York Minster: 3 Surprises in Stained Glass

York Minster: if you have been to the city of York in the north of England, you’ve no doubt seen this cathedral church rising in the city’s skyline. Whether you have visited York or not, though, you may have come across pictures of its Gothic architecture.

york minster from garden englandn

York Minster is considered one of the finest medieval buildings in Europe.

It is a good size, too: York Minster is the largest Gothic cathedral north of the Alps.

It’s impressive, it is imposing, it’s dramatic, and its site has a history reaching back almost to 600, while the church you see today was constructed between the 13th anf 15th centuries.

There’s a lot of history at York Minster.

History is story. Much of the story of York Minster is told in glass.

Wait, you may be saying, medieval buildings were made of stone, weren’t they? That’s why they have survived, after all.

Yes, that is true.

One of the great innovations of Gothic age builders, however, was the development of techniques which allowed allowed for windows much larger and for many more of them than had been the case in earlier building styles.

This was especially important for sacred buildings. Not only did builders and clergy want to bring the light of God’s creation inside, they wanted to expand on the ways windows could tell stories.

In medieval times most people could not read. Even those who could were unlikely to own books, which were rare and expensive. Visual stories, told through stained glass images, were vital in conveying and reinforcing stories of faith.

The Great East window at York Minster shows this: for 600 years it has centered the interior of the cathedral. It was the work of master glazier John Thornton of Coventry and others in his workshop who created it between 1405 and 1408. The many panels tell stories reaching from Genesis to Revelation. “the beginning and end of all things,” as that’s known in liturgy.

york minster great east window

The panels — there are hundreds of them — are windows, after all, and as such subject to weathering by the elements. An assessment in 2005 led to a multi year restoration carried out by members of the York Glaziers Trust, during which much was learned about the history of the window. Among other things, fingerprints of the first artists were seen in the paint, and names and ages form young workers in a previous restoration in the 1820s were found.

Impressive as it is, the Great East window is far from the only bit of glass letting light into York Minster. There are 128 windows in all.

Another with its own stories is the Rose window in the south transept.

york minster rose window stained glass

The glass was commissioned late in the 15th century, to mark the end of the of Wars of the Roses and honor the house of Tudor. In 1984 a fire (it was caused by a lightning strike) caught the wooden roof of the minster afire. This caused the panels of the Rose window to shatter into more than 40,00 pieces. They remained in place,though, and restoration was possible.

One of my favorite set of windows at York Minster is one that really connects past and present. It was first put in place early in the Gothic era of building, around 1270. It is called the Five Sisters and is in the north transept. It is done it a style called grisalle. The dominant color is a muted grey, with sparks of color, and consists of five long, narrow windows.

york minster 5 sisters windows england

These windows, along with other of the Minster’s glass, were removed to storage during World War I to prevent damage. When they were re-intsalled in the 1920s. they were dedicated to the memory of all the women in the (then) British Empire who lost their lives in that war. After World War II, another ceremony was held to honor those women who lost their lives in that conflict as well.

There are many more stories in York Minster.It is still a working parish, too: though you may visit to sight see, attending a service (it’s an Anglican parish) is an additional way to understand and appreciate the place. Take your time when you visit in person or online, and stay with us here for more about York and its Minster in future.

You may also care to read about another church with much interesting history: Christ Church in Dublin, and about an album of music from Sarah McQuaid which includes songs inspired by historic buildings in England.

Photograph of Great East window by Mike Kirby; photograph of Rose window by Julian P. Guffogg; photgraph of the Five Sisters by Richard Croft.

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