Thursday, April 5, 2012
This stained glass window comes from Fairford church in Gloucestershire, a building that was rebuilt between about 1490 and 1510. The set of windows here is the most complete ensemble of late-medieval windows in any English parish church and is probably from the workshop of Barnard Flower, who worked on such high-profile projects as Henry VII’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey and the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge. These windows are among the glories of English art.
Jesus is shown in the central panel. The Roman centurion (called Longinus in some traditions) pierces his side with his spear, an incident described in the Gospel of John, who records that both blood and water flowed from Christ’s side. There is no trace now of blood and water (symbolic among other things of Jesus’ humanity and deity, and of his sacrifice and baptism) in the image in the window – the point of the spear seems to be entering the flesh, though, and perhaps the blood and the water have been lost to time.
In the panel to the left of the centre is the first thief, who is repentant, and on whom an angel looks down. At the base of his cross is the Virgin Mary, supported by Mary the wife of Clopas. Mary Magdalen, with her long hair and pot of ointment, is with them, and gazes at the figure of Jesus. In the panel to the right of the centre is the second, unrepentant, thief, who is accompanied by a devil, a figure with red skin (the devils in the Last Judgement window at Fairford are also red) and grayish, bat-like wings, hovering above the thief’s head. More Roman soldiers occupy the outer panels, and the bearded gesticulating figure on horseback in the left-hand panel is Pontius Pilate (another lower panel, not shown in my photograph, depicts him washing his hands).
There is one other important figure in this window, the foot soldier with the red hose on the bottom left, who is made to stand out with his patterned and brightly coloured clothes. Like many other figures in the window, his gaze is directed straight at Christ. Unlike the others, his collar bears an inscription: ‘IO SAVELE’, which is likely to be a shortened form of Sir John Savile, an associate of King Henry VII. His naming and his position suggest that he was the donor of the windows. His was a noble gift.
This beautiful window is a lovely example of the stained-glass-maker’s art at the point in history where, in England, the Middle Ages are waning and the Renaissance is arriving at last. It combines the traditional rich colours of medieval glass (the blues of Mary’s dress, the deep reds of the some of the solders’ garments, and so on) with sensitive drawing of the faces and lively poses. From the pointing Pilate to the hovering devil, from the observant soldiers to the caring Maries, there is a lot of life in this scene of execution. There is also a careful focus on the main figure, with the pointing hands, the spear, Savile’s gaze, and even the tilt of the flanking crosses, leading our eye towards Jesus. This is also, of course, the church’s east window, in the prime position above the altar, so the architecture and layout of the church draws us to this focal point in the building and the Christian story.