York Minster: The Twelfth-Century Grisaille Glass and Some Near-Contemporary Parallels

Attention has focused recently on the rich and fascinating body of twelfth-century glass in York Minster. A comprehensive account of the material by David Reid (2013) will be published in due course by the British CVMA. Here Zoe Harrigan, a student currently studying for the MA in Stained Glass Conservation and Heritage Management at the University of York, gives an overview of the twelfth-century grisaille glazing and its context.

Although the twelfth-century unpainted geometric grisaille glass now in York Minster (Figs 1–17) is some of the oldest glazing in the minster, it has been overlooked, perhaps on account of the lack of painting and figurative elements, its relatively inaccessible location, and the uncertainty regarding its dating. There are over fifty panels of this material, as well as many fragments, and most of the glazing is now arranged in first, third and fifth main-light registers of the nave clerestory windows, alternating with fourteenth-century heraldic panels in the second register and figural panels from the twelfth, fourteenth and nineteenth centuries in the fourth.

Fig. 1. York Minster, S21.

Fig. 1. York Minster, S21.

Fig. 2. York Minster, S22.

Fig. 2. York Minster, S22.

Fig. 3: York Minster: ex situ nave clerestory panel with same pattern (LG).

Fig. 3. York Minster: ex situ nave clerestory panel with same pattern (LG).

Fig. 4. York Minster, S23.

Fig. 4. York Minster, S23.

Fig. 5. York Minster, S24.

Fig. 5. York Minster, S24.

Fig. 6. York Minster, S25.

Fig. 6. York Minster, S25.

Fig. 7. York Minster: ex situ nave clerestory panel with same pattern (LB).

Fig. 7. York Minster: ex situ nave clerestory panel with same pattern (LB).

Fig. 8. York Minster, S26.

Fig. 8. York Minster, S26.

Fig. 9. York Minster, S27.

Fig. 9. York Minster, S27.


The Glass of York Minster in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries

Thomas of Bayeux’s cathedral church, the foundations of which lie beneath the present minster, was built between c.1080 and c.1100, but it is currently difficult to say for certain how the glazing may have looked. Brown has suggested that the glazing may have been stylistically similar to the figures of Augsburg Cathedral, which are nearly contemporary in date.[1] A number of glass fragments from Thomas’s church were discovered during excavations in 1966–73, but these are unlike the twelfth-century grisaille considered here.[2] Interestingly, however, when chemical analysis of the fragments was conducted in 1976, it was discovered that many pieces exhibited the same composition as the grisaille, indicating that the older glass may have been melted down and re-used.[3]

In 1154, when Roger Pont l’Evêque became archbishop or York, he embarked on a new building scheme in the eastern arm of the minster in order to rival Canterbury Cathedral.[4] He added seven bays and a crypt, parts of which still survive, and ‘their complex and richly decorated piers, hint at the splendour of his church’.[5] A full reconstruction of Roger’s choir will be published in the near future, but recent investigation has revealed that the choir was more complex than originally thought, with ‘extraordinarily rich ornamentation’.[6] The surviving architectural and sculptural details of Roger’s work, both at York Minster and at nearby Ripon Minster, have been analyzed elsewhere, and the connections with the early Gothic of northern France and Paris have been well established.[7] Thurlby outlined the aesthetic connection between York and Durham cathedrals, and with writers such as Thurlby and Oosterwijk the once-overlooked role played by local northern traditions in sculpture, architecture and metalwork has now been recognized more fully.[8]

Overview of the Twelfth-Century Glass at York Minster

The figural glass comprises twenty-eight panels and at least sixteen fragments with eight identifiable picture cycles. It includes:[9]
•    scenes from the Last Judgement (11–13 panels)[10]
•    lives of saints (7)
•    other narrative scenes from the Old and New testaments
•    unidentified figures

The non-figural glass consists mainly of fragments of
•    border designs
•    geometric grisaille

The date range for the glass is c.1080 – 1190s, and the grisaille was installed in the nave clerestory around c.1310–39 together with other re-used twelfth-century panels and newly made fourteenth-century glass.[11] Lethaby stated in 1915 that the figural glass came from Roger Pont l’Evêque’s choir and dated to c.1180, basing this assertion primarily on his stylistic analysis of a panel depicting Jesse, presumably from a Tree of Jesse window.[12] Woodforde suggested that the glass may have come from the nave of Thomas’s cathedral, dating it to c.1150.[13] This view was disputed by Lafond, who suggested that the Jesse panel is less archaic in style than the Jesse panels at Saint-Denis and Chartres that date to the mid-twelfth century, and stylistically it is most similar to the late twelfth-century Jesse panel at Canterbury.[14] This was later repeated by Caviness, and the view most commonly here currently is that the figural glass originates from Roger’s choir and dates to the last quarter of the twelfth century.[15]

Fig. 10. York Minster, N19.

