Radiant Light – Glories of Cathedral Glass at The Cloisters

Lamech (detail) from the Ancestors of Christ Windows Canterbury Cathedral England 1178-1180 courtesy Robert Greshoff Photography and Dean and Chapter of Canterbury

Light was made more visible during the Middle Ages by the glory and allure of medieval stained glass and the appeal of the stories its images told.

Like the use of a crown, light not only characterizes and differentiates a figure or a story that is made more glorious by it, but also distinguishes and exalts it.

The Cloisters Museum and Gardens is a branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York, located within Fort Tryon Park, and entirely devoted to the art and architecture of the Middle Ages.

In the Romanesque Hall the show Radiant Light: Stained Glass from Canterbury Cathedral is on display from February 25th to May 18, 2014, enthralling all with its imagery.

Canterbury Cathedral contains over 1,200 square metres of stained glass depicting inspirational stories of men and women, including one of England’s largest collections of early medieval stained glass.

It is the oldest church in England still in use and has many additions to its building over the last nine hundred years.

Thara, from the Ancestors of Christ Windows, Canterbury Cathedral, England, 1178–80, colored glass and vitreous paint; lead came Image © Robert Greshoff Photography, courtesy Dean and Chapter of Canterbury

This show in New York completes the celebration of the 75th anniversary year of the founding of The Cloisters.

The brilliantly coloured stained glass panels on display are all about reflecting the infinite light of God.

They are part of what is believed to be the most comprehensive cycle of its type known in art history.

They depict six near life size enthroned figures and it is the first time they have left the cathedral precinct since their creation between 1178–80.

The six figures are Jared, Lamech, Thara, Abraham, Noah, and Phalec who were an integral aspect of an original cycle of 86 ancestors of Christ.

In Europe from the sixth century churches and cathedrals were built in a style preferred by the Romans, which today we call Romanesque. This meant that its characteristics of the round arch and dome became elements that emphasized the incarnation or that of God coming down to earth.

They were at the foundation of its form, which was constructed on the principal of load bearing masonry.

Founded in 597, Canterbury Cathedral is one of the oldest Christian structures in England and at its religious heart.

It is both a holy place and World heritage site.

It was from Canterbury in the days of Augustine, who became its first Archbishop, that the people of England were converted to Christ.

For 350 years it was one of Christendom’s chief places of pilgrimage, surpassed perhaps only by Jerusalem and Rome.

The windows from Canterbury are originally from the high clerestory windows of the cathedral’s choir that flooded the space with light, as well as the east transepts, and the Trinity Chapel.

An interactive panorama of the Canterbury Cathedral on a large touch-screen monitor will provide visitors with a 360-degree view of the building’s interior and will show the windows in their original location.

Jared (detail), from the Ancestors of Christ Windows, Canterbury Cathedral, England, 1178–80, colored glass and vitreous paint; lead came Image © Robert Greshoff Photography, courtesy Dean and Chapter of Canterbury

One complete window (Thara and Abraham) is nearly 12 feet in height and it will be shown with its associated rich foliate border.

Jared, from the Ancestors of Christ Windows, Canterbury Cathedral, England, 1178–80, colored glass and vitreous paint; lead came Image © Robert Greshoff Photography, courtesy Dean and Chapter of Canterbury

These imposing figures are all considered masterpieces of Romanesque art, and exude an aura of dignified power.

The angular limbs, the form-defining drapery, and the encompassing folds of the mantles add a sculptural quality to the majestic figures, which are remarkably legible, even at a distance.

Medieval Europe witnessed a spectacular flowering of religious architecture as both zeal and emotion drove the workers on as they acknowledged the privilege of building the house of God

In the great cathedrals of England and Europe it was painted glass windows at first that told the stories from the bible.

These wonderful images became an essential aspect of every cathedral because the majority of the population was unable to read.

The windows evolved into an amazing art form and the wonders of stained glass to be found in great cathedrals all over the world today.

