres. As Francis explains, ‘Until the twelfth century there was generally an equality of God the Father, the figure of the Christ seated on His right hand, and the Dove’ (1961, see Further Reading). The twelfth century saw the development of the ‘Seat of Mercy’ image, whereby the Trinity is represented – as in our panel – by a figure of God the Father supporting the Crucifixion accompanied by the Dove of the Holy Spirit.  

Santa Trinità, Masaccio. Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

Fig. 5. Santa Trinità, Masaccio. Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

This way of representing the Trinity became increasingly popular and was interpreted as alluding to the ‘mercy seat of the Old Testament, and the way in which this image is taken up in the New’ (Brown 1999, see Further Reading). It was used for free-standing devotional structures especially in the later medieval period. One of the earliest examples, a German portable altar, dates from 1132 and now resides in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Also in the museum is a fifteenth-century sculpture with a very similar composition, illustrating the continued significance of the image throughout the centuries. Known as the Alabaster Trinity [Fig. 4], the sculpture represents God the Father seated behind the Crucifixion holding the souls of the saved in his hands, which seem to rest on Christ’s head; ‘a physical relationship that expresses the spiritual truth that their salvation is made possible only by his body and his sacrifice of it’ (Kamerick 2002, see Further Reading). Some of the most famous Trinities are in paint, such as Masaccio’s fresco in Santa Maria Novella, Florence (1427) [Fig. 5] and the Amadeo de Pistoia in the Denver Art Museum (late 15th to early 16th century).  

St Barbara, Master of the Amsterdam cabinet, ca. 1485–90. Drypoint; 120 x 40 mm. Rijksmueum, Amsterdam (Hoyle 1994, 35).

Fig. 6. St Barbara, Master of the Amsterdam cabinet, ca. 1485–90. Drypoint; 120 x 40 mm. Rijksmueum, Amsterdam (Hoyle 1994, 35).

An interesting reference to a non-figurative representation of the Trinity in glass can be found in the life of St Barbara. It must be noted that although this part of the story is a late medieval insertion, the significance of the glass in the story is particularly interesting. The Golden Legend explains that Barbara was the beautiful daughter of a rich heathen. In order to protect her from the world he locked her up in tower; however, she managed to receive regular visits from a Christian and was eventually baptised. Her father discovered what she had done when she insisted that the tower should have three windows, each representing one part of the Trinity. Enraged by this request, he seized his sword and struck off her head. The significance of the windows to both Barbara’s life and to worshippers seeking her salvation is illustrated in a small print made by the Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet in c.1485–90 where she is shown with her attribute of the tower with the three windows. [Fig. 6]

Chancel, east window, I. Holy Trinity, Goodramgate York. © Gordon Plumb. Fig. 7. Chancel, east window, I. Holy Trinity, Goodramgate York. © Gordon Plumb.

The Trinity in medieval art was not only represented by the Seat of Mercy image. During the fifteenth century particularly, it was shown instead as three separate (sometimes identical) men, often differentiated by the attributes they carried. Although – doubtless due to the risk of attracting a charge of heresy – no canonical text exists describing the Trinity as three men, medieval painters, glaziers and sculptors often found the image suited their needs. The three-man Trinity appears as early as the eighth century in the Sacramentary attributed to Gellone, and continued to flourish in the fifteenth century in manuscripts such as the Hours of Catherine of Cleves, as well as in stained glass such as in the East window of Holy Trinity Parish Church, Goodramgate, York. [Fig. 7] Here, above the altar in a church dedicated to the Trinity, are two images of the Trinity. The main light shows a variation on the Seat of Mercy image, replacing the usual figure of Christ Crucified with a Man of Sorrows, which is held by a standing figure of God the Father. Hoyle has suggested that integration of ‘Sorrows’ motif with subjects such as the Trinity ‘gave the Father and Son an equivalence that made emotional expressiveness possible’ (Hoyle 1994, see Further Reading). In the smaller central light below, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are symbolised as three similar male figures; a very unusual composition in medieval glass.


North window, clerestory, Nave. St Peter Ringland, Norfolk. © Crown Copyright, NMR

Fig. 8. North window, clerestory, Nave. St Peter Ringland, Norfolk. © Crown Copyright, NMR

Unfortunately, as our panel is no longer in situ, it is difficult to examine the iconography in its original context, which may have provided information regarding the reason for the particular choice of subject. For example, at St Peter Ringland Parish Church, Norfolk another rare image of the Holy Trinity is depicted, with God the Father holding a Crucified Christ while the Dove of the Holy Spirit descends. [Fig. 8] The window which is positioned in the north of the east window and is dated c.1350–70, featured as part of a representation of the Te Deum, and was commissioned by the Guild of the Holy Trinity, perhaps with the adjacent window, both being in a chapel dedicated to the Holy Trinity (King 2008, see Further Reading). 

The Trinity was not represented in corporeal forms in early Christian art, which did not show that which no man had seen – such as the First Person of the Trinity (God) in human form. As late as the fourteenth century, the image was singled out by Wycliffites as, ‘leading to a debased understanding of God’ (Brown 1999). Similar disapprovals occurred in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, objections rested on the idea that images of the Trinity misled viewers into thinking of the Father as an old man and the Holy Spirit as a bird (Kamerick 2002). In 1643 an act of Parliament consigned remaining examples of The Trinity to oblivion. The Ampleforth Trinity, perhaps preserved because it originated in a tracery light and could not be easily reached by iconoclasts, is a rare example in glass of a once popular form.

Emma Jane Wells

Further Reading

On Ampleforth Abbey

  • C. Almond, The history of Ampleforth Abbey: from the foundation of St. Lawrence’s at Dieulouard to the present time, Washbourne, 1903
  • A. Cramner, Ampleforth : the story of St Laurence’s Abbey and College , Ampleforth, 2001
  • Fr. E. Corbould, ‘Ampleforth Abbey Church’, Ampleforth Journal, 66, 1961, p. 163–181
  • N. Pevsner, Yorkshire: The North Riding, Harmondsworth, 1996

On The Trinity in Art

  • D. Brown, ‘The Trinity in Art’, in S. T. Davis, D. Kendall and G. O’Collins (eds), The Trinity: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Trinity (Oxford, 1999), p.329–356
  • H. S. Francis, ‘The Holy Trinity’, The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, 48/4, 1961, p. 59–62
  • M. Hoyle (trans), H. Van Os, The Art of Devotion in the Late Middle Ages in Europe 1300–1500. Amsterdam, 1994
  • V. A. Kolve, ‘The Annunciation to Christine: Authorial Empowerment in The Book of the City of Ladies’, in B. Cassidy (ed), Iconography at the Crossroads Papers from the Colloquium sponsored by the Index of Christian Art, Princeton University, 23–24 March 1990, Princeton, 1993, p. 171–196

On Medieval Iconography in general

  • K. Kamerick, Popular Piety and Art in the late Middle Ages: image Worship and Idolatry in England, 1350–1500, New York, 2002
  • L. Ross, Medieval Art: A Topical Dictionary, London, 1996

On St Peter Ringland

  • D. King, ‘Reading the Material Culture: Stained Glass and Politics in Late Medieval Norfolk’, in Rule, Redemption and Representations in Late Medieval England and France, The Fifteenth Century, VIII, Woodbridge, 2008, p. 105–134

Norfolk: Ringland, Parish Church of St Peter

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