Reflections On Stained Glass At York Minster
York Minster has enchanted people for centuries with its glorious stained glass
The Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Saint Peter in York, as it’s formally known, has survived hundreds of years, four fires and a collapse of its central tower. This mighty cathedral is an icon of architecture, craft and conservation and its stained glass is at the center of its majesty.
Icon member and chair of Icon Stained Glass Group, Sarah Brown, has been studying and writing about the stained glass for several years and has recently published a new book on the Stained Glass of York Minster.
We spoke to her to find out more about the captivating glass and the conservation behind it.
How does it feel walking through today compared to when you first encountered the stained glass in York Minster?
When I first became interested in the Minster windows, I think it is true to say that it was something of a minority interest, or perhaps more accurately, it was a subject that enthused people visiting the building, but in a rather abstract way. It is now hugely gratifying to overhear the Minster guides engaging with visitors about the Minster's windows at a very sophisticated level, and to know that it is conservation that has been a catalyst for this renewed and well-informed enthusiasm.
Having written so extensively about York Minster, how have your approaches changed over the years and how does that manifest itself in the book?
I think my experience of the stained glass of York Minster has been transformed in recent years primarily by the experience of working so closely with it through a series of major conservation projects. I now have far more insight into the logistical and technical challenges that needed to be overcome in translating the wishes of the medieval patron into reality. It has also been an extraordinary pleasure and privilege to work with an inter-disciplinary team of conservators, art historians and liturgists - our exploration of the Minster's glass has been something of a shared enterprise!
I am in awe of the skills of my team at the York Glaziers Trust
How has stained glass conservation changed since you’ve been writing about York Minster?
Stained glass conservation has traditionally been very craft-oriented, and for very good reason. The craft skills remain at the heart of what we do, but they are now complemented by an understanding of materials science, art history and conservation ethics. We are now also a very open and outward-looking community. I am in awe of the skills of my team at the York Glaziers Trust, and also very proud of the degree to which they are so willing to share their experience with students, interns and visitors.
What do you think it is about stained glass that has kept it as such a focus of adoration across so many centuries?
LIGHT! Stained glass windows are ignited by natural light passing through the colour of the glass and is then modulated by the glass-paint. When conservation also helps people to read the narrative more easily, and through our art historical research we are also able to explain the context of creation and donation, stained glass windows become a source of even greater inspiration.
With so many glorious images featured in the book, do you have a favourite window at York Minster?
I think it has to be the Great East Window, closely followed by the St William window. The extraordinary ingenuity of its design and the breath-taking artistry and technical skill of John Thornton's team make it endlessly fascinating. And despite the research that has accompanied the conservation programme, it still guards some of its secrets!
What from the book are you most excited to share with people?
The many small and intriguing details that are often difficult, if not impossible, to see from the ground.
Stained Glass at York Minster by Sarah Brown is available from the York Glaziers Trust.
Image: Reproduced with permission from Sarah Brown
Lead Image: York Minster - Public Domain; Matanna