The Stained Glass of Sherborne Abbey

  • Detail: Added and stained blue flashed glass on either side of Madonna


The completion in 1997 of the new Great West Window of Sherborne Abbey, and its dedication on 8th May 1998 in the presence of HM The Queen and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, immediately stimulated a new interest in the Abbey’s glass. To me, the obvious person to describe and interpret our glass was John Hayward, artist and maker of the new window but also expert in the history of this wonderful medium. He in turn has built on the researches of our consultant archaeologist, Jim Gibb, FSA. To them both our warmest thanks are due.

As John Hayward demonstrates, the Abbey’s glass is a mixed bag. It ranges from the banal to the beautiful and from the flawed to the fine. Is it fanciful to see that as a symbol, an icon, of the totality of our lives, our faith and our worship? Much is dull and drab and in need of redemption. Yet often the light of God’s love breaks through and we are transfigured by its radiance, and sometimes we even catch a glimpse of His true glory in all its richness and all its splendour. As George Herbert put it long ago:

A man that looks on glass,
on it may stay his eye;
or, if he pleaseth,
through it pass,
and then the heaven espy.

This section of our website is based on the booklet produced for the Friends of Sherborne Abbey, an association founded in 1930 to ‘bind together all those who love Sherborne Abbey in their desire to take some part in preserving it for posterity’.

Canon Eric Woods, Rector of Sherborne

The Stained Glass of Sherborne Abbey

The wholesale destruction of medieval stained glass was the greatest calamity that has ever befallen English art. When it is realised that most of our large and many smaller churches had every window filled with richly coloured or finely painted grisaille glass, and that today more than half of our cathedrals and nearly all our parish churches possess virtually no old glass at all, some idea may be gained of the extent of the destruction.

Alec Clifton-Taylor, English Parish Churches as Works of Art.
The remains of two 15th century figures of the prophets Habakkuk and Malachi leaded into plain backgrounds

The widespread destruction of stained glass is usually attributed to the Puritans during the Civil War of the 17th century, and they certainly have a lot to answer for. There had, however, been serious losses in the 16th century at the Dissolution and during the first wave of Puritanism under Edward VI. Much of what was left of this deliberate destruction disappeared from neglect in the 18th century – the Georgians preferred their interiors white and their glass plain.

15th Century head of Christ from a ‘Resurrection’ window

Into this situation came the Victorians with their great energy, a revived interest in ritual and an ardour for everything medieval that accompanied it. By the end of the 19th century almost every town church had acquired several large memorial windows and many village churches had one or more. Most were carried out by a few large firms, employing 100 or more craftsmen.

It is estimated that something like 80,000 stained glass windows were made for churches in England and Wales in the Victorian period. In addition vast quantities were exported all over the world. The glass in Sherborne Abbey illustrates this story.

The only surviving medieval glass is a tiny collection of fragments carefully brought together in 1925. The majority of its windows are filled with 19th century glass as part of two major schemes of restoration (1850-1851 and 1856-1858) necessitated by neglect. It now has one major contribution from the 20th century in the new Great West Window.

Medieval Glass

Apart from a few small pieces in the Bow Chapel, all the medieval glass in the Abbey is contained in the two windows of St. Katherine’s Chapel. Most of this small collection dates from the 15th century, and is all that had survived in the Clerestory Windows of the Choir when it was removed during the 1856-8 Slater restoration. It was stored at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 1925 when it was brought together and glazed into the arrangement of rectangular quarries by Horace Wilkinson of London. The cost was met by Mr. G. Hamilton Fletcher of Leweston.

The fragments now in the heads and tracery lights of the windows are typical 15th century glass with a good deal of yellow and gold stain on white glass. There are Yorkist and Lancastrian Roses and Royal Badges, Crowns and Heads and monograms of the Virgin Mary and Christ.

15th century figure of minor prophet

The areas of red and blue glass crossed by lattices however, are in a style more characteristic of the 14th than the 15th century. Woodforde suggests that this peculiarity indicates a local school probably situated in the town itself. It is a very uncommon  feature in English glass of this date — no other 15th century example remains in the West of England. It originally formed the background to the Choir Windows.