Fig. 10. York Minster, N19.

Fig. 11. York Minster, N20.

Fig. 11. York Minster, N20.

Fig. 12. York Minster, N21.

Fig. 12. York Minster, N21.


Recent scholarship has suggested that there was a Last Judgement at the east end of the Roger’s choir, possibly consisting of a rose window with two lancets below and similar in arrangement to reconstructions at Kirkstall and Byland abbeys and Ripon Minster.[16] The lives of saints depicted are those of Benedict, Nicholas of Myra, Martin of Tours and possibly Richarius of St Riquier; this glass may have been situated in the choir, close to their corresponding saints’ altars.[17] The same date and a location in Roger’s eastern arm have also been suggested for the non-figural border fragments, of which there at least sixteen different designs.[18] Their rich detailing has been compared with contemporary glass at Saint-Denis, Le Mans and Saint-Rémi at Rheims.[19] Importantly, the designs have parallels with details of the sculptural decoration of Roger’s choir,[20] and the style and production of the glass have been said to be characteristic of ‘workshops indigenous to the York area and closely in touch with local metal-working, sculptural and manuscript-painting developments as well as having an awareness of glazing in northern France’.[21]

The Unpainted Geometric Grisaille in the Nave Clerestory of York Minster

The present layout of the nave clerestory windows is that of the ‘band window’, popular from the last quarter of the thirteenth century.[22] The precise current arrangement of the individual panels does not always reflect the description drawn up by the antiquarian James Torr (1649–1699) in 1690–91, or the engraving of the nave published by Francis Drake (1696–1771) in 1736 (Fig. 20), but it is likely that the unpainted geometric glass has remained in the nave clerestory scheme since its installation in the fourteenth century.

All the glass in the nave clerestory at York Minster, painted and unpainted, received little care after the Reformation, and repairs were intermittent throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The two easternmost windows of the nave clerestory, N19 and S21, were replaced in c.1800, when figural glass featuring scenes from the life of St Thomas Becket (c.1530) and the New Testament (c.1425) was installed.[23] Most of the restoration work in the nave clerestory took place following the fires of 1829 and 1840, the latter campaign as part of a major restoration of York Minster by Robert Smirke (1780–1867) in 1843–45.[24] It is thought that during this restoration panels composed of plain quarries were installed in the lower registers of all but three of the nave clerestory windows, to replace panels removed or damaged by scaffolding during repairs.[25] During the Smirke restoration new figural panels were made for the chapter house’s east window by Joseph Barnett of York. In 1959, these were removed to the four easternmost windows of the nave clerestory (two each on the north and south sides), and the fifteenth- and sixteenth century figural panels placed in N19 and S21 in c.1800 were installed in the chapter house east window.[26]

Fig. 13. York Minster, N22.

Fig. 13. York Minster, N22.

Fig. 14. York Minster: ex situ nave clerestory panel with same pattern (LE).

Fig. 14. York Minster: ex situ nave clerestory panel with same pattern (LE).

Fig. 15. York Minster, N23.

Fig. 15. York Minster, N23.


In 1908–10, there was a restoration campaign for the nave clerestory windows, excluding the aforementioned easternmost windows; much of this was done in situ.[27] In the 1960s, there follows a major ex situ restoration of the twelfth- and fourteenth-century glass in these windows.[28] The campaign involved a rearrangement of the figural panels and removal of the tracery glass, which at that time was composed of twelfth-century painted narrative and border fragments. These fragments remain in storage at the York Glaziers Trust (YGT), and the tracery compartments were filled with ‘light-toned modern glass’.[29]

Almost all of the unpainted geometric grisaille was removed during the twentieth-century restoration, the panels dismantled, and the medieval glass spread across the first, third and fifth registers to produce the arrangement seen today. Seven panels removed during this restoration, to three designs, survive at YGT (Figs 3, 7, 14).

