Tin legs, whales and Zeppelins: an A-Z of what to spot in stained glass

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A stained glass window at St Mary's Church, Putney

A stained glass window at St Mary's Church, Putney

My fascination with stained glass began with one huge window, and one very small pair of shoes. Standing in Coventry Cathedral, in front of the enormous 1962 Baptistry Window, 72ft high and 59ft wide, composed of almost 200 individual, abstract lights designed by John Piper and made by Patrick Reyntiens, I understood for the first time the effect that stained glass could have on a viewer. The window was utterly alive, glowing and changing every moment according to the light outside. It made me realise that the artists work not only with glass and colour, paint and lead, but with light itself.

After that, I started to take a closer look at stained glass, but even then I found it difficult to decode and appreciate what was going on in many windows. That is, until I wandered into St John, Hoxton, and found at eye level a lovely Fifties Children of All Nations window. What struck me were the shoes the little English girl was wearing: they were Mary Janes, the classic, sensible, Start-rite shoes that lots of girls wear to this day. I was astounded that such an ordinary detail could be found in what I had always considered an art form far above earthly things.

From then on, I began to look at stained glass with new eyes. Instead of puzzling over Bible stories and trying to read a window as a whole, I started to look for patterns, faces, flowers, gestures, fabrics, beards, dragons and wings. I discovered all sorts of wonderful things: brush marks, makers’ marks, and a surprising amount of both horror and humour.

I also discovered the joy of “church crawling”, as John Betjeman called it. Excellent stained glass can be found in the most unexpected places. Cathedrals and grand churches do not have the monopoly. My advice is: always take advantage of open church doors; you never know what might be inside. Here is my A-Z of things to spot.

Extracted from How to Look at Stained Glass by Jane Brocket (IB Tauris, £12.99)

An angel from the Creation of Eve, 1882-1925,  St Edmundsbury Cathedral, Bury St Edmunds

An angel from the Creation of Eve, 1882-1925,  St Edmundsbury Cathedral, Bury St Edmunds


Angels

What would a flying heavenly messenger be like? This is a problem that has exercised artists for millennia, and there is staggering variation in their solutions. Some angels have wings that cover the body like a bird costume. Medieval six-winged seraphim are particularly good, although it can be disconcerting when they have no feet. In the Twenties, Douglas Strachan counteracted the politeness and asexuality of arts and crafts angels with his vorticist-cum-art-deco, ultra-masculine, sci-fi warrior angels in St Thomas and St Richard, Winchelsea.

Baskets

A basket or bag can be a clue to the identity of a female saint. The two I like best are St Dorothea, who carries a basket of fruit and flowers, and St Elizabeth of Hungary, whose cloak falls back to reveal a miraculous basket of roses. Women in postwar windows also carry shopping, a leitmotif of the time of rationing. A 1960 window by F W Cole in Christ Church, Southwark wittily shows a woman waiting at dusk for a red London bus and carrying a bag that, when you look closely, contains bread and fishes.

Corners

Just as real corners collect bits and pieces, odds and ends, so do the corners of stained-glass windows. Some become little gardens, with toes treading on minutely detailed blades of grass, next to chirruping birds, young rabbits and the occasional hedgehog. In All Saints, Hereford, the corner of a window depicting children has filled up with casually discarded toys – a stuffed panda, a pair of giraffes.

Dice on shirt,1861-3, St Mary Magdalene, Battlefield

Dice on shirt, 1861-3, St Mary Magdalene, Battlefield


Dice

Viewers may be puzzled to find dice in a church window, and even more baffled when they discover nearby other seemingly random objects, like a stained-glass version of Monopoly pieces: a simple shirt, a handful of nails, a pair of pincers, a money bag, a ladder, bucket or lantern. Those in the know will recognise these items as the Arma Christi or The Instruments of the Passion. The hammer was for nailing Jesus to the cross, the pincers for removing the nails, the ladder for bringing him down, while the dice were rolled by the soldiers who gambled for the seamless robe that Jesus wore before the Crucifixion, which is why they are sometimes depicted on the shirt itself.

Ermine

In Holy Trinity, Long Melford, I was puzzled by what looked like sprouting seedlings or strange, furry insects on the robes of the donors in the late-15th-century windows. I had no idea they were in fact ermine spots, representing the black-tipped tail of the stoat. To the layman, these variously stylised, heraldic markings can look like little black tadpoles, false eyelashes, commas, quavers and semiquavers, clubs on playing cards or bird footprints.

Feet

Because they are mostly in the lower parts of windows, it is easy to take notice of feet. Look out for brilliantly characterful medieval toes, large, fanned-out, wiggly, feeling the fresh air; or the balletic feet of angels, pointing downwards and ready for lift-off. By contrast, there are also some wickedly horrible feet belonging to devils and strange, semi-human creatures, their nastiness manifest in their long, sharp toenails.