The ‘fashion’ for coloured glass spread to churches all over the countryside where the installation of stained glass windows became more about reflecting the social and monetary status of the local individuals who donated them.

Being able to raise the roof to never before seen heights as well, through the ingenious development of buttressing, which are external supports that enable ceilings to soar heavenward seemingly ‘unsupported’, was indeed a wonder and revelation.

The mathematics involved in medieval buildings is indeed impressive. The English took the ideas emanating out of Europe further, embellishing the ceilings of their churches and cathedrals with a glorious array of stone fan vaulting that is also singularly breathtaking in style.

At Canterbury Cathedral, the clerestory windows that held the images on show originally were sited some 60 feet above the floor so they needed to be impressive for the faithful to see.

Canterbury Cathedral, panel from window, detail St Thomas a Becket courtesy Dean and Chapter Canterbury Cathedral

The cathedral is featured in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a literary masterpiece from the 14th century.

Its popularity increased after the construction of a shrine to Thomas Becket (c1118-1170) also known as Saint Thomas of Canterbury who was murdered by followers of the King in the cathedral

The spirit of the medieval bourgeois played a decisive part in the church and its development with local men inspired by patriotism.

They also embraced the idea of receiving indulgences, or special privileges granted by the church to those who helped build the house of God.

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio’s Decameron delightfully detail life in mediaeval Europe, which was indeed enjoyed with great gusto.

This was despite constant international strife, and periodic devastating epidemics such as the Black Death, which contrasted with the feast-days, fashions, cuisine and courtly love.

The European Middle Ages was an era of splendidly decked out knights in shining armour, with a widely respected code of chivalry and, it was exceedingly colourful

There was the building and beautification of churches and cathedrals, the beginnings of modern-day democracy, a strong merchant culture and a love of portraiture.

Thara (detail), from the Ancestors of Christ Windows, Canterbury Cathedral, England, 1178–80, colored glass and vitreous paint; lead came Image © Robert Greshoff Photography, courtesy Dean and Chapter of Canterbury

Far reaching technological developments in printing, engraving, metallurgy, ship-design and firearms would change the face of Europe forever.

During the Middle Ages in Europe a town could not be considered a city unless it contained a Cathedral.  It was the central pivot around which the whole community functioned.

It was the aim of the Church to reflect the glory and mystery of God, an expression on earth of the heavenly banquet.

A cathedral is a church building with a difference.

It contains ‘the seat of the bishop’, the seat of authority called a Cathedra, which comes from the Greek word for chair. It also gives the building its name.

If you take the Cathedra out of the Cathedral it goes back to being just a church.

Light is also at the beginning of all art for without it we would not be able to perceive its form.

In the Holy Bible in the Book of Romans 1:20 it says ‘…ever since the creation of the world, the invisible existence of God and His everlasting power have been clearly seen by the mind’s understanding of created things’…

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014

Radiant Light: Stained Glass from Canterbury Cathedral

The Cloisters Museum and Gardens
99 Corbin Drive, located within Fort Tryon Park, Manhattan

February 25–May 18, 2014



  • olive lawson says:

    I cannot help but wonder why the glass was permitted to be shipped abroad. Could you please tell me why the windows are not still in situ in the clerestory at Canterbury. When & why were they removed form their original position? thank you. O Lawson

  • The Ancestors of Christ windows originally consisted of eighty-six life-sized images, although today only 43 of the originals survive with twenty two of these housed in the Cathedral’s Great South Window since the 18th century. While restoring the stonework of that window they all had to be removed and so the Dean and Chapter, in their wisdom, decided to present the medieval glass at eye level through a series of exhibitions so that many people today would have an opportunity to see the medieval glass and relate to their intensity of colour and diversity of subject before they eventually return them to the window. I would say the people of the USA, specifically in New York are very lucky indeed. In Australia such opportunities are rare.

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