The grisaille consists of ten different patterns (Figs 18–19, LA–LJ). Two of these (LI and LJ, in windows N19 and S21) come from the easternmost windows, which contain replacement glass, so are not be considered here. Parallels for the other eight design can be found among with thirteenth-century Cistercian grisaille glass in France and Switzerland, as recorded by Helen Zakin:

•    LA with La Bénissons-Dieu (Zakin 1979, pl. 16) and Pontigny (ibid., pl. 44 and tile pattern in pl. 133)
•    LB and Saint-Jean, Sens (ibid., pl. 183)
•    LF and Obazine (ibid., pl. 9)
•    LG and Saint-Pierre, Orbais (ibid., pl. 184a), Notre-Dame de Valère bei Sitten (ibid., pl. 186)
•    LH matches La Bénissons-Dieu (ibid., pl. 15), Saint-Pierre, Orbais (ibid., 185)[30]

Comparisons have also been found by Norton in twelfth- and thirteenth-century floor tiles from Cistercian houses.[31] Wilson had already found parallels with many architectural features in these and similar Cistercian abbeys, asserting the connection between Archbishop Roger’s choir and Ripon Minster.[32]

There is no other glass within the minster with these unpainted geometric patterns, and the grisaille not only differs from the twelfth-century painted figural and ornamental glass, as discussed above, but also from the painted grisaille glass in windows closest in date: sXXV–XXVI (1220–40), nXVI (c.1250), and the chapter house and its vestibule windows (1290s). Norton has suggested that the glass may have been salvaged and re-used in the same way as the twelfth-century sculpture from the nave and west end during alterations made at the end of the twelfth century, or that it could even belong to the cathedral of Thomas of Bayeux.[33] Stylistically the geometric grisaille is unlike any other surviving glazing in York Minster, and Norton has also suggested that there would have been parallels with many of the prominent Cistercian churches in Yorkshire of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, none of which survives.[34]

Grisaille Glass in England before 1250

Among extant medieval panels, the preponderance of figurative glazing over decorative glass, such as the grisaille being considered here, has caused an imbalance in our understanding of which was more prevalent. More ‘everyday’ or common decorative glass has often been more deemed more disposable by later generations, owing to a perception of its low cultural and financial worth; this in turn gives us a false impression of the values held by those viewing the glass when it was new. Often the use of grisaille glass, painted and unpainted, is dismissed as a cheap alternative to figurative glazing, devoid of meaning and purely defined by its cost.

Yet the use of grisaille at Salisbury Cathedral provides evidence to suggest that this is not the case: each different design would have required its own cartoon and less repetition in production than supposed. The patterns are intricate and require absolute precision in production. The grisaille glass at Salisbury (Fig. 21) dates to c.1220–25, and with at least fifteen designs surviving it has been described as the ‘largest single repository of thirteenth-century grisaille designs not only in England but probably in Europe’.[35] To the existing designs we can add those recorded by Winston in the 1860s; this brings the total to around thirty, six of which were unpainted designs (Fig. 22).[36] The surviving glass includes five of these unpainted designs and ten of the painted.[37] The fragmented glass is situated in the nave and choir aisles, and several panels are in the triforium of the south-west transept and the clerestory of the south-east transept. Many panels were moved in the nineteenth century, and some fragments of Salisbury’s glass have been relocated to other sites.[38] The unpainted geometric grisaille glass was almost certainly situated at clerestory level, with the painted grisaille glass at ground level.[39] The figural glass seems to have been only in locations above altars.[40]

Fig. 16. York Minster, N24.

Fig. 16. York Minster, N24.

Fig. 17. York Minster, N25.

Fig. 17. York Minster, N25.

Fig. 18. The geometric grisaille patterns from York Minster nave clerestory. Reid 2013, 305

Fig. 18. The geometric grisaille patterns from York Minster nave clerestory. Reid 2013, p. 305

Fig. 19. The geometric grisaille patterns from York Minster nave clerestory, dating from the nineteenth century. Reid 2013, 306

Fig. 19. The geometric grisaille patterns from York Minster nave clerestory, dating from the nineteenth century. Reid 2013, p. 306

Fig. 20. Drake engraving of the nave, 1736. Drake 1785, 525.

Fig. 20. Drake engraving of the nave, 1736. Drake 1785, p. 525

Fig. 21. Salisbury Cathedral, north transept. Wikimedia Commons

Fig. 21. Salisbury Cathedral, north transept. Wikimedia Commons


The painted grisaille contains its foliate pattern within the lead-lines, in a similar way to contemporary examples from France and Germany, but is characteristically English in its overall composition, comprising several ‘layers’ of geometric forms on top of one another without any interlacing elements such as a strap or band in all but one occasion: this interlacing almost exclusively occurs only in English unpainted grisaille glass.[41] Comparisons have also been made between the painted grisaille at Salisbury and that found at York in SXXV, SXXVI and nXVI, as well as at Lincoln Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, and some parish churches (mostly in Kent).[42] Of the unpainted designs at Salisbury, three consist of lattice patterns (Fig. 22: D, E, F), two of strapwork interlacing with circles (A, B), and one of a ‘fish-scale’ pattern (C). Geometric shapes are favoured, as at York, and comparisons have been found in contemporary Cistercian tile pavements.[43] Three of the unpainted designs match those at York – namely A with LG, E with LD, and F with LB (Figs 18–19).[44]

