Midlands Glazier Created This Medieval Masterpiece; HISTORY One of the Triumphant Achievements of the Middle Ages Was Created in the Midlands, Writes Chris Upton
Byline: Chris Upton
OME call it England's Sistine Chapel.
SHad it been done in paint, instead of glass, it might well be considered a rival to Michelangelo's masterpiece in Rome. But stained glass has always stood the wrong side of that pointless dividing line between fine and applied art, and seen primarily as a craft.
Let's have none of that. The great east window in York Minster is one of the triumphant achievements of the Middle Ages, 1,690sqft of stained glass, recounting the story of the world from Creation to Apocalypse.
Yet, like much of England's greatest achievements in glass, it was a Midland production. Just as the Crystal Palace came out of Smethwick, so York's great window was born in Coventry.
It was in 1405 that John Thornton of Coventry was commissioned to glaze the east end of the Lady Chapel in York Minster. Given that York was one of the pre-eminent centres for stained glass, it might seem strange that the Dean looked so far south for a man to take on the work. But the then Archbishop of York and the man who was paying for the work - Walter Skirlaw - were both former bishops of Coventry. In all likelihood, it was one or both of the clerics who recommended Thornton.
A copy of Thornton's contract for the window survives, specifying that he was to draw all the cartoons, and paint a large number of the individual panels. Clearly the Minster was not willing to be palmed off with mere "workshop work". For all this Thornton was paid a total of PS56, and contracted to complete the job inside three years. For doing so, Thornton received a PS10 bonus, and proudly put the date of completion - 1408 - at the very apex of the window.
Doubtless Thornton had behind him a team of glaziers, hired locally or brought with him from Coventry, but the painting on the glass would primarily have been his. It was Thornton's task too to turn the commissioner's concept - highly theological and precise - into a work of art. And this he self-evidently did.
For his work at York alone, John Thornton could be listed among the greatest of all English medieval artist-craftsmen. But the work in York Minster was only one of a number of works associated with him. There is the so-called "Pricke of Conscience" window in All Saints' church, also in York, which depicts the last 15 days of the world, uniquely based on a medieval English poem.
Closer to home, Thornton's characteristic style can be seen in the chancel of Great Malvern Priory, at Thurcaston in Leicestershire, and at a number of locations in his home town, notably the Guildhall and Haigh Chapel in the ruins of the old Coventry Cathedral.
So what is this recognisable Thornton style? While much medieval glass is dominated by reds and blues, John Thornton had a penchant for yellow as his base colour. …