Grapes of Eshcol, by the ‘hard-boiled sweet’ artist William Wailes, 1850, Ely Cathedral

Grapes of Eshcol, by the ‘hard-boiled sweet’ artist William Wailes, 1850, Ely Cathedral


Grapes

To love stained glass is to love its strange juxtapositions, its jumble of subjects and mix of scales. This is nowhere more apparent than in windows in which two men carry a huge bunch of grapes, almost as tall as themselves, from a pole resting on their shoulders. The men are spies returning to Moses from the Promised Land of Canaan.

Hounds

Look for hounds in windows featuring saints whose stories include a dog, such as St Giles, who saved a deer from a hunting dog; St Bridget and St Francis of Assisi, both associated with kindness to animals; or St Frideswide, who fled an unwanted marriage to a prince and was chased by the king’s dogs. In his stunning window in Christ Church, Oxford, Edward Burne-Jones’s brutish hounds strain at the leash as they hunt for Frideswide while she cowers in a pigsty.

Insects

You may feel foolish bringing binoculars into a church, but it does mean you will be able to see a great deal more in its windows. There are also times when a magnifying glass would not go amiss. Painters in the 17th century added fantastically realistic trompe l’oeil flies, legs painted on one side of the window, body and head on the other, the bane of any duster-waving window cleaner. There is a convincing example on a 1649 “time flies” sundial window in St Mary the Virgin, Bucklebury. In 1951, Hugh Easton put a tiny mosquito in his Biggin Hill Chapel window, a pun on the Mosquito aeroplanes flown by the RAF men commemorated there.

St Aaron with his complicated jewellery, 1853, Winchester Cathedral

St Aaron with his complicated jewellery, 1853, Winchester Cathedral


Jewellery

Look out for the breastplate jewellery worn by the Old Testament high priests. Made up of four rows of colourful gems, this confection represents the 12 tribes of Israel. Some of the shiniest examples can be found in the windows of Wadham College and New College Chapel, both Oxford.

Knitwear

There are few images of knitters, but the finest I have come across is the imposing 1908 figure of the biblical Dorcas, a “woman of good deeds”, who can be seen knitting a brown, woollen sleeve for the poor in St Mary the Virgin, Hemsby.

Lead

It is a mistake to think that the medieval glass we see is unaltered. The leading can last up to 100 years, but then the windows are taken apart, cleaned, repaired and sometimes repainted before being put back together with new lead, which is also used to repair cracks and breaks. This explains why in the oldest stained glass there are so many lead lines, like spider’s webs or mad, black crossings-out.

Dragon with St George by CE Kempe, 1904

Dragon with St George by CE Kempe, 1904


Monsters

Otherwise mild-mannered designers pull out all the stops with their dragons, revealing surprising and unholy levels of aggression. The beasts are associated with the Archangel Michael, St George and St Philip, all successful slayers, but it’s not just the men. At the church of St Mary, Fairford, St Margaret of Antioch stands astride her defeated quarry, a brilliantly goggle-eyed dragon with skin both spotted and chequered. Very few stained-glass dragons breathe fire and are more likely to scare with forked tongues and terrible teeth, although there is an excellent fire-belching example in St Laurence, Meriden.

In watery scenes, you may find yourself confronting a huge-jawed, pop-eyed whale. These proliferated in windows made in the early 17th century, when there was a boom in whaling.

Noses

You can date glass by noses. The most fantastically bulbous ones are to be found in 15th and 16th-century windows, like the Great East Window of York Minster, by John Thornton. Arts and crafts makers such as A J Davies in Holy Trinity, Southport, painted perfect straight noses to conform to the prevailing standard of beauty in magazines and films. The Twenties and Thirties brought a rash of upturned, cute noses on children.

Ordnance

Postwar windows often commemorate the bombing that destroyed a church’s original glass. At St James, Paddington, the air raid warden raises the alarm, with the church behind lit up by searchlights, like a still from an Ealing Studios film. In the Parish Church of All Saints with St Peter, Maldon, a woman serves stretcher bearers from a mobile tea canteen. An unusual panorama of the blitzed-out East End, in a style halfway between L S Lowry’s cities and Paul Nash’s First World War battlefields, can be found in St Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney.

Second World War battle by GER Smith, c1940s, St John the Baptist, Little Missenden

Second World War battle by GER Smith, c1940s, St John the Baptist, Little Missenden


Planes

Flight is important in stained glass. Angels fly across tracery, archangels bring messages from above, figures ascend to heaven and birds swoop and glide. But man-made flight is prominent, too. Once you start looking, you will find plenty of RAF airmen, and aeroplanes in dogfights or neat formations. In the Great War window at St Mary, Swaffham Prior, close scrutiny will reveal a Zeppelin airship and a plane with propellers, fixed wheels and German markings, as well as submarines and an early tank.

Quarries

Quarries are the unsung heroes of the art form. They are the small pieces of glass – diamonds, lozenges, squares, rectangles, circles, hexagons – used en masse for backgrounds or pieced together to make patterns. They may also contain their own motif, often sweet and whimsical, like a bobbing duck, for light relief.

