Angers Cathedral

This month’s feature – a departure from our usual format – is a full-length review by David King of the French CVMA’s important and recently published volume on the medieval stained glass at Angers Cathedral.

K. Boulanger, Les Vitraux de la Cathédrale d’Angers, Corpus Vitrearum France, III, Paris 2010, ISBN 978-2-7355-0722-1, 96 euros

This is the seventh full volume of the Corpus Vitrearum to be published in France and has been developed from a doctoral thesis submitted in 2000 on the choir windows of Angers Cathedral by Karine Boulanger, the author of several other publications on medieval stained glass in France. As Claudine Lautier says in her preface, the Angers Cathedral medieval glass constitutes one of the richest collections in the country, but is relatively unknown because of the difficulty of studying it. Many of the windows have been restored on several occasions, and much of the glass has been moved from its original position, with some sadly lost or destroyed. Yet the glass includes major work from the twelfth, thirteenth and fifteenth centuries of great iconographic and stylistic interest, and Karine Boulanger is to be congratulated for having undertaken the difficult task of sifting through the copious evidence of the medieval documentation, later restoration records, and the glass itself to clarify as far as possible what the original glazing scheme was and how it related to other stained glass, manuscripts and wall-painting in the area and beyond [Fig. 1].

Les Vitraux de la Cathédrale d’Angers

Fig. 1. Les Vitraux de la Cathédrale d’Angers.

Historical Background

Angers Cathedral was originally dedicated to the Virgin Mary, but in AD 396 it received a second dedication through St Martin, Archbishop of Tours, to St Maurice. The archbishop had acquired a relic of some of the blood of the Theban martyrs, a third-century Roman legion led by St Maurice that was massacred for converting to Christianity. The relic was brought to Tours and later a phial of it was given to Angers (according to a late legend). From the seventh century, there grew in Angers a devotion to St Maurille, who had been bishop in the fourth century. A Vita was written, and in 873 his body was translated to the cathedral. While there was no proper new dedication, documents during the eleventh century mention Maurice and Maurille as joint patron saints of the cathedral. Eventually St Maurice eclipsed the Angevin bishop. According to a legend first known in the tenth century, St Maurille’s successor as bishop was St René. In 1255, a new shrine for him was placed in the apse, and a fifteenth-century document mentions a window to him. A later bishop for whom an unsuccessful campaign for canonization was made was Bishop Jean Michel, who died in 1447.

This historical background, together with the history of other relics belonging to the cathedral, the dedications of altars and links between Angers and the cathedrals of Poitiers and Le Mans, provide much of the rationale for the windows at Angers. The canons and bishops of the diocese were able to fund the building and glazing themselves so had no need to take account of the interests of secular donors. This made for a coherent iconographic programme, maintained and extended by the mid-fifteenth-century glazing. It may also explain the lack of any political propaganda in the glass, apart from windows such as that to St Thomas Becket, which deal with the theme of the conflict between church and state.

The Glazing Campaigns

Angers is not one of the larger French buildings such as Chartres or Bourges, but it does possess a pleasing unity in its architecture and decoration [Fig. 2].

The mid-twelfth-century nave has a single row of upper windows above blank arcading, a rather sober pattern followed by the choir and transepts, built mainly under Bishop Guillaume de Beaumont in 1202–1240. The glazing was carried out in several campaigns from the 1160s onwards, achieving a remarkable unity despite the use of different artists and workshops. It was finished by c.1255, when the relics of St René were transferred to a new reliquary in the apse; by then, the cathedral had thirty-eight bays of historiated windows. In 1451, following the destruction by fire of windows in the north transept the canons commissioned André Robin to make replacements, which he did in 1451–54, including a new south rose window. The iconographical scheme was then once again complete.


