A favorite museum of mine, Sir John Soane’s Museum in London is currently exhibiting a special collection of stained glass from the World Monuments Fund. These are not ordinary windows designed by a long past artisan. These pieces are survivors of the medieval stained glass that once graced St. Michael’s Cathedral.
Hot kiln designs from the 15th century; brown-black oxide painting outlines, silver stain washes for hair, wings and halos; most figures are light-haired because yellow was the economical color; these brighter effects were gained by fusing thin sheets of colored glass on to clear glass. At the time, St. Michael’s was busy filling windows for one of the largest parish churches; the tallest steeple at 303 ft. was visible for miles.
These fragments survived destruction not once, but twice; in the 1640s when Puritans attacked the graven images of the windows; the many surviving pieces were reassembled in a mosaic and placed in the clerestory above the main arcade. But in November 1940, incendiary bombs destroyed St. Michael’s Cathedral; the shell survives today, and a new cathedral was completed in 1962.
Beneath this phoenix from the ashes, in a concrete storeroom, forgotten, the medieval glass lay in boxes, covered in decades-old soot and industrial grime. The lead holding the glass together gradually came apart, releasing thousands of fragments. A project to clean the glass was conceived this spring, and the faces emerged from history; a saint, a 15th century lady, a bird, a cat, a heraldic swan and a blue hat; an encyclopedia of medieval life unfolding from the shattered remains.
Stained glass has been a passion of mine for years. The history of these surviving fragments is significant, just as any painting or sculpture. The names of the artisans have been lost from the historical record, but their art influenced countless others.
Thank you for joining me for the story of medieval stained glass and its recovery. I have several short posts that will be appearing through the end of the year as I clear my backlog and prepare for a new year of Cabinets of Curiosities and Museum Mondays. Thank you for all your suggestions and comments this year!