Stained glass art stands the test of time in churches

Stained glass was first made in England in the seventh century at Wearmouth and Jarrow.

Monday, 1st April 2019, 3:40 pm

In his Vita Wilfridi, Eddi Stephanus tells us that St Wilfred had glass windows in his church at York.

The art of glass making was lost during the Viking invasions, but it began again after the Norman Conquest. As in Anglo-Saxon times, the expert craftsmen came from the Continent, and York Minster has stained glass from every period thereafter. The sheer amount of stained glass in the Minster is bewildering.

St Roberts Church. The Benefactors window. Picture by Roger Hawkins.

When I went there last year, I asked one of the stewards which was the oldest glass. To my surprise, it’s high up in the clerestory of the nave and difficult to see.

The explanation is that it is reused 12th century glass from the Norman cathedral, of which only the foundations exist now.

Our picture shows two panels from a series depicting the events that took place after Jesus’s resurrection: the Supper at Emmaus (Luke 24:30), and the Miraculous Draught of Fishes (John 21:6).

The net in the Miraculous Draught is represented by curving lines. You can just make out two of the fishes. Of the three figures hauling on the net, the bearded one on the right is probably St Peter, and the other two James and John, the sons of Zebedee.

The Supper at Emmaus is slightly more problematical. In the story, two disciples walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Jesus falls in with them, but they do not know who he is. They invite him to stay the night. Only when he breaks bread at supper do they finally recognise him.

In the picture, however, what Jesus has in front of him is a fish. Perhaps the Medieval glaziers mixed up bits of both pictures when they reinstalled them.

The deep reds, blues and greens are pot metal, i.e. glass of pure colour. Pictorial detail was obtained either by dipping clear glass in molten coloured glass (‘flashing’) and then removing some of the surface colour to create the image, or by painting.

Glass paint is coloured glass or mineral salts ground up and bound in a medium. It was applied much like any other paint, then heated in a kiln to fuse the paint into the surface.

The scenes were originally set in quatrefoils, i.e. four-leaved clovers, but have been cut down to fit the window.

The clear glass above and below is of the same date. Arranging it like this in precise geometric patterns (grisaille) was characteristic of the Cistercian monastic order, which was very austere and avoided opulence of any kind.

This golden age of stained glass ended with the reign of Edward VI (1547-1553).

Work began again after the Restoration in 1660, but the skills had been lost. Deep reds, in particular, proved difficult to achieve, and York is unusual in having some good 18th century glass.

The art came into its own again with the Romantic Movement in the mid-19th century. Medieval churches were restored, and new ones built in the same style. Stained glass was essential to complete the effect.

The glass in St Robert’s Roman Catholic Church is remarkable for being all by the same manufacturer.

William Wailes (1808-1881) was the youngest son of Thomas Wailes, grocer and tea dealer in Newcastle. He worked for his father, but set up a kiln in the back yard in which he made decorative enamels as a hobby.

In 1830 he went to Munich to study stained glass making, and set up in business in Newcastle in 1838. One of his earliest commissions was for the windows in St Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral.

In the directories of the 1850s, his father Thomas is listed as a grocer and provision dealer in Elswick, while William appears as a glass stainer in Bath Lane.

One of his achievements was to create rich colours like those in medieval glass. This is very obvious in the windows at St Robert’s.

St Margaret of Scotland. Picture by Roger Hawkins.

On the whole, the Victorians liked every picture to tell a story. It follows from this that the stained glass windows at St Robert’s are of a kind that we can all enjoy.

But this is an example of art concealing art.

On the one hand, William’s windows embody science and technical skill, and on the other, an intimate knowledge of both the Old and New Testaments, of ecclesiastical art, and of the lives and works of the Christian saints.

St Benedict is a favourite subject, reflecting the fact that for almost 200 years until 1967, the priests who served at St Robert's belonged to the Order of St Benedict.

Several of the scenes are framed in quatrefoils and roundels, like those at York. One of these shows St Benedict blessing three of the church’s benefactors. St Benedict has a halo, but the lady in the picture, Mary Bell, also has what looks remarkably like one as well.

The east window shows Christ flanked by Mary and Joseph. Above and below are scenes from his life.

Female saints are well represented. St Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-1231) was a king’s daughter. Always of a religious and charitable disposition, she was happily married to Louis IV, Landgrave of Thuringia, and was devastated by his death. She adopted a rigorously penitential style of life and founded a hospital for the sick poor at Marburg, where she personally nursed and cared for the sick.

St Margaret of Scotland (1045-1093) was an Anglo-Saxon princess, but was born in exile in Hungary. She married Malcolm III of Scotland and had a large family, four of whom became kings of Scotland. She was a great benefactress, and is chiefly remembered for establishing the Queen’s Ferry across the Firth of Forth.