Of the nave windows given by Hugues de Semblançay in 1163–77 only a few scenes from an Infancy of Christ window and some border work survive. In 1190–1210, there was a second glazing campaign in the nave. At least seven windows were made, of which three seem to be in their original position. They tell the stories of St Catherine, St Vincent, St Andrew, St Martin, St John the Evangelist and an unidentified saint, and there is a window devoted to the Glorification of the Virgin. Eleven windows of 1230–35 are extant from the choir: the lives of St Peter, St Eligius, St John the Baptist, St Thomas Becket, St Laurence, St Julian of Le Mans, St Maurille, and (again) St Martin. There is also a large image of the Virgin and Child and a Tree of Jesse. Two other windows known from fragments told the story of Theophilus and the life of St Andrew (or the public life of Christ) [Figs 3 and 4]. At the same time windows of the Infancy of Christ and the Passion were made for the transept. The reconstruction of the twelfth- and thirteenth-century windows reveals a coherent iconographic programme whose main subject is the Angevin church, accompanied by a Christological cycle and a strong Marian presence.

Detail from St Catherine window

Fig. 3. Detail from St Catherine window.

Henry II refuses to see Thomas Becket

Fig. 4. Detail from the Becket window: Henry II refuses to see Thomas Becket.

The mid-fifteenth-century windows made by André Robin for the transepts include large figures of saints under canopies with a (later) Pietà and Crucifixion and two rose windows. The rose in the north transept is linked to the Last Judgement and that in the south transept is connected with the Apocalypse [Figs 5 and 6].

The north transept rose window

Fig. 5. The north transept rose window by André Robin.

The third sign – fish rising

Fig. 6. Detail of the north transept rose window: the last fifteen days, the third sign – fish rising.

Glazing History

Karine Boulanger gives a fascinating account of the history of the glazing once it had been installed. The cathedral, like others, employed on an annual basis a glazier to carry out in situ repairs. The first known by name was André Robin, initially used in 1434. More extensive restoration was financed by donors, who on more than one occasion asked for their arms to be included. The St John the Baptist window in the choir, for example, given in the thirteenth century by Richard de Tosny, the cathedral treasurer, was restored in the early fourteenth century by the Chaumont family, whose arms were inserted in the border [Fig. 7].

Arms of Richard de Tosny

Fig. 7. Arms of Richard de Tosny.

By the sixteenth century, however, the windows were in a very poor condition, aggravated by neglect, a fire and Huguenot iconoclasm. In 1617, a storm caused much damage. After regular repairs in the seventeenth century, the glass was again neglected in the eighteenth century, or in some cases removed in connection with major alterations to the liturgical arrangements.

Various restorations took place in the nineteenth century. After the opening of a glass-painting workshop in 1846 by Charles Thierry (1791–1860), the work was carried out by glass-painters rather than glaziers. Thierry’s workshop was responsible for a much-criticised restoration of two windows in 1857–58, which replaced too much old glass and failed to use local iconographic knowledge. This botched attempt meant that further work was postponed, and it was not until the end of the nineteenth century that a major programme was carried out. Various glass-painters were employed with very mixed results. Henri Carot’s work on the André Robin rose window, which had badly corroded, was excellent. Recently, some of his copies of this glass came onto the market and they showed how skilful he was able to copy the style of the fifteenth-century glass. I am grateful to Professor Nicholas Vincent of the University of East Anglia for permission to illustrate one of these copies [Fig. 8].

Labour of the Month in fifteenth-century style

Fig. 8. Labour of the Month in fifteenth-century style by Henri Carot. By permission of Nicholas Vincent

Most of the medieval glass was removed in the Second World War, but some was not and was destroyed during bombardment of the city. From 1947 to 1958, a general restoration was carried out by Jacques Le Chevallier that involved the painting of several replacement panels. In 1997 to 2008, further work involved the installation of thermoformed protective glazing. Karine Boulanger was able to examine this glass in workshop conditions and make restoration diagrams.

Her reconstruction of the original glazing programme is too complex to describe in any detail, but is a model of how to combine the evidence from many different sources including medieval documentation, restoration records, early descriptions and photography and the glass itself. Just a few details, however, might be questioned.

