Restoring ancient stained glass window in York with a chilling tale reminiscent of today's climate crisis

Ancient images in stained glass can share a forgotten tale through time of a way that once was. But there are also tales of today in one of the finest parish collections in the North, as a conservator has discovered in significant restorations.

Keith Barley Director and Conservationist at Barley Studio's near York working on the third window from All Saints Church North Street, York, depicting St Peter greeting the good at the gates to heaven. Gary Longbottom
Keith Barley Director and Conservationist at Barley Studio's near York working on the third window from All Saints Church North Street, York, depicting St Peter greeting the good at the gates to heaven. Gary Longbottom

Keith Barley, protecting medieval glass at York’s All Saints North Street, has been struck by parallels in one piece depicting the rising of the seas, and in Yorkshire dialect too.

“It’s what you might call timeless – if someone designed it today, you would think it was of today,” said Mr Barley, who as an apprentice had worked on the Minster’s Rose Window.

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“It’s forecasting much of what we are experiencing with climate change. It’s really fascinating. It’s unique in stained glass. And for a parish church, it’s outstanding.”

The Day 12 panel from the third window from All Saints Church North Street, York, showing some Old English text , when spoken is similar to Yorkshire dialect which translates to ' Dead men's bones shall set together and rise all at once' at Barley Studios near York Writer: Byline: Gary Longbottom

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Conservator's efforts underway to protect Yorkshire parish church's famed staine...

All Saints’ stained glass, hailed as among the finest 14th and 15th century collections surviving in Europe, is the focus of a three-year project funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

There are 13 windows to protect in all, cleaning and repairing and wrapping in protective layers to eliminate their past purpose in keeping out the wind and rain.

This project is aimed at preserving their future, and ensuring they stand for generations to come.

Alison Gilchrist a stained glass conservator at Barley Studio's near York working on a panel from the third window from All Saints Church North Street, York, . Writer: Byline: Gary Longbottom

Mr Barley, who began in January with the first two windows, is now completing the third and readying right up to the sixth with fellow University of York MA alumni Alison Gilchrist.

There is The Corporal Acts of Mercy, which gives a rare insight into the daily lives of people in the 15th century, of street scenes and feeding the poor and people struggling with disability.

Another window, the Nine Orders of Angels, shows the earliest known depiction of someone wearing spectacles.

Unique findings

Keith Barley Director and Conservationist at Barley Studio's near York working on the third window from All Saints Church North Street, York, depicting St Peter greeting the good at the gates to heaven. Gary Longbottom

This third window, detailing earth’s last 15 days, particularly stands out.

“It’s all to do with the last days of the world,” said Mr Barley. “We’ve got the ‘good’ going to meet St Peter, we’ve got those going to meet the demons.

“And there’s a poem, unlike most in medieval times which were in Latin, this one is in ‘Yorkshire’.”

The stained glass imagery shows the seas rising in floods, then receding to expose dank sea beds as the waves roar in flames while fruit falls from the trees.

“Towards the end, it does get quite dark,” reflected Mr Barley. “With the cosmos consumed by fire. What is really fascinating is when you can get so close to them on the bench,” he added.

“You learn so much more, you can differentiate between the original glass and later aesthetics.

“Some of the story has been lost through damage over the centuries. Using lots of antiquarian sources, we hope to be painting new pieces to insert into the narrative. Only where we are absolutely certain of what was there.”

Return

As a young conservator, Keith Barley’s first ever solo project was in All Saints, in 1975, working on the East Window, before he returned in 1977 to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee, with work on the church’s West Window.

“I’ve been associated with the church at the beginning of my career, and now at the end, although I do intend to keep going for a bit longer,” he said. “I’m absolutely delighted they are going to be protected for future generations.”

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