Mediaeval Stained Glass Ancestors Exhibition Canterbury Cathedral

Jan Leeming

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Date: 25th May 2015

The stunning South Window of Canterbury Cathedral has been under wraps and scaffolding since 2009 and the Stained Glass has been taken out whilst the Masonry is rebuilt.

Rather than let the Glass lie hidden from view, decisions were taken that some of this wonderful glass would be seen by the public - very up close and personal!  In the Treasury, there has been a rotating exhibition of four of the Ancestors of Christ which are changed every three months.  They are very well protected,  but you are never again  likely to stand so close to Mediaeval Glass.

Last year some of the Ancestors travelled across the Atlantic and were exhibited in New York.  220 thousand visitors saw the Exhibition.  So a decision was taken that some of the Ancestors would be exibited in the Canterbury Cathedral Chapter House.  A large tower was erected and twelve of the Ancestors are on show including what is referred to as the Methuselah Master.  This stained glass panel is considered to be one of - it not the best example of stained glass in the world.  Because no one knows the name of the Craftsman who executed this fine piece of work and it is named after Christ's Ancestor 'Methuselah' most of the other Ancestors are  'measured' against this. 

I can do no better than copy the writing from the Cathedral website which explains this wonderful Glass much better than I could.

The Ancestors of Christ windows originally consisted of eighty-six life-sized seated patriarchs of the Old Testament, largely based on the list of names contained in the Gospel of St Luke (III, 23–28) and interpolated with additional names from the Gospel of St Matthew (I, 1–17). It was the largest known series of the genealogy of Christ in medieval art. Forty-three figures of the original series survive: twenty two of these have been housed in the Cathedral’s Great South Window since the 18th century.

The window is an incredible feat of medieval engineering as well as an amazing spectacle of light. Its stone frame houses a soaring crystal masterpiece containing some of the earliest stained glass in Europe. In 2009 the precious stained glass was temporarily removed from the window, to allow the Cathedral’s masons to undertake essential repairs to the architectural frame. Since then each individual panel has been cleaned and restored by the Cathedral’s stained glass studio.

There is very little comparable stained glass of this quality and age in the world. Detailed examination has always been hard as such windows are installed at a high level. Its removal has created a unique opportunity to see the dazzling medieval art displayed at ground level and a series of panels have been on display in the Cathedral’s Crypt.

The exhibition opened on 18th May and runs till 23rd August - just occasionally the Exhibition will be closed so, if you want to see these goregous panels, just check on line before your visit.

On Friday I attended an evening event where we looked at the glass and then were given a talk by a leading Mediaeval Glass Expert - Professor Sandy Heslop.  There are four talks in the series and I'm going to most of them particularly because we Assistants and Guides at Canterbury will be on duty in the Exhibition and need to know the basics.

Most of the Ancestors of Christ which are still in existence came from the Clerestory of the North Ambulatory of the Trinity Chapel - possibly they survived because on the North side of the Cathedral there is less heat and temperature change and most of them are looking to the right which would be towards the East and the Altar. At the exhibition there is a piece of a Mediaeval Border which shows the enormous extent of corrosion in the glass.  When originally crafted, light would have come through and cast gorgeous coloured pictures on the flag stones of the Cathedral but the corrosion has ended this kaleidoscope of colour.

Two of the Ancestors with Methuselah at the top


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