Blood Stained Glass Panels At Canterbury Cathedral Saw Becket Die

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Blood Stained Glass Panels At Canterbury Cathedral Saw Becket Die

The oldest known stained-glass windows in the world are traditionally associated with the late 11th century Augsburg Cathedral in Bavaria, Germany. No

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The oldest known stained-glass windows in the world are traditionally associated with the late 11th century Augsburg Cathedral in Bavaria, Germany. Now, researchers from University College London ( UCL) have identified stained glass panels depicting “Christ’s ancestors” at Canterbury Cathedral in England as having been made as early as 1130 – 1160 AD. 

This is a story of disruptive archaeology at its best. Founded in 597 AD, Canterbury Cathedral in Canterbury, Kent, England, is one of the oldest and most famous Christian structures in England and Europe. Canterbury Cathedral was completely rebuilt between 1070 and 1077 AD and a fire devastated the building in 1174 AD. Today, as part of a World Heritage Site, the cathedral falls under the control of the Archbishop of Canterbury, currently Justin Welby, leader of the Church of England and the figure head of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Canterbury Cathedral, England ( pawelkowalczyk / Adobe Stock)

The dating attributed to a set of famous stained glass windows depicting the Ancestors of Christ, installed over one of the structure’s entrances, is now being brought into question. Always thought to have been made in the 13th century, a new dating project applied laser to the panels and dated some of them to the mid-12th century, which is almost two centuries older than previously believed.

Blood-Stained Glass In A Murderous House Of The Lord

An article in Live Science says if the new dating is accurate the colorful glass panes would have witnessed the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in the cathedral by followers of King Henry II in 1170 AD. Furthermore, the new study might have determined that the rare windows are the “earliest extant works of stained glass in the world,” dislodging the current claim made by Augsburg Cathedral in Bavaria, Germany.

Three panels from the Ancestors of Christ series, originally in the clerestory windows of Canterbury Cathedral and now in the Great South Window, were selected for this study: (a) Methuselah, from Phase 1; (b) Ezekias, from Phase 2; (c) Nathan, one of the panels that Caviness suggested contains a Romanesque figure. Panel images reproduced courtesy of the Dean and Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral. (Heritage)

Three panels from the Ancestors of Christ series, originally in the clerestory windows of Canterbury Cathedral and now in the Great South Window, were selected for this study: (a) Methuselah, from Phase 1; (b) Ezekias, from Phase 2; (c) Nathan, one of the panels that Caviness suggested contains a Romanesque figure. Panel images reproduced courtesy of the Dean and Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral. ( Heritage)

Léonie Seliger, head of stained glass conservation at Canterbury Cathedral, told  BBC News that until now “almost nothing remained of the artistic legacy of this early part of the cathedral.” But now, it looks like the Ancestors of Christ might have been made “at least a decade before Thomas Becket was murdered in the church,” said Seliger.

King Henry II reportedly asked his court “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” This request, or wish, was aired because Becket has been driving church reform that took back lands unlawfully snatched by the Crown. On December 29, 1170 AD, the king’s desire to have the pesky priest done away with manifested when four armed knights rose into to Canterbury and beheaded Becket. And soon after Becket’s killing, the Ancestors of Christ panels oversaw Henry II begging the Lord for forgiveness, on his knees.

Ancestors of Christ Panels, Canterbury Cathedral. (Jules & Jenny from Lincoln, UK, CC BY 2.0)

Ancestors of Christ Panels, Canterbury Cathedral. (Jules & Jenny from Lincoln, UK, CC BY 2.0 )

Re-dating The Ancestors Of Christ

In the 1980s art historian Madeline Caviness observed stylistic anomalies in the Ancestors of Christ panels that made her question the dating, but they were too unstable to be analyzed with the invasive dating techniques known at that time. Now, almost half a century later, materials scientist Laura Ware Adlington, and her team of researchers from UCL have designed a “windolyser.” The BBC describe this device as a portable light that shines a strong beam onto glass, and the resulting radiation is measured. This technique is similar to the ways in which astronomers determine the chemical composition of distant stars with lasers.

Adlington says the windolyser results suggested the Ancestors of Christ panels where in situ “well before the fire in 1174 AD.” She added that they had probably been removed and stored during the reconstruction projects and then later put back into place, according to the BBC. While this particular study is drawing to a close, the windolyser will now be applied to other groups of stained glass panels after researchers in 2019 suggested a set of supposedly Victorian Era stained glass windows were in reality constructed in the Middle Ages , said the researchers.

The full report is available from Heritage, https://doi.org/10.3390/heritage402005.

image: ‘The Prophet Nathan’, depicted in the stained-glass of Canterbury Cathedral. Source: Canterbury Cathedral / UCL

By Ashley Cowie

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