Medieval Glass at St Mary's Church, Elland



(c) Anthony Murphy is identified as the author of this work in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

The fine medieval glass in the east window, a rare survival in West Yorkshire, is undoubtedly one of the chief glories of our church. The window was inserted in the late 15th century as part of an extension to the chancel, largely financed by the influential Savile family and consists of five lights under a late perpendicular ‘depressed’ arch. It contains 21 panels of glass, each one measuring 36 x 20 inches (c. 91.2 x 51cm) and four canopy heads over the outer four lights.

The subject of the window is of particular relevance as it portrays the life of Mary the mother of Jesus, and the patron saint of this church. Sadly, only eleven of the original panels remain intact following the destruction of much of the church’s glass by Cromwell’s Parliamentarian soldiers in the 1640s who would have taken particular exception to any veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The remaining ten panels are mid 19th century replacements which do not all follow the original iconographical programme of the originals. However, the medieval glass which remains is of extremely high quality: the vivid, translucent colours and modelling of the figures suggest that they were probably produced by glaziers in York, one of the chief centres of this craft. Their present exceptional condition is a result of expert restoration by the York Glaziers Trust in recent years.

Sources for the Iconography

Mary makes relatively few appearances in the Gospels and Acts: at her Annunciation; her Visitation to her kinswoman Elizabeth; at Christ’s Nativity and her subsequent Flight into Egypt and, fleetingly thereafter (the young Jesus’s disputation with the elders of the Temple, the marriage feast at Cana, His Crucifixion and - in The Acts of the Apostles - the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost). The Church early on sought to amplify her role and fill in the ‘back story’ of her life which led to a number of apocryphal gospels being written in the first few centuries. These included a Gospel of Mary and, crucially for the Elland window, the Book of James (also known as the Protevangelium). Its date and authorship are unknown though it possibly originated in the 2nd century. In this we learn of Mary’s parentage and childhood leading up to her betrothal to the elderly Joseph. Thereafter, the story coincides with the familiar one told in the biblical Gospels. Each of the panels contains a descriptive Latin text at the bottom written in gothic script. There are, however, some spelling errors - possibly a result of incorrect ‘restoration’ over the years.

Reading the glass.

The panels are read from the top downwards, beginning top left. It is evident that the narrative order would have been different in the original window and that several scenes of Mary’s life were destroyed to be replaced by scenes from the life of Christ.

1 The Annunciation of St Anne, the mother of Mary. (Book of James). On the left St Anne in a green tunic with a blue mantle with fur edging is pointing to a line of verse in a psalter placed on a russet gown draped over a richly decorated coffer. On the right the angel Gabriel extends his right hand, which is holding a green palm, towards Anne’s left. He is clothed as a priest in an alb and stole with tassles and wears a floriated coronet.

The script reads O Anna gratiosa mater matris gratiosa (“Gracious Anne, mother of a gracious mother”). 

2 The meeting of Joachim and Anna, the parents of Mary (Book of James: “Joachim came with his flocks and Anne stood at the [Golden] Gate [in Jerusalem] and saw Joachim coming and ran and hung upon his neck”). The artist sets the figures in an architectural setting of crocketted gabled arcading giving a three dimensional effect. There is much use of silver staining in the glass, which, when fired, produces a radiant gold colour. The addition of blue-coloured acanthus leaves also adds to the radiant effect. Joachim and his intended bride embrace, Joachim dressed as a wealthy late C15 merchant, his money bag hanging from his belt (The Book of James describes him as a ’very rich man’). Anne is dressed in sumptuous robes edged with gold. Both their facial features suggest they are past their youth. Their script reads Joachim Sancte conjux Annae [should read Anna] (“ Saint Joachim meets with Anna”).

3 Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Book of James). This is a very tender scene and contains five figures. A serious-looking St Anne sits up in a bed beneath a richly decorated and fringed tester holding Mary, already with long fair hair, and attended by two gentlewomen, both coiffed, one holding out a cloth the other supporting the child. A third woman - probably the midwife - stand on the right holding what appears to be a med - ical instrument. The folding of the russet drapery on the bed is beautifully painted and the child’s crib stands by the bed. The script reads Ante colles ego parturiebar (“ Before the hills I gave birth” - recalling Proverbs viii, 25 and the fact that Nazareth is surrounded by hills).

