New chapter as light of the Lord returns to York

Lead Labourer Andy Bracegirdle walks past the 600-year old Great East Window in York Minster, as work is completed in a decade-long project to conserve and restore the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in the country.
Lead Labourer Andy Bracegirdle walks past the 600-year old Great East Window in York Minster, as work is completed in a decade-long project to conserve and restore the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in the country.
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It had been, said the Dean of York, the appearance through the half-glazed Great East Window window of a full moon a couple of Christmases ago, that had brought home to her the enormity of the project for which she was responsible.

It happened during evensong as the moon tracked across the clear glass. The Minster choristers ran outside to take pictures, knowing it was a sight they would not see again in their lifetime.

“The top of the window was back in but not the rest,” said Dean Vivienne Faull. “It was one of those moments that sent shivers up our spines.”

Last night at the Minster, they celebrated evensong once more, to commemorate the end of a decade of work on the 600-year-old Great East Window, the largest single expanse of medieval stained glass in the country, and to thank those who were involved.

“There’s a remarkable sense of achievement today – a mixture of joy and also relief that we’ve got to this day,” said Rev Faull.

“The work has been done, the money has been raised and everyone can just relax for a day and celebrate this enormous achievement.”

The restoration had begun in 2008 when the window’s 311 glass panels were removed by the York Glaziers Trust, each to be meticulously conserved over the following years.

The conservators spent an estimated 92,400 hours on the work as part of an £11.5m programme, one of the biggest of its kind in Europe. It has also seen the Minster’s masons repair and replace hundreds of stones at the East End.

It pioneered the use of new glazing technology, employing external double glazing that will shield the stained glass from harmful ultra-violet rays.

But it was the art, not the science, that had been most inspiring, Rev Faull said.

“When we had the panels out, in conservation at the Glaziers Trust, we could really examine the craftwork and also the humour that had gone into them,” she said.

“The faces are all of real people, warts and all, sometimes literally, and to see that up close and personal, just as the people who created them would have done, has been a huge delight.”

She described the window, as “one of the most magnificent pieces of medieval art ever created”.

It had been the work of Master Glazier John Thornton, between 1405 and 1408. He was paid £56 by the Chapter of York – the last £10 a bonus for having got it done within three years.

The scenes envision the beginning and end of all things from the book of Genesis to the book of Revelation, known in the Middle Ages as the Apocalypse.

Sarah Brown, director of the York Glaziers Trust, said working on the project had been a “career highlight”.

She said: “There’s no debate – the Great East Window is up there as an international work of art and we all feel immensely privileged to have been part of it.

“The project has achieved a massive increase in public awareness of the stained glass at York Minster and the treasure we hold. It’s a very, very special collection of glass and we’re hugely privileged to have it.”

Last night’s service was attended by Rev Faull’s predecessor as Dean, Rev Keith Jones, who instigated the restoration project before his retirement in 2012.

“When I arrived there were hoardings up everywhere and it was in the midst of the muddle and the mess of any major project,” said Rev Faull, who will herself move on from York this summer to become the first female Bishop of Bristol.

“To see it begin to open up in front of our eyes was just wonderful.”