A Stained Glass Walk in York Minster

A Stained Glass Walk in York Minster
Sarah Brown, Director, York Glaziers Trust
York Minster is England’s treasure house of stained glass, with a larger and more
varied collection of windows than any other building. One hundred and twenty-eight
Minster windows contain historic stained glass, dating from the twelfth to the twentieth
centuries. This walk around the building will introduce some of the highlights.
As you enter via the south transept door, the Minster’s principal public entrance
since the Middle Ages, you will exchange the bustle of the city for the tranquillity of the
Minster. As you move forwards into the cavernous space under the central tower, the
choir screen (c1440-50) covered in figures of England’s Kings from William the
Conqueror to Henry VI is on your right. This separates the choir (begun in 1361) from
the transepts and crossing (c1220-1250), the earliest part of the Gothic Minster that we
see today. Straight ahead of you is one of the Minster’s most famous windows, the
towering Five Sisters.
Five slender lancets containing silvery grisaille glass dominate the north transept. The
window (c1250) is one of the largest displays of glass of this kind anywhere in Europe.
From your vantage point under the crossing, turn to the left and look down the
length of the nave, one of the Minster’s most impressive vistas. It is dominated by the
great west window with its sinuous Gothic tracery, often called the Heart of Yorkshire.
The window was the gift of Archbishop William de Melton and was made in 1339 by
the glazier Robert Ketelbarn, one of only three medieval Minster glaziers whose work
can be identified with certainty. It depicts the Joys of the Virgin Mary above figures of
the Apostles and the medieval Bishops and Archbishops of York. In this way
Archbishop de Melton associated himself with his illustrious predecessors in the See
and with Christ’s Apostles. The window honours above all the Virgin Mary, the queen
of heaven, who is crowned by Christ at the very top of the window.
The nave of York Minster, begun in 1291, contains some of the Minster’s most
interesting windows, dating from the early fourteenth century and given by a variety of
donors. Some of them were members of the Cathedral clergy, while others were
wealthy lay people. In the north aisle is one of the best known, the gift of goldsmith,
bell-founder and Mayor of York, Richard Tunnoc (d. 1330).The Bell-Founder’s Window
is unmistakable, with gold and silver bells hanging from the canopies and decorating
the borders.
In the middle of the bottom row Tunnoc offers his window to an image of St William of
York whose shrine was nearby.
In the nearby Pilgrimage Window (c1330), so called because of the depiction in
the main lights of a male and female pilgrim with a mounted entourage, it is the
borders that detain us. Along the lower margins of the window, in a manner
comparable to the borders of an illuminated manuscript, animals and birds parody
human behaviour.
From left to right, a fox preaches to a cock, monkeys carry a funeral bier and a
monkey doctor examines a urine flask, while a sick ape is attended by a monkey-doctor.
These amusing marginal details are echoed in the sculpture decorating the masonry
frames around the nave aisle windows.
On the other side of the nave, in the south nave aisle, the De Mauley window, heavily
restored in 1903, reminds us that the clergy of the medieval Minster were also members
of some of the most powerful local baronial families. The window was the gift of
Stephen de Mauley, Archdeacon of Cleveland (d.1317) who is accompanied in the
bottom row of the window by his father and brothers. The De Mauleys came from
Mulgrave near Doncaster and their shields also appear in stone nearby. Above the
Mauley donors are scenes of martyrdom of their favourite saints, St Stephen, St Andrew
and St John the Baptist.
The martyrdom of St Andrew
Stained Glass is not confined to the lower windows of the nave. On either side,
above our heads, the high clerestory windows of the nave contain a mixture of late 12thcentury and early 14th-century figure panels above a display of vibrant and colourful
shields of arms.
In each window the arms of the King (golden leopards on a red background) are
flanked by the shields of the northern nobility who fought for him in the Scottish wars
of the period. A similar display of heraldry, brightly painted, is carved in the stone of
the nave arcade just below the windows.