[4 C19 glass: The anointing of Christ’s feet - All four canonical Gospels]

[5 C19 glass: Presentation of Christ in the Temple - Gospel of Luke]

6 Betrothal of Mary and Joseph (Book of James). The rich architectural setting of three crocketted gables and corbels supporting fan vaulting - all picked out in gold and blue - frames four figures. A mitred bishop stands between Mary and Joseph holding the marriage ring in his right hand and Mary’s clasped hands in his left. Joseph looks on tenderly, his own hands clasped having taken off his gloves. Mary wears her traditional blue gown, here trimmed with fur and a russet tunic. Joseph’s rich robes are also trimmed with fur. On the right stands the witness: a young man with golden hair, holding the box which had contained the ring. His right hand is held up as if in benediction. Unlike the other three figures he has no halo. The script reads Dispensatio [should read Disponsatio] tua Dei genetrix [should read genitrix] virgo (“Your betrothal, virgin mother of God”).

7 Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This event is not covered in the Book of James and there is no Biblical source for Mary’s ascent into Heaven. Many early traditions sought to explain what happened to Mary and eventually the legend that she was borne up to Heaven by angels gained currency and from the C6 onwards this was depicted in art.

This is a remarkable panel and it is a miracle that it survived the iconoclasm of both the Reformation and Cromwell’s puritans. It is also a very fine example of the genre and is in excellent condition for its age. The figure of Mary, in her blue gown as Queen of Heaven and her russet tunic edged with gold, is placed in a mandorla of golden flames being borne aloft by six kneeling angels, three on either side. Her hands are held up palms diagonally facing outwards and her expression - beautifully etched by the unknown artist - is one of dignity and introspection. She is bareheaded with long golden tresses and with a golden nimbus. There are also traces of gold (silver staining) on the angels’ hair and collars, but otherwise they are etched in monochrome, thus highlighting the importance of Mary who, by contrast, is vividly presented. The script beneath says simply Maria assumpta est (“Mary is assumed [into Heaven]”). There have been suggestions that this panel is the oldest of St Mary’s medieval panels. It is possible that it pre-dates the others by a dozen years or so and may have been produced around 1475. It is not dissimilar (though is superior) to the Assumption in Thornhill church, where a senior branch of the Savile family built the north-east chapel in 1447 and extended it eastwards (as at Elland) in 1493.

[8 C19 glass: Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem (Gospel of John) ]

[9 C19 glass: Christ in Majesty. A popular subject for the apex of a sculptural or stained glass programme but it is more likely that at Elland this panel would have depicted The Coronation of the Virgin Mary as the natural apotheosis of the depiction of the life of Mary. A panel of the Coronation of the Virgin is found in Thornhill church‘s Savile chapel.]

10 Ascension of Christ. (Gospel of Mark - longer ending; Gospel of Luke). Mary is portrayed kneeling in the foreground with, probably, John depicted as a golden-haired youth, surrounded by the other apostles crowded on either side in diminishing perspective. Christ disappears above them, only the skirts of His robe visible as the golden flames of a glory surround Him. Mary, richly robed in blue and russet and John, in russet and gold, hold up their hands in adoration. The whole scene is again framed by this artist’s typical architectural setting, with pendant bosses and three ogee canopies surmounted by crocketted gables, characteristic of late gothic art. The script reads: Ascendit in coelum (“He ascended into Heaven”).


11 The Resurrection. (All four Gospels) The risen Christ is depicted rising from the now empty tomb, a cross of resurrection in his left hand, his right hand in an attitude of benediction. He wears only a maroon cloth, the gold staining of his nimbus now faded, as indeed have the five sacred wounds which were noted by an observer in 1876. Four soldiers in full plate armour (as, again, at Thornhill church) are asleep around the tomb. This is a typical representation of the event in late medieval art. Here, the artist has also given some depth to the picture in portraying Golgotha. In the extreme background are various figures: men being crucified, a soldier on horseback, an archer pulling his bow. It is a dramatic composition and has centre stage in the entire window, which may well have been the original intention. The Latin inscription reads Surrexit Dominus Vere Alleluia (“The Lord is truly risen. Alleluia”.)

