medieval stained glass

Wilton, Wiltshire by Sasha Ward

Sts. Mary and Nicholas Church, Wilton, showing the three apses.            Passage between tower and church.

Sts. Mary and Nicholas Church, Wilton, showing the three apses.            Passage between tower and church.

This is Wiltshire in October, and the unlikely sight of a Romanesque church under a warm blue sky with light streaming through carved columns and ancient stained glass. It was built from 1841-5 by the architects Wyatt & Brandon and contains a collection of 12th - 17th century European stained glass (the best in Wiltshire?) as well as mosaics, marble furnishings, door panels and wall paintings. 

Looking from the gallery towards the main apse.                               Central panel, large late C12th head of a saint

Looking from the gallery towards the main apse.                               Central panel, large late C12th head of a saint

In the seven lights of the main apse (above and below left) are superb 12th and 13th century medallions of French glass, including three from St. Denis, set into 19th century backgrounds and borders. The most striking is the central panel of a large saint's head with beautiful strong colours and painted brush strokes, an amazing focal point for the lavish decoration on surrounding walls, ceiling and floor. 

Light through medallions hits a painted wall.   Huge wheel window at the opposite end of the church contains a decorative mixture of 16th century Swiss and Austrian glass fragments and heraldic pieces.

Light through medallions hits a painted wall.   Huge wheel window at the opposite end of the church contains a decorative mixture of 16th century Swiss and Austrian glass fragments and heraldic pieces.

Figures from the windows in the small north and south apses.

Figures from the windows in the small north and south apses.

In the two small apses, either side of the main one, are smaller, ancient figures beautifully arranged and restored. I love the delicate paintwork of the angel and saints (above) - the negative/positive hands in the centre and the pink/yellow combination on the right. Here you can also find saints carrying their own heads (I've found differing opinions on which saints these are) with spectacular spurts of blood from the neck.

Martyred saints carrying their own heads - 16th century Swiss or German glass

Martyred saints carrying their own heads - 16th century Swiss or German glass

A tall narrow window in the south aisle stood out because of its bright colouring, and looked vaguely familiar. The central figure of God the Father was made by Arnold of Nijmegen around 1525 as part of a huge window for the church of the Carmelite Nuns in Antwerp. Other parts of the window are in St. George's Church, Hanover Square, London. In both settings the old glass pieces have been skilfully arranged next to sections of glass from other periods and places - much like the Victorian backgrounds given to the figures and medallions in the apses. These are great example of the historical patchwork you find in many stained glass windows.

South aisle window with figure of God the Father/St. Nicholas above a German panel of the pieta.

South aisle window with figure of God the Father/St. Nicholas above a German panel of the pieta.

Victorian Medieval by Sasha Ward

Rosalind Grimshaw window in Urchfont church, 2000.

I visited St. Michael and All Angels church in Urchfont because my excellent guidebook from Wiltshire Historic Churches Trust mentioned a millennium window there by Rosalind Grimshaw. It's a small window but really expressive with good colour and glass. The whole church is lovely and its stained glass rich and varied. The patterned windows on the south side look great from both inside and out - with columns of big satisfying circles - until you think what wonderful medieval glass might have been there originally.

Victorian patterned windows on the south side

This set us thinking about how to answer the question (of the frequently asked variety), why is medieval stained glass the best? It's too dangerous to mention the quality of the glass itself, because that leads people to believe the myth that you can't get good glass anymore, although when you look at the angel detail from the large south window you can see how harsh and brittle looking the coloured glass is in these particular Victorian windows. 

Angel details from south window

Victorian angels in the chancel

Moving down into the chancel, the angels at the tops of the windows become more interesting, and older. The pair on either side of the altar (below), six winged seraphim holding crowns, are beautiful - with a captivating expression that is so obviously medieval. 

Seraphim in the chancel

The information in the church describes, as usual, the stained glass as either "medieval", "victorian" or "modern", with the sub group of "imitation medieval" for the beautifully coloured patterned windows underneath the seraphim (below right). This convention of copying the medieval window style is the reason why they could never be as good as the originals. Those seraphim were made by people who believed in the work they were doing. The sincerity comes across in the expression of the figures, while the style and workmanship of the windows perfectly compliments the medieval building for which they were made.

Face of the seraph: window on north side of chancel - chancel built around 1340

Click on any of the photos to enlarge them

Words and Pictures by Sasha Ward

Details from the patchwork windows in the North Aisle

These photos are all from the ancient parish church of Saint Michael and All Angels in Ashton-under-Lyne, where the restored fifteenth century glass has been installed at eye level in the North and South Aisle windows. There are beautifully made patchwork style windows in the North Aisle, with some mysterious figures, a useful inscription and the five pointed star from the coat of arms of the Assheton family.

The set of four windows in the South Aisle depicts the life of Saint Helen, and in windows 3 & 4, members of the Assheton family who donated them. 

Window 3 South Aisle: Saint Helen above, Asshetons below.

Detail: lower central panel, window 3

I'm not usually that bothered about the iconography,  but these portraits grabbed my attention initially because of the huge black family stars on their stomachs. Then the inscriptions are easy to read, I could even make out the names of Thomas Assheton and his wives Agnes, Elizabeth and Anne surrounded by gorgeous painted patterns.

Two of the lower panels in window 2 that depict the life of Saint Helen, translations below

Hic inveniebant tres cruces an aliis et veram crucem non discernebant                                                            Here they found three crosses and could not tell which was the true cross

Hic crucem veram petentes fodiunt                                                                                                                      Here they dig in search of the true cross

I found these translations in a great guide book to the Saint Helen windows by members of The Friends of Ashton Parish Church with not only word by word translations of each inscription but also grammatical notes - so useful for latin revision.