Sarah Brown is bringing a medieval masterpiece back into the light of day. Michael Hickling reports on the epic restoration project behind the Great East Window.
For Sarah Brown the end of the world has been a long time coming. This year marks the 10th anniversary of her taking part in the initial discussion on how to rescue the faded tale of the creation of the world and the final apocalypse told in the Great East Window of York Minster.
It will be another year before it’s done. Stained glass is Sarah’s business and she has had to find a way of restoring one of Europe’s greatest treasures of pre-Renaissance art to its original splendour.
On the day we plan to meet she has to alter the timing because of an urgent call away for a site visit in Oxford where her expert eye is required. It seems the ability to feel comfortable on the top of some ancient pile or other is one of the essential requirements of her job.
“I spend quite a lot of time clambering around in roof spaces,” says Sarah. “You have to be extremely careful on a scaffold when you are really engrossed in what you are doing. Fortunately I have a head for heights. On site here it can be quite exciting because you get a stupendous view of the building and of the city.
“I’m not very keen on cherry pickers though. They stop with a shudder. You can’t fall out because you are strapped in. But they make me feel very insecure.”
The top of the Great East Window stands some 78ft above the Minster’s stone floor, so more than high enough for most people, thanks very much. It comprises 311 panels, all depicting an episode that drives along the main narrative of the beginning and the end of all things. The total area is roughly the size of a tennis court.
“The stone of the east façade was in need of urgent attention and the glass would have had to be taken out and stored,” says Sarah. “It was a once in a lifetime opportunity for us, we couldn’t afford to turn down the chance to do something.”
It’s hard to imagine the impact the Great East Window must have had on an audience on a clear morning in the 1400s as a newly-risen sun shone through it and the colours blazed with magnificence. But piecemeal repairs over the centuries made the stories harder to read from any great distance. An exterior clear glazing covering – introduced post-war to protect the stained glass from the elements – had the effect of making the stained glass opaque when viewed from outside even darker from within. A programme of restoration after World War II was a bit hit-and-miss and poorly documented.
This time every panel had to be removed. Some colours, such as purple, had faded badly. Some images had buckled over time in the lattice of leadwork holding them together, or had suffered from centuries of make-do and patching-up.
Sarah’s office, next door to the Minster, adjoins the workshop where 108 of the panels are being worked on. It takes on average of 600 hours of conservation to get each one back in trim.
On the wall is a framed black and white photo, possibly from the early 1950s, of a smallish figure in a large flat cap and an apron. His surroundings look bleak and chilly as he surveys the work on his bench. This is Herbert Noland who used to come over every day on the bus from Leeds.
The photo hangs by the spot where Herbert stood working on the Minster stained glass. Today his old workshop is warmer and probably cosier and there are make-up brushes lying on the work benches. The experts here now are overwhelmingly female, many of them graduates of a specialist MA course at York University. Sarah came to the city to set up this course as well as to become the director of the York Glaziers Trust responsible for all the Minster’s 128 windows. She does the two jobs in tandem.
She first came to the city to do an MA in medieval studies at nearby King’s Manor. She was plotting a career as a historian at the time but was influenced by a colleague’s enthusiasm for York’s unique stained glass and chose to be an architectural investigator instead, working on recording national monuments. She was English Heritage’s expert when called in to the first discussions about the Minster project.
She relishes the fact that her workplace is right on the spot, next to the Minster stoneyard where work progresses much as it did when the Great East Window first went up.
Her workshop combines the old with the new. High-powered microscopes are used to check if the paints in a panel are stable. The space is dotted with state-of-the-art extraction units because some old methods are still the best – the window mesh is still made from soldered lead. They even use an old trick of an artisan of the Middle Ages, a tallow slick, to help the solder run. The blush brushes turn out to be a standard part of today’s stained glass experts’ toolkit, male or female.
An Industrial Revolution has come and gone during the time these windows have been in place and the legacy, especially from the smoke from York’s railway marshalling yard, was soot and grime. Removing this from the glass surface begins with a small twist of cotton wool wound round a skewer which is dipped in water and ethanol and then carefully rolled over the surface.
Some of the glass is deeply pitted. This is usually the result of water corrosion caused by warmer air inside the Minster picking up moisture and then in the early hours of the morning condensing on the window.
When it all goes back into place there will be a new outer window of ventilated double glazing which will also act as a windshield – some of the stained glass is as thin as paper and not up to withstanding the buffeting it would otherwise receive in the this notoriously windy corner of York.
A restored glass panel is assembled inside a new brass frame about a metre square. The idea is to build up the picture from the corner. For replacements, the special white glass they use is English, but the coloured glass is imported.
Seeing this painstaking work in progress makes you realise why the project is taking 11 years and costing millions. The original took just three years, from 1405 to 1408. Its designer, John Thornton, was paid £56, plus a £10 bonus for finishing on time.
John Thornton was based in Coventry. He steps forward, although not very far, from the usually anonymous ranks of medieval artisans because in the 17th century someone copied, word for word, his original contract with the Minster. That vanished but the copy survived.
Thornton was tasked with doing the cartoons – drawing up his original designs to full size on a huge whitewashed table – and of undertaking some of the glass painting.
It’s not known just how a working man made himself sufficiently familiar with these Biblical stories to be able to create 311 linked dramatic panels (no Google research available in those days). It seems the archbishop who was to bankroll the project did have an illustrated manuscript in his library which told the tales.
What sets Thornton’s work apart is his originality, the novelty in the way he envisaged the scenes and the cleverness of the designs.
It didn’t cut much ice later with the zealots of the Reformation who frowned on such visual extravagance. The nearby St Mary’s Abbey was reduced to ruins when Henry VIII’s men had done their work but the Minster glass remained intact.
There was danger during the Civil War when soldiers systematically smashed religious images. A Yorkshireman, Cromwell’s commander-in-chief Sir Thomas Fairfax, made sure the Minster was unscathed.
There was also a Yorkshire thriftiness at play here. “Knock out the window and you were facing a huge bill for a very draughty building,” says Sarah. “So although the tide was against stained glass people were circumspect.”
A later threat was posed by indifference brought about by changes in taste among the public and church architects. “Christopher Wren didn’t want stained glass,” says Sarah. The medieval glass-making skills were lost (Georgian stained glass is very brittle) and repairs were handed over to glazier-workmen who were ignorant of the aesthetics of stained glass.
We fell back in love with it during the Victorians’ Gothic revival. The Middle Ages became a fashionable source of inspiration for trend-setters like William Morris and the artists of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.
It clearly been an immensely satisfying task for Sarah Brown. There’s been quite a bit a detective work involved since no-one can be sure of John Thornton’s original intentions. His cartoons vanished along with a table on which he drew them. One such table does still exist in Spain which gives today’s stained glass detectives some idea of the scale on which the John Thorntons of the time worked.
At the start, the principal audience for the dramatic story told by the Great East Window’s were the celibate men of the Catholic church. And that gives rise to an issue which intrigues Sarah. “One of the burning questions we don’t have the answer to is how accessible was the imagery to those who were not members of the upper echelons clerical community?”
For future crowds who flock through the Minster’s doors every year from all over the world, the meaning of the imagery will be even more baffling. But they will still be in for a visual feast of stunning grandeur.