I would suggest an alternative reconstruction of the window in bay 123 on the north side of the nave from the second campaign of c.1190–1210 depicting the Glorification of the Virgin (pp. 130–32). Boulanger suggests that this was composed in two sequences unequal in size and reading from the bottom upwards. In the lower register would have been, as now, the placing of the Virgin Mary in a coffin followed by the funeral procession with the incident of the arrest by the Jew. The second sequence would have begun with the angel announcing to the assembled Apostles the forthcoming death of the Virgin, followed by the appearance of Christ to bless the Virgin Mary, the Assumption, and her ‘Coronation’ (not her actual crowning, as Boulanger points out, as she is shown crowned). This division into two asymmetric units does not convince, particularly as it disturbs the chronological sequence of events. If the first and third scenes were reversed, however, which as far as can be seen from the photographs would be a simple exercise practically speaking, then a proper sequential narrative would be restored. This would see the scene now at the base of the window interpreted by Boulanger as the Virgin being placed in a coffin as rather her being placed in a tomb. Her restoration diagram shows that what looks like a coffin standing on legs is in fact much restored.

Also in the reconstruction of the Passion Window of c.1230–35, now in the axis of the choir, bay 100a, the written description on pp. 143–44 of the original compositional ordering of the scenes does not correspond with the diagram of the restoration on p. 143, which omits the Last Supper. Finally, on p. 161, it is stated that four medallions are missing from the St John the Baptist Window in bay 108b, but on p. 163, only three are said to be missing.

These few mishaps should not detract from the usefulness of the section on iconography, which has among much other information much invaluable material on the sources of the scenes represented.

Style and Workshop Practice in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries

The overall unity noted in the architecture and in the iconographic programme is also seen to a certain extent in the style of the medieval glass at Angers, of which a lengthy and masterly analysis is given. Most of the glass-painters are shown to have been based in Angers and to have both learnt from their predecessors and developed new ideas. Several masters or groups are named.

The small amount surviving from the 1160s campaign in the nave has wide, detailed borders, similar to the Poitiers Crucifixion Window, and the designs and figures are comparable with glass at Le Mans and at Chenu (some of the latter was sold in 1839 and subsequently assembled in the east window of the parish church St. Mary and All Saints, Rivenhall, Essex).

In the c.1190–1210 group, the work of three workshops is discernible. That of the St Catherine Master still shows the influence of Romanesque painting, including the wall-painting at St Aubin in Angers. The Master of the Glorification of the Virgin is more modern but less refined in style, and the most important workshop, the St Martin Workshop, studied by the late Jane Hayward (1918–1994), included three different artists, whose output is compared to glass at Poitiers, Le Mans, other buildings in Angers, and also local manuscript painting. The glass of this period provides the link between the 1160 glass and the thirteenth-century glass. Both wide and narrower borders are seen, and the medallions are sometimes surrounded by the double beaded fillet with a central red strip that is characteristic of the later glass [Fig. 9].

St Martin dividing his cloak with a sword and sharing it with a beggar

Fig. 9. St Martin dividing his cloak with a sword and sharing it with a beggar.

Boulanger’s discussion of the style of the thirteenth-century windows is, together with her explication of the history of the glazing, her most important contribution in this volume. She demonstrates that, contrary to earlier opinion, the choir and transept windows were glazed at the same time in 1230–35. In the spite of the differences in the size of the choir windows a certain standardization is seen in the design, with all the choir windows having eight registers of figured glazing, thus condensing the narrative or privileging certain aspects of it. A similar feature was seen in the nave windows. Although the different artists who worked on the thirteenth-century glass each had their own palette of colour, they all worked from the same stock of coloured glass bought for the campaign.

Three main style groups appear: the St Eligius Window group, the St Laurence Window group, and that of the transepts. The St Julian Window reveals the participation of an artist from outside the Angevin milieu.

The St Eligius Master seems to have been one of the most active artists in the Angers workshops. His hand is seen in other windows from the choir and transept. He later went to Coutances, where his style influenced other artists in the west of France, in Touraine and at Le Mans. His style is seen in glass, wall-paintings and manuscript illumination. The St Thomas Becket Window is rather different. It is close to the St Eligius group, but is more innovative, especially as far as composition is concerned. The St Eligius group and the Becket Window seem to have influenced other glass at Le Mans.

