The 14th and 15th centuries produced diverse artwork in churches that reflected back to the viewer an image to provoke thought about the state of their soul and moral life. It could be instructive about areas such as social order and morality lessons such as those represented in 15th C-stained glass at All Saints, York.
At the church of All Saints, York is the finest collection of stained glass outside of the minster. Most of it is 15th C.[i] I have selected 2 of the windows to take a brief look at. The first is the Nine Orders of Angels window and the second is the Corporal Acts of Mercy window.
The Nine Orders of Angels – 15th C (c. 1410-20)
This window is about social rank in medieval society. An angel representing each order leads a procession of mortals of difference social status.
Reading from the top of the window left to right the order of angels with their mortal processions appears as described below:
SPECTACLES IN STAINED GLASS – in the bottom right frame of the window amongst the ordinary folk is a man holding a pair of spectacles to his eyes. I have recently been watching The Name of the Rose (2019 miniseries) and in that William of Baskerville had a similar pair of spectacles!
I am also reminded of the painting by Jan van Eyck titled The Virgin and Child with Canon van Der Paele (circa 1436). In it the kneeing canon holds his prayer book and spectacles. The painting also demonstrates the incredible changes in artistic innovation emerging from the Low Countries and Burgundy by pioneering artists like van Eyck. The changes in artistic conception and techniques provides a very different experience. The faces are much more naturalistic and the use of space and positioning provides depth. The use of oil paint and new painting techniques gives deeper shadows and textures. Gothic art, as seen in the stained glass, has had its day and the Renaissance has arrived. Although England will take some time to catch up with the Renaissance.Corporal Acts of Mercy Window
This window may have been a memorial to Nicholas Blackburn senior, father to the Nicholas Blackburn who was a merchant and mayor of York. It depicts 6 of the 7 Corporal Acts of Mercy.[i] The one that is omitted is burying the dead perhaps because it is a memorial window and therefore implied the task has been done. On the bottom register of the window to the right there appears to be a chantry priest singing and praying for the soul of the departed. He is mirrored on the right by a praying couple. The man, clean shaven, maybe is Nicholas Blackburn and the woman his wife? The man who conducts the acts of mercy is older and bearded and possibly the one who is deceased. Those who were wealthy would have been morally challenged by the church to examine their soul and acts of charity. This window shows the way, and the chantry priest can help move the individual’s soul through Purgatory. In the top register amongst the pinnacles a pair angels peer down to witness the acts.
It is worth bearing in mind when looking at stained glass about where they occur. The nave belonged to the laity and therefore upkeep was paid for by the laity. Stained glass windows may well be paid for by a wealthy individual or family, a guild or a group of parishioners. The patron would have a significant say in the subject matter of the scenes depicted.
[i] ‘The Stained Glass of All Saint’, All Saint Church, https://www.allsaints-northstreet.org.uk/stainedglass.html [accessed 24 January 2021].
[i] ‘Church of All Saints with Anchorage Attached, Historic England List Entry 1257067, https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1257067 [accessed 24 January 2021].
[ii] ‘Jan van Eyck 069’, Wikimedia Commons, The Yorck Project () 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202. <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jan_van_Eyck_069.jpg> [accessed 5 March 2021].
‘Church of All Saints with Anchorage Attached, Historic England List Entry 1257067, https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1257067 [accessed 24 January 2021]
‘The Stained Glass of All Saint’,All Saint Church, https://www.allsaints-northstreet.org.uk/stainedglass.html [accessed 24 January 2021]