I sometimes feel sorry for archaeologists. They can spend months digging for a couple of potsherds and a post hole, and then face the task of fitting this sparse and fragmentary evidence into some kind of pattern. I know that archaeology is about much more than digging. But even so, when it comes to material evidence, architectural historians have it better: enormous structures that can be read like books, even when there is no documentary evidence, for literal reading, to back up the stories told by the stones.
But sometimes it's not so simple. Medieval buildings can be as complex and enigmatic as any excavation. And as for their decoration – battered by time, alteration, and iconoclasm, it can be as challenging to reconstruct as buried foundations or shattered pottery. Medieval stained glass is a case in point. So much of it has gone, thanks to neglect and decay and the activities of image-smashing vandals. In many churches, there are just a few fragments of ancient glazing, like this one in a window in the large and beautiful medieval church at Burford.
So what can we make of this tantalising panel of medieval stained-glass bits and pieces? Staring at the central figure, I was struck by the hat. Wasn't that a pilgrim's hat? Yes, or more specifically, it's the hat of St James the Greater, with his cockle-shell badge, the disciple of Jesus who, having ended up in Spain made medieval Compostela the greatest place of pilgrimage after Rome itself. The bearded head of St James must have figured in many medieval windows, and here just his head has survived. Perhaps that's the top end of his staff, just to the right of his head.
Most of the other fragments on either side of St James and immediately above him are images of bits of architecture – niches, pinnacles, and spires. Their ornate crocketed tops mark them as late-medieval, and they're typical of the use of architectural motifs in so much late-medieval art. W R Lethaby, the great Arts and Crafts architect, writer, and teacher, expressed this use of architectural forms charmingly in his book Medieval Art:
The folk had fallen in love with building, and loved that their goldsmiths' work, and ivories, their seals, and even the pierced patterns of their shoes should be like little buildings, little tabernacles, little 'Paul's windows'.
'Paul's windows' refers to the rose windows in Old St Paul's Cathedral, London, and the reference to the pierced patterns of shoes recalls a description of a snappy dresser in Chaucer's Miller's Tale, 'With Paule's windows carven on his shoes'. Reliquaries, boxes, furniture, yes, even shoes, were made to look like little buildings in the 15th century. And figures in churches, whether carved in three dimensions or painted in windows, were frequently set in a context of decorative architectural detail. How wonderful that some of this detail should have survived here, flanking the venerable, curly-bearded, beady-eyed face of St James, the saint who inspired men to go on pilgrimages.