Metropolitan Museum of Art’s, The Cloisters: Radiant Light: Canterbury Cathedral Stained Glass

Richard Friswell
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www.artesmagazine.comA rare exhibition of stained glass from England’s historic Canterbury Cathedral on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s, The Cloisters, through May 18, 2014. It features six Romanesque-period windows that have not left the cathedral precincts since their creation, over 900 years ago, in 1178–80. A special installation was constructed within the museum, elevating and backlighting the windows to approximate their usual position, above eye level. Rarely do examples of artisanship of this complexity and age move from their original location, much less travel thousands of miles, before eventually returning to be reinstalled, high above the transept floor of the cathedral.

Above:  This border panel surrounded one of the Ancestors of Christ figures in a clerestory window at Canterbury Cathedral. Weathering on the reverse of the glass from exposure to the elements over the centuries, now being repaired, caused corrosion and deep pitting.artes fine arts magazine

Canterbury Cathedral, Canterbury, Kent, England

These colorful earth-bound constructs reveal much about the state of early modern Christianity during the High Middle Ages. Articles of faith and devotion were being newly defined in human terms—directly linking the novel concept of the ‘individual’ to ancestral ties running from Adam to Christ, and by inference, to then present-day religious practice. The elaborately-conceived family tree represented by this series of windows spells it all out, in terms a largely illiterate population could understand. And each figure is portrayed in uniquely personal and idiosyncratic ways—an Old Testament-style rendering, when the patriarchs of the Church were still viewed in gritty human terms, foibles and all.

The Ancestors of Christ Windows at Canterbury Cathedral

The Six Ages of this World. Attributed to the Master of the Public Life of Christ (1175-80_ Featuring (l to r: Adam, Noah,Abraham, David, Jechonias and Christ; clored glass and vitreous paint

The almost sculptural gravity of the rendering of the draped bodies conveys an imposing presence. Equally impressive is the degree of psychological animation expressed in each unique character, while the group retains an overall feeling of substance and poise. The figures are complemented by a limited but rich palette and by broad and elaborately patterned borders. Depicted are the Old Testament patriarchs who represent the generations of humankind, from the Creation to the coming of Christ, underscoring the medieval Christian belief that Old Testament prophecy was fulfilled in Christ. The series originally included eighty-five ancestor figures, based primarily on the genealogy in the gospel of Luke (3:23–38). As a group, these figures symbolize the history and the continuity of the Christian faith in very human terms, as a sequence of fathers and sons.

Canterbury Cathedral Great South Window

Thus, the Ancestors of Christ series emphasizes the lineage of Christ through priesthood rather than kingship, a pivotal concept just as the Rights of Man were finding cultural traction. Moreover, ancestry and succession were important themes at Canterbury, since the cathedral represents the foothold of the Christian church in England and houses the throne (or Chair) of Saint Augustine, the first archbishop of Canterbury. The Chair, used to enthrone archbishops, was an important symbol of continuity, legitimacy, and authority. This symbolism is echoed in the monumental figures of the Ancestors of Christ, all of whom are seated.

Masterpieces of Romanesque art, these imposing figures exude an aura of dignified power. The angular limbs, the form-defining drapery, and the encompassing folds of the mantles all add a sculptural quality to the majestic figures. The glass painting, which is attributed to the Methuselah Master, is striking for its fluid lines, clear forms, and brilliant use of color.

The windows shown at The Cloisters are from the clerestory of the cathedral’s choir, east transepts, and Trinity Chapel. The six figures—Jared, Lamech, Thara, Abraham, Noah, and Phalec (see below)—were part of an original cycle of eighty-six ancestors of Christ, the most comprehensive stained-glass cycle known in art history. One complete window (Thara and Abraham), rising nearly twelve feet high, is shown with its associated rich foliate border.