[12 C19 glass: The Crucifixion. (All four gospels)]

[13 C19 glass: The Last Supper. (All four Gospels)]

14 Adoration of the Magi. (Book of James and Gospel of Matthew) This is a charming scene and skillfully painted. Mary is seated, dressed in a russet gown, the Christ-child on her lap rising to greet the kneeling king-magus who presents his gift. Two other magi wait their turn behind, one heavily bearded, the other clean-shaven. The kneeling magus is bare-headed, his crown on the ground (the artist assumes they are kings) the other two wear their crowns. The Virgin and Child are seated before a wicker enclosure, representing the stable, painted in gold staining. An ox peers insouciantly over Mary’s shoulder, the ass braying sky-wards, looking away. Above this scene three angels, coloured silver, surmount a scroll bearing the words Gloria in excelsis Deo et in terra pax (“Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace”). Between blue acanthus leaves beams of light, representing the Holy Spirit, descend towards the Christ-child. The script reads Et adorabunt omnes reges (“And all the kings worshipped Him”).

[15 C19 glass: Baptism of Christ. (All four Gospels)]

16 Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. (Acts of the Apostles). This is another memorable composition. Mary stands with the twelve apostles (six of them are almost entirely hidden behind Mary and the front six), depicted largely in monochrome beneath a blue diapered background surmounted by the characteristic architectural feature of a triple arcade. Issuing from the middle one is the figure of a dove trailing golden rays representing the Holy Spirit down to the apostles, all in an attitude of prayer. The script reads Et repleti sunt omnes Spiritu Sanctu (“And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit”).
[17 C19 glass: Agony in the Garden. (Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke and possibly subsumed in John 17)]

18 Annunciation of the Virgin Mary. (Book of James and Gospel of Luke). This panel parallels that of the Annunciation of Anne though it differs considerably in its treatment of the subject. Mary is kneeling at her fald-stool where her opened book lies on a golden cushion upon an elaborate casket dressed as an altar. Mary holds up her hands in a gesture of surprise and, perhaps, acceptance for her facial expression is one of serenity. The kneeling angel Gabriel dressed in a white priestly tunic with a golden cloak bears a golden sceptre in his left hand, his right hand stretched towards Mary. Between them stands the symbol of Mary’s virginity: a bowl of lilies. In the top left hand corner the hands of God send forth radiant beams of golden light to the Virgin, as a small white dove with a tiny golden flower in its beak flutters near her face. A large scroll unwinds above the two figures bearing the words Ave Maria gratia plena Dms [Dominus] tecum (“Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee.”). The script below reads Benedicta in mulieribus (“Blessed art thou among women”). This panel was in recent years chosen for Christmas cards published by the Medici Press.

19 The Visitation (Book of James and Gospel of Luke). Mary (on the left) and her kinswoman Elizabeth stand face to face. Elizabeth is placing one hand over Mary’s womb which is individualized by a golden sun. Mary is placing her own hand over Elizabeth’s womb whilst the latter raises her left hand in a gesture of surprise. Both women are richly dressed with their heads covered for modesty and they have faint smiles on their faces. Both stand on a richly chequered floor and are framed by the triple canopies beloved of this glass-painter. The script below reads Et salutavit Elizabeth (“And she greets Elizabeth”).

[20 C19 glass: The Nativity (Book of James and Gospels of Matthew and Luke).]

[21 C20 glass: Christ bearing His cross (Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke).]

NB The bottom row of the window was most probably filled with heraldic glass relating to the donors and their families. Fragments of this glass - and remnants from other early windows in the church - have been assembled in jig-saw patterns in the two windows to the left and right of the tower at the west end of the church. A preliminary investigation of this glass suggests a wide range of dates though a few significant pieces reveal that the arms of Arthur, Prince of Wales (the eldest son of King Henry VII) were displayed in one panel, thus giving a date of around 1490-91, when the king ordered churches to commemorate his son’s investiture. Another fragment refers to John Savile and his wife Elizabeth of Hullenedge, the likely donors of the east window.

© Anthony Murphy 2013

(c) Anthony Murphy is identified as the author of this work in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.