Sue Cook presents the series that examines listeners' historical queries, exploring avenues of research and uncovering mysteries.
Early stained glass - made in Jarrow or Monkwearmouth?
"As a child, in an entry about my home town in a school encyclopaedia, I read that the first English stained glass was made in Jarrow. However, since the opening of the National Glass Centre in Sunderland this achievement is claimed there. What is the truth? I should be interested to know more about early stained glass - where did it come from and how was it made?"
Jarrow is on the River Tyne, while Monkwearmouth is 8 miles away in Sunderland on the north bank of the River Wear. Glass has been dug up by archaeologists at both sites. Very early glass made at Jarrow can be seen today reset in a window in the eighth-century church there. However, even more glass was found at Monkwearmouth, where there was a sister monastery ruled by the same Abbot. The Monkwearmouth site, in fact, came first. In AD 674 the land there was granted by Ecgfrith, King of Northumbria, to a locally born noble, Benedict Biscop, who used it to build a monastery. St Benedict Biscop (628-689) was Abbot of Wearmouth, Abbot of Jarrow and before that Abbot of St Augustine's, Canterbury.
Unfortunately none of this excavated glass can be dated precisely, but certainly it was made before the Vikings destroyed both abbeys in the 860s.
The special interest of this stained glass is in its possible connection with a remarkable description written by the Venerable Bede, who was a monk at Jarrow in the early eighth century. He wrote that in 675 the Abbot of Monkwearmouth, Benedict Biscop, went abroad to Gaul to find glaziers to fill the windows of his new church which he had founded the previous year. Bede says that this glazing was a technique previously unknown to the English. So it would appear that the Monkwearmouth glass probably came first.
The craftsmen who made the glass came from the continent. Dr Tim Ayres of the Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi, consulted by Making History, says that it is still an open question exactly when and where ornamental window glass was first made. Excavation on the continent is constantly changing the picture, but it is probable that a tradition of painted ornamental glass was growing up during the late Roman Empire. The imperial church at St Vitale at Ravenna, Italy, had painted glass as early as the sixth century.
As for the techniques used, the glass excavated at Jarrow anticipates the late medieval technique. This mosaic technique lasted right the way through to the 16th century and was revived in the 19th century in the Gothic Revival. The glass was made from sand and a plant ash which were molten together in a furnace and blown into a sleeve which was cut down one side; it was then flattened out and cooled down. Both clear and coloured glass were made. The glass was then cut into pieces, assembled and held together in a lead framework. Bits of this lead framework were dug up during the excavations at Monkwearmouth and Jarrow.
Glass windows clearly kept out the bad weather and so had a functional role. However, glass as a transmitter of light had a symbolic significance. Light was an analogy for the Divine - "I am the Light of the World". The church fathers, people like St Augustine, picked up on this. Windows and window glass and its painted decoration had a special kind of religious authority. Medieval patrons and master builders struggled to make windows bigger and bigger, ultimately creating great glass windows as in King's College, Cambridge.
Medieval glass survives in considerable quantities in the great cathedrals like York Minster and Canterbury, but there is a wealth of wonderful medieval glass in parish churches all round the country.
The Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi is part of an international project to record all medieval stained glass. Eighty books recording its work have already been produced and there is a website (see below) which sets out general conservation principles established by an international committee of conservators. It has a digital archive of more than 13,000 images, most of them in colour, from more than 800 churches.
Sarah Brown, Stained Glass: An Illustrated History (Leopard Books, 1994)
Martin Kemp, editor, The Oxford History of Western Art (Oxford, 2000)
Sarah Brown and David O'Connor, Medieval Craftsmen - Glass Painters (British Museum Press, 1991)
Richard Marks, Stained Glass in England during the Middle Ages (Routledge, 1993)
Tim Ayres, The Medieval Stained Glass of Wells Cathedral (Oxford University Press, 2004)
Virginia Chieffo Raguin and Mary Clerkin Higgins, The History of Stained Glass: The Art of Light - Medieval to Contemporary (Thames and Hudson, 2003)
John Baker, English Stained Glass of the Medieval Period (Thames and Hudson, 1979)
Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi (CVMA)
The CVMA is an international survey of stained glass and, in Great Britain, is a British Academy research project based at the Courtauld Institute.
CVMA Great Britain
Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 0RN
Tel: 020 7848 1639
Fax: 020 7848 2785
Project Manager, Dr Tim Ayers: firstname.lastname@example.org
Places to visit
The Stained Glass Museum
The South Triforium, Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire CB7 4DL
Tel: 01353 660347
Fax: 01353 665025
Church Bank, Jarrow, Tyne & Wear NE32 3DY
Tel: 0191 489 2106
Fax: 0191 4282361
Vanessa has presented science and current affairs programmes for BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Discovery and has presented for BBC Radio 4 & Five Live and a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday, Scotsman and Sunday Herald.
Contact Making History
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