Interior of Canterbury Cathedral,from the Presbytery, looking toward Trinity Chapel

Founded in 597, Canterbury Cathedral is one of the oldest Christian structures in England. It was an important pilgrimage site in the Middle Ages—as witnessed by Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a literary masterpiece from the fourteenth century—and is also the cathedral of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the leader of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion worldwide. Recent repairs to the stonework of the magnificent historic structure necessitated the removal of several delicate stained-glass windows of unparalleled beauty. While the restoration of the walls has been undertaken, the stained glass has also been conserved.

The naming of the Infant John the Baptist; wall painting in St. Gabriel’s Chapel, Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury, as the seat of the archbishop of Canterbury, primate of England, was the richest and most prominent monastic cathedral in Britain and an important center of learning and the arts throughout the Middle Ages. It housed a community of Benedictine monks who commissioned some of the most famous works of English medieval art and architecture. The large stained-glass figures in the Ancestors of Christ are considered some of the finest surviving examples of monumental English painting of the period. These figures are among the first in the series and date from 1178 to about 1180.

Thomas Becket and Canterbury

Martyrdom of St Thomas Becket (1170), from English psalter, 1250. Collection Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

The best-known English saint, Thomas Becket was born in London in 1118. He was made an archdeacon of Canterbury in 1154, appointed chancellor to King Henry II in 1155, and became the archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. Soon thereafter, Becket came into conflict with King Henry regarding the authority of the church versus that of the king. This conflict led to Becket living in exile in France for seven years before returning to Canterbury. The king is said to have exclaimed in frustration, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” The knights took it literally and murdered Becket at the altar of his own cathedral on December 29, 1170. In the end, the king’s attempt to silence Beckett failed. Miracles began to be recorded soon after 1171, and in 1173 Becket was declared a saint—the swiftest canonization in the history of the medieval church. His cult spread quickly, and pilgrims flocked to Canterbury. He was revered not only as a national hero but also, and primarily, as a symbol of ecclesiastical resistance to secular authority.

Thomas Becket (detail), stained glass window, Canterbury Cathedral

A fire that damaged the cathedral in 1174 presented an opportunity to redesign the eastern end. This building program included Trinity Chapel, which was completed in 1184 and housed a golden shrine for the saint’s relics, dedicated in 1220. During this period the Ancestors of Christ windows in the clerestory and those in the ambulatory (walkway) around Trinity Chapel devoted to the miracles of Thomas Becket were completed. Numerous artists, who had probably worked in France, completed the first stained glass panel—Adam Delving—in 1174 or 1175, the first of more than 80 ancestors of Christ place in the clerestory windows.

Interior, Canterbury Cathedral, with a candle marking the spot where Thomas Becket was murdered

In 1538, the medieval greatness of Canterbury Cathedral and its monastery came to an end, when the King Henry VIII ordered the Shrine of St. Thomas destroyed and despoiled. It ceased to be an abbey during the Dissolution of the Monasteries under rule of King Henry VIII when all religious houses were suppressed. In 1539, Canterbury surrendered and reverted to its previous status of “a college of secular canons”.

During World War II, the cathedral’s beautiful stained glass windows were removed for safekeeping from Hitler’s air raids. A large area of Canterbury town was destroyed, as was the cathedral library, but the main body of the cathedral remained intact.

The Clerestory Windows of Canterbury

Adam Delving (1174-75)

The stained-glass Ancestors of Christ were originally in the clerestory (uppermost) windows ringing the choir. Beginning with Adam in the northwest corner of the choir, the series continued, representing the genealogy in order, around the eastern end of the cathedral, concluding with a depiction of Christ in the southwest corner. Forty-three of the original eighty-five figures survive. All have a large name band running behind the head that makes them identifiable from the floor sixty feet below. In the late eighteenth century, the majority of the figures were moved to the Great South Window in the southwest transept, while many of the original borders were left in the clerestory windows. The panels from this transept window have been temporarily removed so that conservation can be done on the stonework of the architectural framing. Six Ancestors of Christ figures from this window are exhibited in The Cloisters exhibition, along with sections of their original borders that have been removed for display purposes. As a result, four of the figures have been reunited with their borders for the first time in more than two hundred years. They are exhibited in the twelfth-century manner, with the iron armatures (mounting bars) exposed.

