The Stained Glass Windows of Canterbury Cathedral (by Neil Salvesen)
28th October 2014
Canterbury cathedral is one of the oldest churches in England. A place of renown, it is the cathedral of the Archbishop of Canterbury and forms part of a World Heritage Site. Amongst its many distinguishing features, its stained-glass windows are amongst the oldest and finest in the western world. The cathedral has had a long and torrid history and as such not all of these beautiful pieces remain but these lost works have since been replaced with more modern works, many of which replicate the traditional, medieval style.
A group of windows depicting many important Biblical characters. The central bottom three are Isaach, Adam and Joseph.
The windows depict and show various things; important historical events and figures such as Thomas Beckett and St Dunstan; biblical scenes like Lot’s family fleeing Sodom and even indications to what life was like and general knowledge and attitudes of the time. This can be shown by the hairstyles, clothing, building shapes etc.
Many of the windows and / or sequences of windows have their own specific theme such as the ‘Redemption Window’, row 3 of which focusses on resurrection. This series contains Noah releasing the dove from the Ark after 40 days of floating after the flood. The dove returns with an olive leaf signifying the return of dry land to the world. The central panel shows Jesus emerging from a tomb, heralded by angels either side signifying his resurrection. The final image, on the far right of the window depicts Michal helping her husband escape from Saul (1 Samuel 19:8-18)
Not all of the windows recount passages through a single pane. The Becket Miracle windows (in the northern aisle of the Trinity Chapel) show many series of images. One of these series tells the tale of the plague in the house of Sir Jordan Fitz-Eisulf. Through these conjoined panes we get a feel of the entire tale of the suffering of Jordan’s family and the compounding and worsening attributing factors.
Despite the sombre tone of many of these windows, one cannot help but be moved by the beauty of each of the windows and impressed by the intricacy that the artists manage to achieve in their creation.
The modern windows are as aesthetically striking as they are ancient. From the image of Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip and their children at the Queen’s coronation to Christopher Whall’s window of Uriel the light-bringer, there is a range of different styles, colours, tones and purposes in these newer windows.
The above pieces display a more realistic, almost photographic approach to character depiction, emphasising the pale skin that so drew Pope Gregory the Great to the English people. The below piece, by Harry Stammers, shows a markedly different, more colourful style:
In my opinion the most outstanding pieces are those done by Ervin Bossanyi. His works are based on the theme of peace:
The use of colour in this window is truly spectacular and there is something akin to a modern animation production in Bossanyi’s character depiction. It is a remarkably beautiful and intricate piece.
The stained glass windows at Canterbury Cathedral improve and complete what can already easily be regarded as a masterpiece of a building. They are a truly stunning testament to Christian history, Christianity’s impact on art and English culture.
Neil Salvesen is currently completing his RPE degree, and spending a lot of time in Canterbury