The United Kingdom has a rich collection of stained glass windows but there are two I keep returning to and am richly rewarded every time. They are both massive areas of glass and the messages they announce reveal differing purposes spanning 560 years. They are the Great East Window at York Minster and the Baptistry at Coventry Cathedral. They also reflect the construction methods of the day.
The Great East Window at York Minster has the largest expanse of medieval glass in England, the size of a tennis court and, according to Sarah Brown of the York Glaziers Trust, ‘probably the most ambitious glazing project ever undertaken’. In three hundred and fourteen separate panels of glass the window describes the Christian view of the history of the world from its beginning to the last days. There are twenty seven scenes from the book of Genesis and eighty one from the book of Revelation, known as the Apocalypse in the Middle Ages. The rest is made up of prophets, saints, lords, bishops, kings and God the Father at the apex.
John Thornton, the artist of the window and its creator, was possibly this country’s greatest artist, in the style of International Gothic. The image above is very representative of Thornton’s style. The window was created between 1402 and 1405 and Thornton was paid the massive sum of £69 for his efforts. Thornton was an early entrepreneurial artist and set up workshops in York and his home of Coventry. There are many fragments of Thornton’s work to be found in Coventry, especially the Guildhall and the destroyed cathedral’s collection.
Coventry Cathedral was destroyed by a German bombing raid on the night of 14th November 1940. The new cathedral was constructed under the guidance of architect, Sir Basil Spence, and consecrated in 1962. The cathedral is a beautiful illustration of working with modern materials and methods. The sharpness of the window designs come from the carborundum saw, rather than the mason’s hammer and chisel!
The Nave windows are interestingly concealed from view from the entrance, where only the Baptistry window illuminates the observer. This huge window, some eighty five feet high is made of 192 separate panels. Unlike the window at York this is much more personally reflective. The artist-designer, John Piper, and glass painter Patrick Reyntiens produced the window.
The design is abstract and has to be seen as a whole. The brilliant starburst in the centre gives way to yellows and greens, warm reds and then cooler blues at the edges. Each panel has its unique abstract design and the whole inspires thoughts of creation, eternity, empowerment, the shining power of the Holy Spirit. The interpretations have endless possibilities but most of all follow the theme of the whole cathedral – that of reconciliation.
These two great windows from different ages both have much art historical interest, both have a Coventry connection, but most of all they both take your breath away when you stand beneath them.