Grisaille glass is also to be found at Lincoln Cathedral in five lancets (NXXX–NXXXIV) beneath the Last Judgement north rose window. It has been suggested that the rose is the only remaining thirteenth-century window that can be described as ‘largely in situ’.[46] Grisaille glass of the early fourteenth century has also been found in parish churches in Kent and Oxfordshire.[47] This type of glazing is no longer considered to be of French Cistercian origin, and may in fact have been very common in churches and cathedrals of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in England as well as on the Continent.[48]

Fig. 22. Salisbury unpainted grisaille designs. Marks after Winston A, B, D, E and Marks C and F. Marks 1996, 113.

Fig. 22. Salisbury unpainted grisaille designs. Marks after Winston A, B, D, E and Marks C and F. Marks 1996, p. 113

The motivations behind this type of glazing were aesthetic, functional and religious. Gage notes that early medieval writings on light and vision informed the understanding of the religious functions of stained-glass windows. The notion of ‘medieval gloom’ is a result of post-Enlightenment thinking and the purpose of stained glass was to transmit light, not retain it.[49] In this context, grisaille could been seen as serving the higher purpose of transmitting divine light, undiluted with colour or paintwork.

There is a precedent dating back as far as the thirteenth century for placement of unpainted geometric grisaille in the clerestory, obviously driven by the need for light: the use of grisaille runs parallel with an increased richness in architectural detail of the great cathedrals of England and France that would have required adequate illumination; in particular at Salisbury the ceiling vaults were elaborately painted.[50] The lack of painted detail in the geometric grisaille, in contrast to the painted examples seen at Salisbury as well as at York Minster (notably the Five Sisters window), was associated with its placement at the highest levels. The placement of geometric grisaille in the nave clerestory can be dated with certainty to the fourteenth century, but when considering its contemporary examples in England and on the Continent it can be suggested that this glass had been in this location since the twelfth century. Such geometric glazing works in harmony with the fabric of the building, and its re-use at York Minster points to its aesthetic value and the esteem in which it was once held.

Zoe Harrigan


All illustrations are by the author unless otherwise specified.



Moxon 2006
H. Moxon, ‘The twelfth-century Last Judgement glass at York Minster’, MA dissertation, University of York, 2006

Reid 2013
D. Reid, ‘The history of re-used twelfth-century glass of York Minster’, PhD dissertation, University of York, 2013


Brown 1999a
S. Brown, Stained Glass at York Minster, London, 1999

Brown 1999b
S. Brown, Sumptuous and Richly Adorn’d: The Decoration of Salisbury Cathedral, London, 1999

Brown 2003
S. Brown, ‘Our Magnificent Fabrick’. York Minster: An Architectural History c. 1220 – 1500, Swindon, 2003

Caviness 1984
M. Caviness, ‘Stained Glass’, in English Romanesque Art 1066-1200, ed. George Zarnecki, London, 1984, 135–45

Newton 1976
[Roy Newton], ‘12th century Soda Glass at York Minster’, in CVMA Newsletter, 20 (1976), 6–7, available here

Drake 1785
F. Drake, Eboracum: The History and Antiquities of the City of York, from its Origin to the Present Times, York, 1785

French 1971
T. French, ‘Observations on some medieval glass in York Minster’, Antiquaries Journal, 51 (1971), 86–93

Gage 1982
J. Gage, ‘Gothic Glass: two aspects of a Dionysian Aesthetic’, Art History, V (1982), 36–58

Gibson 1984
P. Gibson, ‘Reflections on the Nave Clerestory Windows’, in Friends of York Minster Annual Report, 55 (1984), 24–27

Hayward 1970
J. Hayward, ‘Stained Glass’, in The Year 1200, ed. Konrad Hoffmann, New York, 1970, 193–233

Lafond 1954
J. Lafond, ‘“English Stained and Painted Glass” by Christopher Woodforde’, Archaeological Journal, 3 (1954), 239–41

Lethaby 1915
W. R. Lethaby, ‘Archbishop Roger’s Cathedral at York and its Stained Glass’, Archaeological Journal, 22 (1915), 37–48