The Figures on Display at The Cloisters and their History


Jared is an Old Testament patriarch listed in the book of Genesis and represents the fifth generation after Adam. Here the name band behind his head reads JARETh, an alternate spelling. He was the son of Maleel and the father of Enoch. Jared is depicted with poise and confidence, in limited colors and with broad drapery passages that define the underlying forms. Bold and sure brushwork delineates the drapery folds and describes the ornamental patterns in hems and cuffs. The calligraphic treatment of the hair and beard is particularly striking. The application of paint on both sides of the glass enhances the sculptural volumes of the face and hands.


Lamech was the son of Methuselah, the longest lived of all the ancestors (969 years) and the father of Noah. He represents the eighth generation after Adam. To many in the Middle Ages, the era of Lamech represented a time of accelerating sinfulness that led to the Flood. He is depicted with a nervous and unsettled energy, his torso and legs turned in opposite directions. His uneasy posture and ostentatious ivory throne could reflect Lamech’s perceived sinful character. The figure floats in space with no architectural framing. The wide Romanesque foliate border is comparable to the rich borders that enhanced contemporary illuminated manuscripts.


Noah, the son of Lamech and the father of Shem, represents the ninth generation after Adam. He is depicted looking upward and animated as if in conversation, alluding to the biblical account of God speaking directly to Noah, instructing him to build the ark in anticipation of the Flood. The raised left knee further animates the figure. The trilobed arch at the top, supported by two capitals on columns, is the first such architectural framing known in stained glass and may have been appropriated from illuminated manuscripts produced at Canterbury. The wide Romanesque foliate border is comparable to the rich borders that enhanced contemporary illuminated manuscripts.


Phalec is the son of Heber and the father of Ragau and represents, depending on the source, either the fifth or the sixth generation after Noah. According to the Bible, the world was divided during Phalec’s lifetime—a reference to the aftermath of the Flood, when the descendants of Noah presided over the gathering of peoples in different lands. Composed more frontally than the other figures, he holds a scroll—a generic symbol of authority and prestige rather than a specific attribute. The ornamental details of the costume and the throne are more simply rendered than details of the other figures. This less-detailed painting may indicate a need for haste in finishing the last windows, as the first phase of new construction was finished by 1180.


Thara is the son of Nachor and the father of Abraham and represents, depending on the source, either the ninth or the tenth generation after Noah. During the Middle Ages, Thara was viewed negatively, as he came from the city of Ur in Mesopotamia, which was considered a hotbed of paganism, expressed here by his awkward hand gesture and uneasy twisted posture. The color of his cloak reinforced this interpretation, for yellow was associated with avarice and lust. The cloaks and long gowns worn by all the ancestor figures were characteristic of twelfth-century ceremonial dress of the ruling secular and ecclesiastical classes. These garments were thought to recall the dress of ancient priests and kings of the Old Testament who presaged the coming of Christ. The wide Romanesque foliate border is comparable to the rich borders that enhanced contemporary illuminated manuscripts.


Abraham, placed below his father Thara, represents the beginning of the generations leading to King David. He, in contrast to his father, is depicted as confident and stable. The cloaks and long gowns worn by all the ancestor figures were characteristic of twelfth-century ceremonial dress of the ruling secular and ecclesiastical classes. These garments were thought to recall the dress of ancient priests and kings of the Old Testament who presaged the coming of Christ. The wide Romanesque foliate border is comparable to the rich borders that enhanced contemporary illuminated manuscripts.

By Richard Friswell, Managing Editor

The Ancestors of Christ Windows at Canterbury Cathedral will be on display until May 18, 2014. Visit The Cloisters site at

Take a virtual tour of Canterbury Cathedral at

Watch window conservators at work in the cathedral:

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