Rose Windows

Spectacular tracery can be found in the huge rose windows in English cathedrals, but they are often so high up that the painted detail can be lost. A few reveal clearly what has been squeezed into their spaces, like the 18th-century rose window in the north transept of Westminster Abbey, which looks like a richly coloured roulette wheel of prophets.

Alexander Fleming in a postwar window, St James, Paddington

Alexander Fleming in a postwar window, St James, Paddington


Science

Nothing scientific is beyond the realm of stained glass: power stations, pylons, industrial drills, chromosomes, atoms and double helices, microscopes, test tubes and laboratories. Look out for the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank in a window in St Mary in Stoke Newington, or the monolithic Bankside power station in Christ Church, Southwark. White-coated Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin in St Mary’s Hospital, is depicted in suitably microscopic detail in the nearby church of St James, Paddington.

Tin Leg

I realised stained glass would never stop surprising me when I found a tiny tin leg in a window in an Oxford chapel, a memorial to the college’s first master, along with his pet squirrel and tortoise and his cigarette holder. What else, I wondered, could be found in stained glass that I might never have imagined to be there? The answer is almost everything: flamingoes (St Edward, Cheddleton), flat caps (St Nicholas, Potterspury), forceps and rubber gloves (St Mary, Wargrave), hair nets (Christ Church, Southwark), kitchen sinks and colanders (St Mark, Broomhill and Broomhall, Sheffield), opera singers (St Sepulchre, City of London), rifles (Salisbury Cathedral), tigers (St Nicholas, Guisborough), tulip pickers and potato packers (St Mary and St Nicolas, Spalding) and walruses (St Mary, Banbury).

Undead

Look out for Judgment windows, which tackle the subject of the dead climbing out of their graves. One of the finest is in the medieval west window in St Mary, Fairford, in which the naked dead rise from their tombs to meet St Michael. A spooky example by Burne-Jones at St Michael and St Mary Magdalene, Easthampstead, creates the illusion that ghostly people in pale clothing are climbing out of the window ledge.

Stained glass, Cambridge Jesus College

Stained glass, Cambridge Jesus College


Victoriana

The sheer quantity of windows installed from the 1840s onwards means that Victorian glass has to be confronted. Sadly, many new churches of the era were, for reasons of cost and expediency, filled with windows ordered by size and scene from church furnishers’ catalogues. Today, these specimens – sanctimonious, humourless, dull and dark – are exactly what puts so many people off the idea of stained glass.

For quality, you need to look at the glass of the leading firms, and you may be surprised by just how wonderful it can be. As with so many High Victorian enterprises, the best was executed with vigour and bravura. I particularly enjoy the work of William Wailes, whose windows are often dismissed as “hard-boiled sweets” but who pulls off the incredible Great West Window (1859) in Gloucester Cathedral with a combination of medieval richness and Victorian energy.

Water

Water, like smoke or incense, is a tricky subject to render convincingly in transparent glass, and not all painters succeed, with many seas looking more like solid green hills, dotted with strangely blue feet and innumerable static waves. Sometimes the most un-watery approach can in fact be the most effective: medieval artists simply painted thick, dark, stripy bumps to indicate waves. The best water I have yet found is the gloriously deep and swirling stormy sea (1963) in St Katharine Cree, City of London, made up of irregularly shaped pieces of glass, some streaky, in all sorts of colours, even chartreuse, pink or yellow.

X Marks the Spot

Because so much glass is unsigned, there is always a sense of triumph when you come across the maker’s mark or monogram, and even better when you know whose it is. Examine the bottom corners for letters, dates, squiggles or tiny devices that do not appear to be part of the overall scheme. Ninian Comper always painted a strawberry-plant motif but varied it with almost every window. Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale’s mark is a partial rebus: her initials EFB become EF plus a furry bee, while Geoffrey Webb’s lovely spider-and-web mark is a pure rebus. Hugh Easton used a weathervane to spell out EAST. Less cryptically, A K Nicholson and G E R Smith were in the habit of supplying name, address and postcode, to drum up custom.

Yellow wheat,1920, St Nicholas, Potterspury

Yellow wheat, 1920, St Nicholas, Potterspury


Yellow

The English term “stained glass” is something of a misnomer. The only true “stained glass” is that which has been painted with a silver oxide compound then fired to make it yellow. All the other colour in a window comes either from the glass itself, or surface paint and enamel. Silver stain is expensive, so it is used sparingly.

Zzz

Windows are packed with action, incident and grand gestures. But sometimes in the midst of all this, you catch sight of a weary figure fast asleep, leaning against a column, or a number of sleepers in a heap, as if a spell has been cast upon them, like the soldiers in St Catherine, Sacombe, one with his head thrown back and the other, mouth open, lolling forwards.

Source: www.telegraph.co.uk

This article is only publisher's viewpoint.

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