From Antiquities and Curiosities of the Church, edited by William Andrews; London :  William Andrews & Co., 1897; pp. 137-153.




Church Windows.


FEW points in architecture are more strikingly illustrative, than are church windows, of the power of the mediæval artists to convert necessary details into ornaments. The great merit, in fact, of the art of the middle ages was not so much the introduction of decoration, as the rendering of everything decorative.

The open window-spaces lent themselves to artistic treatment first of all in the matter of form; and their outlines and the tracery with which they are filled are amongst the most characteristic marks of development in church architecture. The draughtsman and the colourist afterwards grasped the opportunity which the introduction of stained glass afforded, to make the windows glow with rich tints, and eloquent with pictured story.

While the Norman style of building held sway in England, the windows were simply narrow openings with semi-circular heads, usually very widely splayed. This last feature probably points 138 to the fact that glass was little used in those early days, and the narrow opening with the wide splay was an attempt to get the maximum of light with the minimum of wind and weather. These rounded windows are sometimes found in pairs divided only by a shaft, thus giving us the first step in the development of the elaborate windows of later times.

In the so-called Early English period, the pointed arch was introduced under French influence, and the windows took the long and sharply pointed form, known as the lancet. It is alleged that this style of architecture was first tried, at any rate on any large plan, in England at the re-building of Canterbury Cathedral after the fire of 1174, William of Sens being the architect. During this period we advance considerably nearer to the construction of the broad window of several lights. The lancets are frequently grouped in threes, fives, or sevens, usually graduated in size, and often over-arched by a single dripstone. A fine example of this combination of windows is supplied by the well-known “Five Sisters” in the north transept of York Minster. There we have five tall lancets of equal length, while at no great interval above them the wall is 139 pierced with a second row of shorter ones, corresponding with those below, and rising in height from the extremes to the centre. The whole group thus becomes suggestive of one large window in five long lights.

The separating wall between lancets of this kind was reduced at last to a mere column of slight dimensions; and at last, about the end of the thirteenth century, the decorated style of architecture was evolved, in which the windows became more imposing in size, and more elaborate in design. Not only do the grouped lancets now appear as lights of one window, but the space above is arched over, and pierced with more or less involved tracery. This tracery was at first in geometrical patterns, and good examples of it are to be found in the Angel Choir, at Lincoln, (built 1270-1282), in the nave of York (1291-1330), and at Tintern Abbey. Its first systematic use in England was in the re-building of the choir of Westminster abbey by Henry II., from 1245 to 1269; one of the earliest instances is in the circular window in the north transept of Lincoln. From these geometrical forms was evolved later the intricate tracery, whose flowing designs, almost like delicate intertwining branches, have been 140 named Flamboyant. The circular window in the south transept of Lincoln Minster is an example of this style, which was probably developed first in England, and spread to France after its conquest by the English during the Hundred Years War. In the latter country it flourished and ripened, till it almost perished of its own luxuriance, the carving becoming so delicate and the stone-work itself so attenuated, as to be unfit to resist the wear and tear of time. Hence it is that the tracery of many windows in otherwise splendid French churches has disappeared altogether.

From this result England has been, to a great extent, saved by the rise of yet another form of tracery in the end of the fourteenth century. This was the perpendicular style, less beautiful indeed than the flamboyant, yet better art than that flamboyant style carried to an extreme, if it be a part of art not to sacrifice strength or durability to decoration. In this style the windows are equally ornate, but more solidly constructed; perpendicular mullions being carried through from top to bottom. William of Wykeham, the great bishop of Winchester, has by some been credited with the invention of this tracery; he, at any rate, gave it vogue by using it largely in the erection, 141 during the years 1366 to 1404, of his cathedral. A very excellent example of a perpendicular window is the west window of Boston Parish Church.

References have been made above to circular church windows; these are more frequently found on the Continent than among ourselves, although we are not without some good examples. The filling in of the circle partakes of the characteristics of the style of the period, as in the case of upright windows. When they are filled with flamboyant tracery, as many beautiful French examples are, they are called rose-windows. In the perpendicular period, the tracery was carried in diverging lines from the centre to the circumference, like the ornamental spokes to a wheel, whence the name wheel-windows. A good illustration exists at the east end of Durham Cathedral.

Before leaving these notes on the various styles of architecture exhibited in church windows, it may not be altogether out of place to add one word of caution, for the benefit of novices in such things. Characteristic as the windows are of their respective periods, they are not a safe guide to the dates of the buildings in which they are found. The re-modelling of a window is a comparatively 142 easy achievement, and our ancestors consequently altered their windows with a disregard for the works of their predecessors that would drive an antiquary mad, if displayed as commonly to-day. It is therefore quite a usual thing to find windows of a much later type than the churches which they adorn; a perpendicular, or an early English window, for instance, may be found piercing a Norman wall.

A feature of English mediæval churches was the great east window. Occasionally we find, especially in Norman churches, a row, or perhaps a double row, of comparatively small windows, but a solid east wall, against which stands the altar beneath a high canopy or baldachino, is characteristic of continental rather than of English architecture; the custom with us ran rather to the opposite extreme of making the east window of the fullest size possible.