Beyond the screen of Kings that separates the nave from the eastern arm of the building
is the Choir, the devotional and liturgical heart of the building, where the Minster
community has worshipped for over 900 years. Climb the steps ahead and stand before
the high altar. You are now standing between the two great eastern transept windows
made in honour of the north of England’s greatest saints. On your left is the window
dedicated to the life and miracles of St William of York. On you right is the window
commemorating the life and miracles of St Cuthbert of Durham. The light from the two
great windows shone on the medieval high altar of the Minster which was originally
located where you are now standing. Behind it stood the huge 1472 marble shrine of St
William, destroyed in 1541, perhaps on the personal order of King Henry VIII who
visited York in that year.
The St William window was made c.1414 as the gift of the Ros family of
Helmsley, and members of the family kneel reverently at the bottom of the window.
Lady Beatrice de Ros
William Fitzherbert was first appointed Archbishop of York in 1145 but was opposed
by the Cistercian monks of Yorkshire and was deposed in 1147. Following the death of
his enemies he appealed to the Pope and in 1154 was finally consecrated archbishop in
the choir of the Minster. His enjoyment of his success was short-lived, however, for
almost immediately after celebrating his consecration mass, he fell ill and died on 8 June
1154, poisoned, it was believed, during the mass itself. He was buried at the east end of
the nave. Records of miracles associated with William were collected in the 1220s and
he was finally canonised in 1227. The shrine to which eager pilgrims flocked throughout
the medieval period, is depicted numerous times in the window in the choir.
The window has recently been conserved by the York Glaziers Trust.
St Cuthbert, monk and Bishop of Lindisfarne (d.687), lived a saintly and reclusive life
very much in contrast to the worldly career of St William. After the Viking destruction
of Lindisfarne in 875, his monks moved his relics and those of King Oswald to the safety
of Durham Cathedral and he was the North of England’s most popular saint. He stands
in the lower register of the window holding the head of the martyred Oswald,
surrounded by a veritable Who’s Who of the Lancastrian court of the young King Henry
VI (below), who was crowned at the age of only 8 in 1429.
The young King is depicted in the window as an adult, having achieved his majority in
1437, and is accompanied by images of his father and grandfather and the greatest
churchmen of his day, including Archbishop Henry Bowet of York (d.1423), Cardinal
Henry Beaufort, Cardinal John Kemp, Bowet’s successor as archbishop, and Thomas
Langley, Bishop of Durham and formerly dean of York (d.1437), who gave the window.
Above our heads in the high clerestory windows of the choir, the gallery of
historical figures continues in the clerestory windows of the choir (c1420). In a scheme
probably supervised by John Thornton, the glazier responsible for the St William
window and the Great East Window, the windows depict the Kings, Popes and
Archbishops of greatest significance to the history of the Minster and its part in the
evangelisation of the north of England. The shields of arms of those who contributed to
the cost of the windows appear beneath the figures.
As in the nave, the stone shields of aristocratic donors are also carved in stone below the
Leave the choir via the south choir aisle. As you descend the steps from the choir into
the aisle, pause for a moment and look at a refugee from an Oxford College. The New
College Jesse window was installed in the Minster in the eighteenth century by the
York glazier William Peckitt.
Peckitt was employed by the Warden and Fellows of New College in Oxford to repair
the old windows of their chapel and to make new ones. He was persuaded, very
reluctantly, to accept the remains of New College’s medieval west window in part
payment for this work and was later able to persuade his loyal York patron, Dean John
Fountayne, to accept the window. The glass had been made c1385 for one of medieval
England’s most prestigious stained glass patrons, William of Wykeham, Bishop of
Winchester and Chancellor of England. The figures of Christ’s ancestors and the
prophets who foretold his birth are arranged in a ‘family tree’, with bright fragments of
eighteenth-century glass supplied by Peckitt in order to make the window fit its new
Turn left and make your way to the Lady Chapel. En route you will pass another
foreigner, the striking three light early 16th-century Crucifixion window which came to
England in the early 19th century from the church of St Jean in Rouen. The window was
acquired by Dean Eric Milner-White in 1952, a widely respected national expert on
stained glass history who supervised the restoration of many Minster windows in the
years immediately after the Second World War who gave the window to the Minster in
memory of two friends. The monumental Renaissance figures are silhouetted against a
rich blue background, although it is clear that the glass was made for a much narrower
This is just one of a number of important examples of Continental stained glass
acquired by the Dean.
Walk to the right and enter the Lady Chapel, built but not glazed, by 1373. It is
dominated by the suspended screen that now shrouds the east end of the Minster while
essential restoration and repair of the east end is completed.