The masterpiece of the St Laurence Master is the large representation of the Virgin and Child in the choir. This has been thought to be from the twelfth century, as it shares some features with the celebrated images of the Virgin and Chartres and Vendôme. However, as Boulanger makes clear, it lacks the hieratic pose of these Romanesque windows. Moreover, the Angers figures are set in a frame of grisaille and are one of the earliest examples of the combination of grisaille and full-colour work which was to enjoy a long future in French (and English) glass-painting.

The 1230–35 transept glazing is rather archaic in style and resembles glass in some smaller churches in the area, at Les Essards (sometimes ‘Les Essarts’, as in the picture caption) and Charentilly, but also some glass in Poitiers Cathedral. The St Julian Window extends over two lancets, the right-hand one of which is painted by the St Julian Master, whose style reveals that he worked earlier at Bourges Cathedral on the inner ambulatory windows.

Boulanger also looks at the evidence in the glass for workshop practice, including the difference between the re-use of cartoons and that of models (where the lead-lines are not superimposable), and the various ways in which several artists collaborated on the same window.

The Fifteenth-century Glass

A separate chapter is devoted to the 1451–54 glass in the transepts made by the workshop of André Robin, where the iconography was chosen to restore and extend the iconographic programme of the earlier glass lost in the fire.

The two rose windows are of particular interest. The theme of the Last Judgement is treated in the central oculus by a single episode: the resurrection of the dead. At the foot of the risen Christ displaying his wounds are seen two men and a woman rising from their graves. The rose omits the Judgement scenes, but includes the signs foretelling the end of time in circular medallions at the ends of the rays. The quatrefoils on the edge of the north rose depict the Labours of the Months. The series begins top left after the depiction of God the Father surrounded by angels and runs anticlockwise.

This series links the north rose to the south, which has a series of the signs of the Zodiac at the ends of the rays in the upper half of the window, with the Elders of the Apocalypse in the bottom half. In the central oculus is Christ blessing surrounded by the four Evangelist symbols. The rays have a figure of the Virgin and Child, and an outer ring of oculi has musical angels. Thus the particular devotion at Angers to the Virgin deriving from the original dedication of the cathedral finds expression in the north rose, linked to the main theme of the Apocalypse.

In an interesting discussion of the workshop practice seen in the mid-fifteenth-century glass, Boulanger points out that three batches of white glass were used, one of which has badly corroded, another of which has lost its paint, while the third remains in excellent condition. Drilled insertions were used and also cold painting, an aspect of medieval technique now being found with increasing frequency.

The style of the Robin workshop, which included at least three painters, is seen in some very damaged wall-paintings in the chapel of the former priory of Saint-Gauthier at Lançon and in some later windows in the abbey of St Serge in Angers, where Robin is recorded in 1462.

Illustrations and Appendices

Full-colour illustrations of excellent quality of all the glass are provided, and the restoration diagrams are very clear. However, not all panels are illustrated separately and occasionally some of the points in the text are difficult to follow from photographs of the entire window. Measurements of individual panels are not given. The catalogue section is followed by a number of appendices including the bibliography, transcriptions of documents, the mid-nineteenth-century description of the glass by Baron Ferdinand de Guilhermy (1809–1878), a member of the Commission des Monuments historiques, biographical details of the glaziers and metal-workers who worked together in the service of the cathedral and outbuildings, the index, the list of contents, and a useful fold-out with a plan of the cathedral with windows numbers and subjects, altars and a key to the restoration diagrams.


Karine Boulanger has provided an extremely useful addition to the increasing number of monographs being published on French stained glass and the French Corpus Vitrearum is to be congratulated on the high production standards and relatively low price of their full-colour volumes. We look forward to further volumes on the great French cathedrals.

Further Reading

To see a window by window guide to the stained glass of Angers Cathedral visit Painton Cowen’s excellent site here.

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