As I have been going about my business around the North Yorkshire countryside recently, I’ve nearly come off the road several times while being mesmerised by the stunning beauty of the autumn trees. The variety of colours decorating our landscape has been simply breathtaking and, for me anyway, is some compensation for the long winter to come.
By the time you read this, it is likely that the leaves will have all but gone, but I wonder if you agree that the glorious colours have lasted longer than usual this year? I recall my regret in previous years at the brevity of the display, as usually the colourful leaves would be whipped from their branches once an October or November storm had raged through. But for 2019, although we have had plenty of rain, the winds have remained fairly benevolent over recent weeks, and so I am assuming this is why we have been blessed with a countryside kaleidoscope of dozens of shades of greens, yellows, oranges, reds and browns.
I was so overcome with what I was seeing the other day, that I had to stop the car, get out and just look. It was a beautiful, clear sunny morning, and the leaves upon the trees before me seemed illuminated from within as the sunlight landed upon them. As I looked up through the branches, it reminded me of being in church as a child, when I used to get distracted during Mass when the sun shone through the colourful stained glass windows, as if someone had flicked a switch to light them up.
In ages past, Yorkshire was renowned for the production of stained glass, particularly the city of York, and according to my dad’s column from 1st December 1979, a list of Freemen of the city from between 1330 and 1540 shows no less than 100 names of local ‘glassyers’, as they were then called.
It’s not certain exactly when stained glass began to be produced, but according to the Stained Glass Museum based at Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire, references to it have been found as far back as the seventh century, and by the 12th century it was a recognised art form. The techniques for making stained glass have remained largely unchanged since then, which we know thanks to a contemporary description by German Benedictine monk Roger of Helmarshausen who, under the pseudonym Theophilus, wrote ‘De Diversis Artibus’. This is an exceptionally valuable historical resource, as it is an exhaustive account of the techniques of all known crafts of the first half of the 12thcentury, and includes the earliest references in Europe to paper and oil painting.
Initially, there were only a limited number of colours to use, but in about 1300, a new stain was discovered which could turn white glass yellow, and blue glass green, which gave the artist more freedom to highlight hair, haloes and crowns.
Thanks to the Reformation and the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century, only a handful of examples of monastic medieval glazing survived, and general interest in the art of stained glass subsequently declined. However, it underwent a renaissance in the early 19th century following the Catholic revival, and enthusiasm for medieval and Gothic architecture grew when John Ruskin, the most influential Victorian art critic, labelled it the ‘true Catholic style’.
Many new churches were built and old ones restored in the movement, led by staunch Catholic and architect AWN Pugin, who believed that the Gothic style was the only one suitable for a truly Christian country. It led to a renewed demand for ecclesiastical stained glass, and the art form has remained buoyant ever since.
Today, York Glazier’s Trust are responsible for the conservation and maintenance of York Minster’s windows, as well as for the preservation of historic stained glass all over the country and further afield. They restored the badly damaged 16th century Rose Window after the dreadful fire of 1984, and more recently the enormous Great East Window, a project that was initiated in 2005 and completed in 2018. The 15th century window, which took three years to construct, is the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in Britain, with 300 separate glazed panels.
There are some wonderful examples of ancient stained glass in many of our smaller local churches, so next time you’re passing one, why not pop in and appreciate this most ancient of art forms.
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