These uncertain spring days seem apocalyptic, with war closely following the plague and other riders jostling for a place like jockeys at a fence in the Grand National.
For a satisfying pictorial companion I recommend Apocalypse: The Great East Window of York Minster by Sarah Brown, who I just caught up with.
It’s more than a picture book, but it displays in full color on large-format pages each of the window panels depicting scenes from the book of Revelation, or Revelation as it was called when stained glass was made just over 600 years ago. . Like the lively subject, the window is prodigious. The 18th-century antiquarian Francis Drake called it “the wonder of the world, both for stonework and glazing”.
The window is in the end wall beyond the cathedral‘s high altar is the size of a tennis court – 77 feet high and 32 feet wide. It is the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in the country. The scenes of the Apocalypse are presented in nine rows of nine panels. Above are scenes from the Old Testament and, below, a row of historical figures, such as a crowned and bearded convocation of Edward the Confessor, William the Conqueror and Edward III.
In all the showcases, the character design is full of character and artistry. The set looks like a jewel. But it is very difficult to see the details from the floor of the cathedral. I would say: read the book, then visit.
It is surprising that we know who made the window – John Thornton. His contract with the Dean and Chapter survives through a transcription made in the 17th century by another antiquarian, James Torre. Thornton, a glazier from Coventry, undertook on August 10, 1405 to make the window in three years.
It was a colossal undertaking to design the whole thing to the satisfaction of Canons Dean and Minster, then to cut the glass, paint it and fit it together with precise cams (lead joints in the shape of an H in section). Its success is the result of teamwork with talented craftsmen.
Other things threatened the project. Two months before Thornton’s contract, the Archbishop of York, Richard Scrope, was beheaded after leading a group of rebels. He must have been a force behind the construction of the window and was buried, with a reputation for holiness, near her in the cathedral. The money for the window came from the Bishop of Durham, Walter Skirlaw, and he was glad funds were still available after his death in 1406.
The culture of the time was that of the Canterbury Pilgrims of Geoffrey Chaucer, who died in 1400. The images in the stained glass windows are reminiscent of manuscript illuminations. It was a gothic world, with architectural bracketed borders painted on the windows, framing feathered angels wielding swords, celestial elders crowned and bearded like the kings below them, and well-observed horses moving through dramatic scenes.
In a mandorla against a sky of blue fronds, the Virgin Mary, crowned and surrounded by sharp golden rays (like the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico a century later) stands out of reach of a great seven-headed red dragon . Babylon is a fortified medieval city with tracery and turrets. The men hide behind their hats from the heat of the sun. The Lamb releases the seals of a beautifully bound folio volume. When the second angel sounds the trumpet, the sailors descend with their clapboard craft.
A profound and spiritual work of art, at the most superficial level, it is a photographic album of medieval life.