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

Marks 1996
R. Marks, ‘The thirteenth-century glazing of Salisbury Cathedral’, in Medieval Art and Architecture at Salisbury Cathedral, ed. Laurence Keene and Thomas Cocke, Leeds, 1996, 106–120

Morgan 1983
N. Morgan, The Medieval Painted Glass of Lincoln Cathedral, CVMA (GB), Occasional Paper III, Oxford, 1983

Norton 1993/94
C. Norton, ‘Klosterneuburg and York: artistic cross-currents at an English cathedral, c. 1330’, in Wiener Jahrbuch für Kunstgeschichte, XLVI/XLVII (1993/94), 519–32

Norton and Harrison 2008
C. Norton and S. Harrison, ‘Reconstructing a lost cathedral: York Minster in the eleventh and twelfth centuries’, Ecclesiology Today, 40 (2008), 53–59

O’Connor and Haselock 1977
D. O’Connor and J. Haselock, ‘The Stained and Painted Glass’, in G. E. Aylmer and R. Cant, A History of York Minster, Oxford, 1977

Oosterwijk and Norton 1990
S. Oosterwijk and C. Norton, ‘Figure sculpture from the twelfth-century Minster’, in Friends of York Minster Annual Report, 61 (1990), 11–30

Oosterwijk 1993
S. Oosterwijk, ‘York Minster’, in Romanesque: Stone Sculpture from Medieval England, ed. Ben Heywood, Leeds, 1993, 50–60

Phillips 1985
D. Phillips, The Cathedral of Thomas of Bayeux, London, 1985

Thurlby 2000
M. Thurlby, ‘Roger of Pont l’Evêque, Archbishop of York (1154–81) and French Sources for the Beginnings of Gothic in Northern Britain’, in England and the Continent in the Middle Ages: Studies in Memory of Andrew Martindale, ed. J. Mitchell and M. Moran, Harlaxton Medieval Studies VIII, Stamford, 2000, 35–47

Wilson 1986
C. Wilson, ‘The Cistercians as “missionaries of Gothic” in Northern England’, in Cistercian Art and Architecture in the British Isles, ed. by C. Norton and D. Park, Cambridge, 1986, 86–116

Winston 1865
C. Winston, Memoirs Illustrative of the Art of Glass-Painting, London, 1865

Woodforde 1954
C. Woodforde, English Stained and Painted Glass, Oxford, 1954

Zakin 1979
H. J. Zakin, French Cistercian Grisaille Glass, New York/London, 1979


1. Brown 1999a, p. 9.
2. Phillips 1985, p. 159.
3. Newton 1976, p. 7.
4. Thurlby 2000, p. 43; Brown 1999a, p. 10.
5. Brown 1999a, p. 10.
6. Norton and Harrison 2008, p. 59.
7. Thurlby 2000, p. 38.
8. Ibid.; Oosterwijk 1993, p. 53.
9. Reid 2013, p. 18; Marks 1993, p. 113.
10. Moxon 2006, p. 10; Reid 2013, p. 18.
11. Brown 2003, p. 93.
12. Lethaby 1915, p. 45.
13. Woodforde 1954, p. 1.
14. Lafond 1954, p. 240.
15. Caviness 1984, p. 135.
16. Moxon 2006, pp. 74–77; Brown 1999a, p. 14.
17. Brown 1999a, p. 16.
18. Reid 2013, p. 18.
19. Hayward 1970, p. 219; Caviness 1984, p. 136.
20. Brown 1999a, p. 15.
21. Marks 1993, p. 116.
22. Ibid., p. 148.
23. Reid 2013, p. 234.
24. O’Connor and Haselock 1977, p. 315.
25. Reid 2013, p. 53.
26. Gibson 1984, p. 24.
27. Reid 2013, p. 66.
28. O’Connor and Haselock 1977, p. 319.
29. Ibid., p. 342.
30. Plates listed in Zakin 1979.
31. Norton 1993/94, p. 529.
32. Wilson 1986, p. 93.
33. Norton 1993/94, p. 529.
34. Ibid.
35. Marks 1993, p. 127.
36. Winston 1865, p. 115.
37. Marks 1996, p. 111.
38. Ibid., p. 107.
39. Ibid., p. 112.
40. Brown 1999b, p. 86.
41. Marks 1993, p. 127.
42. Marks 1996, p. 112.
43. Brown 1999b, p. 88.
44. Brown 1999a, p. 17.
45. Plates listed in Zakin 1979.
46. Morgan 1983, p. 38.
47. Marks 1996, p. 116.
48. Ibid.
49. Gage 1982, p. 48.
50. Brown 1999b, p. 87.

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