The printed screen, the largest digitally printed image of its kind, shows a full-scale
picture of the Great East Window, now undergoing conservation in the workshops of
the York Glaziers Trust. The Great East Window was commissioned from the Coventry
glass Painter John Thornton in the winter of 1405 and was to be complete by 1408. To
achieve this astonishing feat, Thornton must have been assisted by other glaziers and
glass-painters whose names are unknown to us, but his contract required that he should
‘paynt the same where need required according to the Ordination of the Dean and
Chapter’. The window contains probably medieval Europe’s largest depiction of the
Apocalypse, the end of the World, as described in the last book of the Bible, the Book of
Revelation. Conservation of the glass, last restored after the Second World War, means
that the legibility of the window’s complex narrative is greatly enhanced, allowing the
brilliance and artistry of John Thornton and his workshop to be fully appreciated once
Before Conservation
After Conservation
Bishop Skirlaw of Durham, the donor of the window, was depicted at the bottom of the
window kneeling before Christ at the Last Judgement, but he died in 1406 and did not
live to see his wonderful gift completed.
The chapter house and its vestibule were built and glazed in the period c1280-1300. No
documents explain the circumstances of its creation, but it is an exceptional building
with outstanding decoration – stained glass, sculpture and painting. It was the building
responsible for the introduction to York of the most cosmopolitan forms of European
Gothic architecture and decoration.
Pause as you pass into the vestibule and look for a moment at the windows to
right and left, recently returned following conservation by the York Glaziers’ Trust.
Some of the oldest glass in the Minster, the windows have suffered from severe
corrosion due to their exposure to the elements and the atmosphere both externally and
The window to the left depicts saintly kings under canopies, including St Edward the
Confessor (above). On the right Old Testament prophets (Isaiah, Abraham, Moses,
Daniel, Jeremiah and King David).are depicted. Despite the degradation of the glass
and the loss of painted detail due to corrosion, recent conservation has improved the
legibility of the windows and has revealed the astonishing brilliance of the windows
and the quality of the glass-painting.
Walk through this most elegant of corridors and enter the chapter house itself,
passing the lovely sculpture of the Virgin and Child at the doorway, and the great
wooden doors with their original 13th-century beaten ironwork decoration in the form
of foliage and dragons. The chapter house was (and is!) the meeting place of the
members of the Dean and Chapter, but also hosted other exceptional gatherings,
including the Archbishop’s convocations and even assemblies of Parliament in the early
14th century.
The seven great chapter house windows depict the lives and legends of those
saints most revered in the devotional life of the medieval Minster (Christ himself (glass
now lost), the Virgin Mary, St Peter, St Paul, St Katharine, St William of York, St
Thomas Becket, St Margaret, St Nicholas, St John the Baptist and St Edmund).Such was
the importance of coloured windows to the decoration of this space, that the masons
and carpenters contrived to eliminate the central column normally required to support
the vault by the ingenious construction of the roof, which allowed the vault to be
suspended rather than supported from below. The lives of the saints unfold in lively,
small-scale narrative medallions, each one within a quatrefoil frame, the figures
silhouetted against dark backgrounds.
St Peter in Prison, Chapter House s2
Leave the chapter house. As you revisit the north transept, stand with the Five Sisters
behind you. Another of the Minster’s great vistas opens up before you.
The great rose window in the south transept wall was constructed in the 13th century
but is now filled with early sixteenth-century glass, in which the white and red Tudor
roses recall the union of the warring houses of Lancaster and York through the
marriage of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. In 1989 the glass was imperilled by a
terrible fire that caused the collapse of the south transept vault but miraculously left the
window intact, albeit in need of careful conservation.
Below the rose are some of the Minster’s ‘youngest’ windows, Abraham and Solomon
(below, 1780), Moses (1793) and St Peter (1768), all the work of William Peckitt of York,
eighteenth-century England’s most celebrated stained glass artist.
If this introduction has quickened your interest in stained glass conservation, why not
visit the YGT’s Bedern Glaziers Studio, where you will be able to see how today’s
craftsmen ensure that the Minster’s windows will survive for centuries to come.
For more information go to www.yorkglazierstrust.org.