Priceless medieval stained glass panels go on display in The Orb at York Minster
PUBLISHED: 16:45 04 December 2012 | UPDATED: 20:28 24 April 2016
Priceless medieval stained glass panels go on display in a unique 21st century gallery. Photographs by York Minster
One of the most ambitious stained glass restoration projects in the country is offering visitors an unprecedented glimpse into the past. The medieval Great East Window of York Minster has been taken down panel by panel to be restored by glaziers.
The window, described by some as the English equivalent of the Sistine Chapel, is believed to be the biggest of its kind with 311 individual and unique panels. Of its108 major panels, 81 illustrate scenes from the last book of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation (Apocalypse) and which describes, sometimes in graphic detail, the end of the world.
Now visitors will be able to see in detail for the first time some of the priceless stained glass panels on display in the Orb, a newly installed10-metre tall metallic dome-shaped gallery directly below the now sheeted Great East Window.
Inside the Orb are five newly-repaired panels from the Great East Window, four of which will be permanently on display and one which will change each month during the next three years.
The acting dean of York, Canon Glyn Webster said: ‘It is too easy for us to take for granted the amazing architecture and painting of the Great East Window. It is almost impossible to imagine the effect of this astonishing wall of glass must have had when it was first unveiled to the medieval public.
‘It is my hope that the superb restoration of the glass, undertaken by the York Glaziers Trust, will reveal anew the marvels of the window, designed and painted between 1405 and 1408 by John Thornton of Coventry.
‘The positioning of five panels within the orb represents a fascinating juxtaposition of old and new. Visitors will be able to step into a contemporary metallic structure and see the detail of the painting of the medieval glass,’ added Canon Webster.
The Orb is part of York Minster Revealed, a five-year project supported by a £10m grant from the Heritage Lottery fund to restore the window which is expected to be reinstalled by the summer 2016.
Glaziers have restored more than half of the Apocalypse panels. ‘This is a significant landmark in the restoration project, as each of the panels requires painstaking research, documentation, examination, conservation and repair of the many thousands of components that make up this incredible glass masterpiece,’ said Sarah Brown, director of York Glaziers Trust. ‘Each panel is a work of art in its own right, each piece painted with the skills of a Van Eyck or a Vermeer, with an amazing delicacy that can now be fully appreciated as we look at the panels up close.
Interactive exhibitions have been installed in St Stephen’s Chapel and All Saints Chapel on either side of the Orb which sits in Lady Chapel. The work of the minster’s stone masons is highlighted in the All Saints Chapel with displays explaining the scale of the work facing the artisans in restoring the stone tracery that supports the glass.
A touch screen game allows children to virtually chip away at a block of stone with interactive displays featuring tools and stone taken from the building.
In St Stephen’s Chapel the role of the glaziers is examined. A second touch screen game invites young visitors to join John Thornton’s team of artists and glaziers to create a virtual stained glass window, whist display panels explain the huge scale of the project.
Huge stained glass windows were created to reflect the theology and symbolism of medieval Europe. At a time when few other buildings would have used glass in windows, the scale and colour of these windows would have been in huge contrast to the dingy homes that most people would have been used to. The glass allowed light – which is intrinsically linked to God and heaven from the first few words in Genesis – into God’s house.
York Minster holds a copy of the contract by which John Thornton was commissioned to undertake the work, which is the only written document linking him to a specific window in existence. It required Thornton to do all of the ‘cartooning’ (full-scale design of the window) of the window’s 311 panels himself, and also to do some of the painting ‘with his own hand’, although with a project of this size, he would have had a team of artists working to his design. The document shows that he was paid £56 for his involvement in the project, and it is known that he received a £10 bonus for its completion on time.
About the Orb
The Orb designed by Mather & Co, Cheshire is a 21st century display space not seen in any other cathedral in the country.
The entrance to the Orb is concealed from visitors as they first approach to create a sense of wonder. Its hard metallic exterior gives way to a softly lit interior studded with illuminated glass.
It’s here that people can see in close detail the some of the unique panels which make up the Great East Window, probably for the first time since it was created 600 years ago.
Entry to the Orb is inclusive in the £9 price of admission to York Minster, the cost for an adult and up to four children. For more information go to yorkminster.org