It is a passing parade in stained glass of the great and the good, and some who were just plain rich, that has survived fire and war. Yesterday, they brought in the window cleaners.
York Minster, home to the largest single collection in England of medieval glazing, whose scale means that restoration is a job that never ends, began work on removing 72 window panels from 70ft above the South Quire Aisle, which have not been seen in close-up since the Second World War.
Then, they were removed to the safety of country homes across Yorkshire for the duration. Ironically, many of the houses that had been their sanctuary were themselves destroyed when the peace came, written off by their owners to pay off the post-war death duties.
The panels, painted in the early 1400s, depict the triumph of Christianity in the North, and the Minster’s role in it. They are being cleaned and repaired as part of a 20-year project to protect all the cathedral’s 128 medieval windows from the environment.
“Each window has a Pope in the centre light, two Kings and two Archbishops – a series of historical figures, some more easily identified than others,” said Sarah Brown, director of York Glaziers’ Trust.
“It’s extraordinary – the quality of some of the heads is outstanding. They’re not quite life-sized, but they’re not far off. And you’re gazing face-to-face at figures that haven’t been seen since the 1930s. It’s a real thrill.”
Beneath each figure is a shield of arms representing lordly families of the day who paid towards the cost of the glazing.
“The Minster would always have wished to flatter the great and the good, particularly the King. But in some cases, we think that the shields do represent specific personal gifts,” Ms Brown said.
The most notable medieval benefactor is immortalised at the other side of the cathedral, where the St William Window, dedicated to York’s only saint, betrays a likeness of its donor, Beatrice, Dowager Countess of Ros, kneeling in the bottom right-hand corner.
The windows that will now spend the rest of the year being intensively cleaned, still bear the scars of the fire that destroyed part of the Minster in 1829, when Jonathan Martin entered the Minster on what he would claim was a mission from God to rid it of wickedness, and set light to anything that would burn.
“One of our concerns is to stabilise all the glass,” said Ms Brown, whose team will use modern adhesives to seal the micro-cracks that the panes retain from the fire.
“It’s just a real privilege to be handling real outstanding works of art like this. And of course the Minster is full of them,” she said.
Funding for the £11m project has come partly from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, which will match every £1 raised from the public. A sound-and-light projection at the Minster in the autumn will swell the coffers.