Glass, Goblets and Dragons

A window into Medieval art and society in York

Church of Holy Trinity, York (1401-1937)Churches Conservation Trust

A Medieval gem

Nestled neatly within its own oasis just off the busy streets of central York, Holy Trinity is a candle-lit, Medieval treasure hidden in plain site, close to the great York Minster cathedral. The oldest surviving feature of the church is the north wall, built around 800 years ago.

Church of Holy Trinity, York (1150-1850)Churches Conservation Trust

Holy Trinity's unique character is revealed inside, with a stunning medieval stained glass window bathing the uneven flagstone floor in colour. The East Window is a unique artwork that could only exist in York, as it maps out the social order and cultural changes of the medieval city.

Medieval East window at Holy Trinity, York (1471)Churches Conservation Trust

East window

Installed in 1471, Holy Trinity's east window is one of a small number of surviving medieval stained glass windows in York. The standard of high quality, local glazing had been set by the work of glazier John Thornton at York Minister decades earlier. Usually viewed from below and at a distance, the fine details of this medieval masterpiece can be seen up close or the first time, revealing a story that began centuries ago.

Medieval East window at Holy Trinity, York (1471)Churches Conservation Trust

Arranged into five panels, five statuesque figures dominate the window, surrounded by smaller scenes. Popular saints served as inspiring virtual companions to medieval people, helping them lead a virtuous life. Saints also represented factions of business and charity.

Tucked in around the main figures, many references to those who funded the expensive window are found. Here, a tiny Reverend John Walker, rector of Holy Trinity when the window was donated, prays at the knees of Christ.

Walker was the principal fundraiser and donor of the window. In return for significant funding, donors were depicted in the window, ensuring their devotion to the church and faith was recognised long after their death.

The central scene is the 'Corpus Christi', the injured body of Christ, depicted here in great detail with weeping wounds and a sorrowful expression.

The bearded face next to him is a later alteration, which likely replaced the face of God or the 'eternal father'.

Medieval East window at Holy Trinity, York (1471)Churches Conservation Trust

Walker was a member of the influential Corpus Christi guild of prominent figures of York’s civil elite. The inclusion of this motif at the heart of the window demonstrates the balance between faith and civic duty.

Guilds provided like-minded members with social, economic and spiritual stability.

Above the Corpus Christi we see an 'impaled' shield, divided to show two coats of arms. These are the personal arms of George Neville, Archbishop of York at the time of the window's creation and a member of the Corpus Christi guild. Below are fragmented remains of text bearing the Archbishop's name.

Medieval East window at Holy Trinity, York (1471)Churches Conservation Trust

On the left, clad in exquisitely decorated plate armour of a typically continental style, is St George.

An immensely popular figure in late-medieval England, George often appeared in plays, stories and wall paintings. Many churches are dedicated to St George, as the Patron Saint of England.

St George is portrayed slaying a crimson dragon cut from ruby coloured glass, a sought-after colour in York at the time.

Walker was also a member of the guild of St George and St Christopher, another reason to depict the saint here.

St Christopher is therefore also depicted. The patron saint of travellers, Christopher was also popular. A giant figure of the saint would have been paraded through the streets of York during his annual celebrated feast day.

St Christopher's staff is held diagonally across his body, mirroring the movement of his guild partner St George on the other side of the window – the two figures perfectly bookend the composition.

This panel is full of fascinating details that demonstrate the quality of the glazing and painting. Like many of the smaller details, the fish swimming around his feet are barely visible when stood in the church today.

The head of St John the Baptist has been badly damaged, but the rest of the figure has survived 550 years. The deep blue patterned glass that provides the background for this figure is sometimes described as ‘seaweed’ pattern and the rich colour signifies loyalty and faith.

John is described in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew as wearing a camel skin robe and here we see a fine example of this. This curious scene shows the camel's head in great detail, with inctricate curls of fur and long eyelashes. Exotic vegetation grows around St John's bare feet.

Two Johns are shown in the window, possbily both John Walker's namesakes.

This panel of John the Evangelist has undergone heavy alteration. The original head appears to have been replaced, possibly in the 17th Century, but in an attempt at 1400's style. The oversized face creates a haunting effect.

St John clutches the chalice through the fabric of his cloak, just as a veil was used to handle sacred vessels during services of the late-medieval church. What creature sits in the chalice is debated: it could be a tentacled dragon, a form of snake, or some mythical combination of animals.

This may refer to an attempt to poison the saint, which failed after St John made the sign of the cross over his cup and the poison was drawn out.

Medieval East window at Holy Trinity, York (1471)Churches Conservation Trust

Changes through time

Numerous repairs to the windows in Holy Trinity can be accounted for in churchwardens' accounts. In 1677, seven shillings were paid out for the expense of 'chancill window mending'. Portions of glass were rearranged and replaced as repairs were made over the centuries.

Medieval East window at Holy Trinity, York (1471)Churches Conservation Trust

A small, painted landscape with a building, possibly a church, can be seen in the space occupying the head of the first light above St George. Its origin and creator remain a mystery of the window. This panel is unlikely to have been an original feature, but what it replaced is not known.

Another unsual fragment is this painted glass believed to have been produced locally, but under a Flemish influence in the 17th or 18th Century. The artistic style and colour used are distinctly different from the original window. The scene could depict Christ's crucifixion.

Clear glass borders were added to the window in the 17th Century, leading to many features such as this eagle being cut off. There are many partial eagles throughout the window, aswell as other fragements with now-lost meanings.

Where medieval stained glass survives it has often been rearranged, distorting the original composition. Accompanying St John the Evangelist is a man's head, seemingly floating, with a contorted neck facing upwards.

International inspirations

Merchant traders in contact with foreign lands would return with fresh reports of continental designs. The family groups occupying the lower tier of Holy Trinity’s east window are likely derived from group scenes popular in European art and known at the time as La Santa Parentela or 'Holy Parentage'.

Despite York upholding a strong tradition of quality glazing, much of the glass used in its parish churches was imported overseas from continental Europe. The coloured glass destined for York would have been transported by boat into the port of Hull, before travelling overland for forty miles.

Each family group is full of rich detail.

St Mary Salome with her husband Zebedee and son, St John the Evangelist, holds a lily, more usually associated with her sister the Virgin Mary. The infant John holds a holy book and a goldfinch, a symbol of 'The Passion', or scenes leading up to Christ's crucifixion.

Only the women and children in these scenes are holy, their heads surrounded by a halos.

At the foot of the scene there is a small figure of a woman alongside a vessel containing two tiny doves. A common symbol for peace, a pair of doves symbolise love and parental faithfulness. Painted in a slightly different style, this scene is likely to be a replacement a panel.

The word 'Trinity' in 'Holy Trinity' refers to the three manifestations of God: of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

On the left of this image, the son - Jesus Christ - is shown with wounded hands and a crown of thorns from his crucifixion.

Internal squint at Holy Trinity, York (1150-1850)Churches Conservation Trust

Experience more

Today, Holy Trinity Church retains its Medieval character and is full of hidden clues and symbols representing the different people and communities involved in its upkeep and conservation over the centuries.

Credits: Story

Contributors: Robert Andrews, Jessica Clarke and Chloe Meredith

Contributing photographers:
Graham White

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