The largest example in the country, which is in fact unsurpassed in magnitude in the world, is at Carlisle. This consists of no less than nine lights, surmounted by a head, filled with exquisite tracery. The glass of the upper portion dates back to the end of the fourteenth century, that of the lower part is modern. A window at Perugia is said to 143 equal it in size, but not in design, while the east window at Selby, by some thought equally fine in its tracery, is smaller.

Two other famous east windows are at York and Gloucester. The one at York is seventy-five feet high and thirty-two wide, divided, like that at Carlisle, into nine lights; and is the largest window in England which yet contains its original glass. There are about one hundred separate compartments in it, setting forth the leading scenes of the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation. John Thornton, of Coventry, was the artist, who began the work in 1405, on the understanding that he was to receive four shillings a day, and an additional five pounds a year, with a bonus of ten pounds if all proved satisfactory when completed; the work to be finished in three years.

An engraving of the tall East Window of York Minster, mentioned in the text of the Chapter on Church Windows.


The window at Gloucester is two feet less in height than its rival at York, and six feet more in width. It was constructed about 1350, and contains for the most part its old glass, which was carefully taken out, cleaned, repaired, and re-inserted in 1862.

The east window of the fine parish church of Louth, Lincolnshire, is noteworthy, the mullions being so constructed as to form a huge cross, the 144 whole length and breadth of the window. The tracery of a window on the north side of the choir of Dorchester Abbey is also curious. The design is a Jesse window of the fourteenth century, the pedigree of the Saviour being represented by a series of carved figures placed in the tracery, which rises like a tree from the body of Jesse. The glass in this, as in other windows of the Abbey, is ancient.

Let us turn now from the form of the windows to the mode of filling them in. As late as the thirteenth century, the windows of Peterborough Cathedral were closed only with reeds and straw, and in many places, at even a later date, the clerestory was unglazed and only protected by wooden shutters. Yet glass is mentioned by St. Chrysostom and Lactantius, and by Forunatus in the fifth century; while the church of St. Benignus at Dijon contained some stained glass as early as the year 1052. It was only in that century that painting on glass became known, and the designs were at first of a very simple character, consisting of figures on a ground of geometrical design with a border of leaves, the outlines being marked by the leading. In the place of the mosaic background, canopies above the figures were introduced 145 in the fourteenth century, and in the following centuries details were more freely attempted, hangings behind the figures appear, and the set borders are less common; and in the latter half of the fifteenth century we find landscapes introduced.

Le Mans boasts of possessing the oldest specimens of glass windows now existing, dating from the eleventh century. Canterbury has some which have survived since the twelfth century, for which Gondomar, the Spanish Ambassador, once offered to give its weight in gold. The fourteenth century is represented by some glass at Exeter, and the sixteenth by some at Lichfield.

When St. Benedict Biscop was building his abbey at Wearmouth, somewhere about the year 675, he could find no glass-makers in England, and consequently brought over some from France, whose work was probably the first of the kind seen in the country, at any rate in the north. We have seen that in the fifteenth century, Coventry had a maker of painted glass, by name John Thornton; but the continental artists, and especially those of Venice, long since famous for all works in glass, were still the acknowledged masters of the art. Under James I. the privilege 146 of making glass with pit coal was granted exclusively to a company of noblemen, for whom Sir Robert Mansell acted as a kind of manager. They had a house in Broad Street, where several Venetians were employed, and their agent, James Howel, a Welshman, constantly visited the continent to secure additional artists, and to procure the most approved materials. Howel has left some interesting letters describing his visits to Venice, Murano, then the home of the manufacture of “crystal glass,” and elsewhere. Two glaziers, named Price, living in Hatton Garden some fifty years later, undertook the making of stained windows, and some of their work remains at, among other places, Denton, Norfolk, in a chapel at Copthall, near Epping, and in St. Andrew’s, Holborn.

Foremost among English churches in the matter of stained glass stands the parish church of Fairford, in Gloucestershire, whose twenty-eight windows are unrivalled. Another most interesting series is found at St. Neot’s, in Cornwall. One window gives us, in a number of exceedingly quaint scenes, the story of the patron saint; a second, the history of St. George; and the third illustrates the earlier chapters of the Book of 147 Genesis. In this last we see the Great Architect of the Universe designing His work by the help of a pair of compasses; and in other compartments the history of Cain and Abel is set forth, down to the shooting of Cain by an arrow from Lamech’s bow. An exceedingly curious “book” of an ancient mystery, or miracle play, once in vogue in Cornwall, and still extant in the extinct Cornish language, has a scene exactly corresponding with this. Cain, all shaggy with unkempt hair, enters and hides himself in a bush, and is thus mistaken for “a very great bullock” by the servant of Lamech, who persuades his master to shoot at it; after which devils enter and carry off the whole party. In the window at St. Neot’s we see Lamech attended by a lad, and Cain with an arrow in his side standing beneath a tree.

