Fifteenth Century Glass Makers
Medieval Norfolk was rich. Money speaks, and in this case it spoke “religion.” Thus wealth translated itself into religious foundations and splendid churches. Norwich, with its Cathedral, was the central focus of the economic, religious, political and social life of the county. It also became the centre of great artistic activity from the end of the twelfth century though to the Reformation. As demand rose for the continual enlargement and enrichment of churches demands on local craftsmen grew.
Glass painters were only one of a group of artisans who were embellishing churches at the time. Churches were highly decorated and included: painted walls, screens, panels together with highly illustrated manuscripts. Although much of their work has been lost maybe we should count ourselves lucky that so much survives.
Glaziers have been living in Norwich from at least the thirteenth and probably the twelfth century. The earliest document recording a city glazier is dated 1241 and refers to Bartholemew de Vere (meaning glazier), he is however, unlikely to have been the first to work here. Thus although there is no documentation that Herbert de Losinga’s cathedral (commenced in 1096) was glazed, it is inconceivable that it was not. Subsequently by the thirteenth century there is evidence that the use of painted glass was becoming more widespread in the county’s parish churches. In 1279 the name of the first local glass painter employed by the Benedictines , Nicholas Fairchild, was listed in Norwich records only two other craftsmen were listed through to the end of the century. In the fourteenth century a further fifteen artisans were listed, twenty seven in the fifteenth and eleven in the first half of the sixteenth. The records have to be kept in context in that the craftsmen were often described as glaziers but it is probably safe to assume that the men were trained in some aspect of stained glass work and that their numbers increased through to the fifteenth century by which time Norwich had one of the most flourishing schools of glass – painting in England. Again the concept of a “school” must be taken in context as it is probably better to envisage a grouping of workshops, of varying sizes rather than a school
Work produced by the artisans if the Norwich “school” had the following characteristics:
- An excellence of drawing and colouring coupled with a lively presentation of the subject matter.
- Use of particular decorative motifs and stylised renditions of landscapes and floors. They demonstrate a long – term stylistic continuity and include:
- Ears of Barley – thus called as it resembles ears of barley lain in rows, although it probably derived from an attempt to depict the grain in wood. Examples can be seen in a variety of churches including Saxlingham Nethergate and Salle
- Seaweed Pattern – this originates in the fourteenth century and appears either as a tightly curled form (Saxlingham Nethergate) but is often of looser appearance (Salle). Again it is found in a number of other churches including St Peter Mancroft(East Window: Adoration of the Magi panel) & East Harling (East Window : Sir Robert Wingfield panel)
- Chequered Paving – this is a very common motif in English art first occurring in Norfolk glass at Great Cressingham. It is found in churches across the region including: St Peter Mancroft (East window : some of Toppes windows) and Salle.
- Pebbled floors – as found at Great Cressingham
- Clifflets – i.e. terraced hillocks often decorated with tufts of grass. Again they can be seen at Saxlingham Nethergate, St Peter Mancroft (adoration of the Magi) andNorth Tuddenham (with the figure of Moses)
- Trees and flowers- often depicted in stylised form. Can be found at East Tuddenham in the west window and in the tracery light panels at Great Cressingham.
- In common with wood carvers and painters, the glass painters used a border with a foliage design which resembled a holly leaf wrapped around a rod. It varies in size and yellow stain was often used to colour the rod, whilst the foliage and background remained white.
- The way it differed from that of their contemporaries in the following respects:
- They did not favour large and ornate crowns
- They did not overload the garments of the saints with colour and ornament (see St James in St Peter Hungate’s East Window)
- They let white glass play a large part in their colour schemes and made use of fur to give a variety to it
On this site we will feature 15th century stained glass from across the county, including the internationally important East window in St Peter Mancroft (Norwich ) the use of the Zoom facility will enable you to see the exquisite features that characterise this period. It will even enable you to assess Christopher Woodforde’s theory : that Norwich’s fifteenth century craftsmen “avoided the suggestions of sweetness and sentimentality which mars some contemporary work….there is a bracing strength and vigour which well accords with the Norfolk climate and character” (p170). That said it is also important to see the glass in situ …..but don’t forget your binoculars.
For further information refer to Christopher Woodfordes’ : “ Norwich 15th Century School of Glass Painting” and David King’s “The Medieval Stained Glass of St Peter Mancroft” see Bibliography for full details.