Up close and personal: York’s own ‘Sistine Chapel’

Emiliana Fois looks at one of the stained-glass works of art in The Orb. '''''Picture by Gerard Binks.
Emiliana Fois looks at one of the stained-glass works of art in The Orb. '''''Picture by Gerard Binks.
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THE medieval stained glass of York Minster’s Great East Window has been described as the English equivalent of the painted ceilings of the Sistine Chapel.

Now visitors are being given a chance to view the beauty of some of the newly-conserved 15th century stained glass from inside a 21st century exhibition space that will magnify the detail of the astonishing works.

The Orb is a 10 metre wide, 3 metre tall dome that has been installed to the East of York Minster’s Quire, directly below the Great East Window. Visitors will be able to walk inside it to see displays of five newly-conserved panels taken from the Great East Window – four permanently on display and one which will change each month during the Orb’s three year tenancy of the space.

The Acting Dean of York, Canon Glyn Webster said: “It is too easy for us to take for granted the amazing architecture and painting of the Great East Window.

“It is almost impossible to imagine the effect of this astonishing wall of glass must have had when it was first unveiled to the medieval public.

“It is my hope that the superb restoration of the glass, undertaken by the York Glaziers Trust, will reveal anew the marvels of the window, designed and painted between 1405 and 1408 by John Thornton of Coventry.”

The metallic exterior of the Orb is subtly illuminated with moving projections of stained glass to add extra colour and movement to the domed roof.

“The positioning of five panels within The Orb represents a fascinating juxtaposition of old and new. Visitors will be able to step into a contemporary metallic structure and see the detail of the painting of the medieval glass,” adds Canon Webster.

Much needed work to conserve panels on the Great East Window is part of a £20m project, which is backed by the Yorkshire Post and supported by a £10.5m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Comprising 311 individual and unique panels, each a work of art in its own right, the completed window was first unveiled in 1408 and was intended to be an overwhelming work to reflect the limitless power of God.

Each panel is an undiscovered masterpiece, designed by Thornton who is regarded by many as an unsung hero of English art, with some commentators describing his as the English equivalent of Vermeer or Michelangelo.

It was created to add colour and drama to the Eastern wing of the great gothic cathedral and to celebrate the glory of God, and except for the years of the Second World War, it has remained on constant display for nearly 700 years.

Unlike Britain’s great painters working on portable canvases, this huge work of art relied on visitors coming to see it in its setting in order to appreciate its scope and beauty.

Its location, high above the ground in York Minster, also means that visitors over the last six centuries would not be able to see the stunning detail up close – the expressions on the faces of characters and the textures of the beasts and birds, for example. The Orb, will reveal tiny details for the first time – the brush strokes still evident in the glass paint, and the depictions of scenes from The Apocalypse, featuring angels, saints and even dragons.

Of the major panels in the East Window, 81 illustrate scenes from the last book of the New Testament, The Book of Revelation (Apocalypse), which describes, sometimes in graphic detail, the end of the world.

Interactive displays will also run alongside the Orb. The work of York Minster’s stonemasons is highlighted in the All Saints Chapel with displays explaining the scale of the work facing the artisans in restoring the stone tracery that supports the glass. A touch screen game allows children to virtually chip away at a block of stone, with interactive displays featuring tools and stone taken from the building.

In St Stephen’s Chapel, the role of the glaziers is examined. A second touch-screen game invites young visitors to join John Thornton’s team of artists and glaziers to create a virtual stained glass window, while display panels explain the huge scale of the project being undertaken by conservators at the York Glaziers Trust.

The Orb will open to the public from Saturday October 27, and entry is included in the admission price to York Minster.