The effigies of the saints in old stained glass are often exceedingly quaint, and, except that our eyes have become accustomed to the conventionalities by which they are distinguished, very incongruous. Martyrs carry the implements of their death and torture; thus St. Stephen carries stones in his deacon’s tunic, St. Laurence a gridiron, St. Catherine a wheel. Others are distinguished 148 by some allusion to an incident in their lives; St. Hugh has his pet swan, St. Hubert a stag with a crucifix between its antlers. A pig is the curious emblem of the anchorite St. Anthony, and as such it is depicted in the east window of the curious little village church at Cartmel Fell in Westmoreland.

An Engraving of the stained glass window showing St. Anthony, with a full beard, with his small pig, a woman is in the background.

St. Anthony and the Pig,
Carmel Fell Church,

Ruskin, in his “Seven Lamps of Architecture,” pronounces a sweeping condemnation upon memorial windows, when he declares that “the peculiar manner of selfish or impious ostentation, provoked by glassmakers for a stimulus to trade, of putting up painted windows to be records of private affection instead of universal religion, is one of the worst, because most plausible and proud, hypocrisies of our day.” But the feeling which prompts such gifts, whether it be a right one or a wrong, has not been confined to “our day.” The famous 149 “Pedlar’s Window,” in St. Mary’s Church, Lambeth, dates back to the seventeenth century, and commemorates the charity of a pedlar who bequeathed a sum of money to the parish for the benefit of the poor. The window, which is a small one, has a portrait of the pedlar, with pack on back and staff in hand, his dog running by his side.

An Engraving of the stained glass window showing the Pedlar and his dog, with his pack on his back.  He is putting a coin into an alms-box.

The Pedlar and his Dog,
St. Mary’s Church, Lambeth.

A quaint method of commemorating the donors of a window, not uncommon in past times, was the introduction of their portraits, with a total disregard to historical or artistic accuracy. At Gouda, in Holland, is an old window representing the Last Supper, in which the Spanish monarch, by whom it was given to the church, and his queen are seen keeling in the foreground. A Flemish window of the middle of 150 the sixteenth century, now in South Kensington Museum, depicts the Annunciation, and shows a sturdy citizen and his wife as two diminutive figures kneeling in prayer between St. Gabriel and the Blessed Virgin. A similar incongruity is found in the east window of St. Margaret’s, Westminster, the glass of which is said to have been a gift from Ferdinand and Isabelle of Spain to Henry VII. of England, on the marriage of Prince Arthur to Katharine of Arragon. It depicts the Crucifixion, but introduces the kneeling figures of the bride and bridegroom with their patron saints, St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. George. This window has had a curious history. Intended for Westminster Abbey, it was not finished until the prince, whose marriage it commemorated, was dead, and it was therefore sent to Waltham Abbey, that it might not so constantly meet the King’s eyes. At the dissolution of the monasteries the last abbot removed it to a private chapel at New Hall, Boreham. It was buried to keep it from the Puritans, and when the chapel was at last destroyed it was sold for fifty guineas, and again in 1758 to St. Margaret’s for four hundred guineas.

Common tradition invariably credits the soldiers 151 of the Commonwealth with the destruction of all the painted glass which has vanished in such quantities from our churches; and there can be little question that a great deal was wantonly broken by the Puritan fanatics of that time. The wear and tear of time and weather should, however, in all fairness, be allowed for to some extent, in considering so perishable a material as glass. A good deal of exquisite old glass has nevertheless come down to our own time. York has much, both in the Minster and in its parish churches; and Canterbury, Bristol, Lincoln, Gloucester, Malvern, and the older Colleges of Oxford and Cambridge all have glass worth note, as well as many other places scattered up and down the country.

The ancient glass at Llanrhaiadr, in Denbighshire, was preserved during the Civil War by being packed away in a chest and buried, until the return of quieter times. A few fragments of glass of the rich old colours may sometimes be found in the tracery of windows. In several instances, as in the south aisle of the choir at Durham, a window has been filled with the remains of other shattered windows, producing a curious, but not unpleasing, effect. In Chiswick 152 Church is a window, gorgeous in colouring, which was once in the clerestory of the old Cathedral of Cologne.

A popular subject for stained glass at one time was the genealogy of our Blessed Lord; the design usually being a tree growing from the body of Jesse, with figures of the chief personages in the line of his descendants at intervals on its branches, and ending with St. Mary the Virgin and the Holy Child on the topmost bough. Mention has been made of one of these “Jesse Windows,” as they are called, at Dorchester; the buried window, just referred to, at Llanrhaiadr is another example. The great east window of Wells is a “Jesse”; Bunbury, Cheshire, had one given to it by David de Bonebury, the rector, in 1345; and Bodmin, Cornwall, sold one to its neighbour St. Kew’s in 1469, for the sum of 26s. 7d., and other ancient cases might be cited. In modern times a “Jesse” has been inserted at Beverley Minster, and in the west of Durham Cathedral.

One point which makes the old painted glass both curious and interesting, is the entire absence of any attempt at historical accuracy in details. To find Flemish ladies at the foot of the Cross, 153 or mediæval knights guarding the Holy Sepulchre, produces certainly an incongruous effect to our eyes, who have learned to look for greater realism in our art. Yet the multitude of details of dress, furniture, manners, and customs which have thus been preserved to us, is invaluable.