In the main lights, the remnants of six figures of minor prophets have been made up with new glass and inserted into both windows with heraldry above and below.

Arms of Beaufort

There are six shields for Beaufort (two differenced with labels for the eldest son) and arms of de Montford, Bath Priory, Fitzpayne and Willoughby.

Along the bottom sills are some good 15th century painted and stained fragments with two heads of Christ (one part of a Resurrection) and an angel carrying a ladder (a symbol of The Passion).

Angel from panel of The Nativity

The single piece of glass in the left-hand light of the South Window, for Kellaway, commemorates this important Sherborne family who were among the founders of the Almshouses.

Head of Virgin Mary from an Annunciation

There are a few fragments of 15th century glass in the Bow Chapel including heads and emblems of the Virgin Mary. In the centre light of the West Window is an oval panel of 17th century glass. It is dated 1606 and shows the arms of Kemys. This attractive piece of heraldry is typical of the date (there is a great deal of almost identical glass in Oxford colleges) in which almost all the colour is derived from the use of enamels and stain on white glass. Kemys was a mathematician, geographer and friend to Sir Walter Raleigh.
These arms were, according to Hutchins, originally in the East Window of the Choir.
Wilkinson also restored the medieval glass in the chapel of the Almshouses which has the most complete 15th Century window in Dorset.

Te Deum Window

This large window occupies most of the South Transept wall and contains glass given by Lord Digby in 1850. It was designed by Pugin and made by his collaborator John Hardman of Birmingham as part of the Carpenter restoration of 1850-51 which included the North Nave Windows and the glass previously in the Great West Window.

The sixteen main lights are filled with ninety-six figures grouped in pairs representing Apostles, Prophets and Martyrs all holding labels containing the words of Te Deum Laudamus in Latin. The tracery lights contain thirty-one angels, cherubim and seraphim proclaiming “Sanctus”.

Sadly, as with the other Hardman glass made at the same time, much of the painted detail has faded badly due to underfiring in the kiln. A similar though more extreme example of this fading can be seen in the Hardman Windows installed at the same time in the North aisle of the Nave.

The Great East Window

The Great East and Choir Clerestory Windows are all by Clayton and Bell and date from the major Chancel restoration by Slater in 1856-58. They were given by George Wingfield Digby.

The Great East Window has two tiers of nine lights each divided into threes by the principle mullions. Each group of three lights contains a subject in a sequence which tells the Passion story. It starts at the bottom left with ‘The Entry into Jerusalem’ followed by ‘The Betrayal’ and ‘Christ Before Pilate’. The tier above has ‘The Procession to Calvary’, ‘The Crucifixion’ and ‘Resurrection’.

The elaborate tracery lights are filled with figures among which, at either end of the two lower rows, are the four Evangelists, SS. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Perhaps the most unusual of the saints between are in the right-hand group of the lowest row. Here, on either side of St. Clement with his anchor, are two local Celtic Saints, Sidwell with her scythe and her sister Juthware holding her severed head. St. Sidwell was martyred at Exeter where a church dedicated to her name was built. St. Juthware (until recently ‘The Quiet Woman’ of the local Inn) was beheaded at nearby Halstock. She was greatly venerated in medieval Sherborne and is depicted in the Sherborne Missal placing her own head on the altar.

In the upper lights are the arms of Canterbury and Salisbury both impaled with the personal arms of the contemporary Archbishop and Bishop, together with the arms of the Sovereign and Sherborne Abbey
In the upper lights are the arms of Canterbury and Salisbury both impaled with the personal arms of the contemporary Archbishop and Bishop, together with the arms of the Sovereign and Sherborne Abbey
Detail ‘The Betrayal’

Choir Clerestory Windows

The six Choir Clerestory Windows contain good examples of Clayton and Bell glass, perhaps the best 19th century glass in the Abbey. The colour of the robes and clothing of the figures is rich with a jewel-like brilliance and the painted detail is very well retained. They are difficult to view from the Chancel as they can only be seen at a steep angle and are seen best from the Choir aisles.

Each window has two tiers of six lights making a total of seventy-two each containing a single figure. The top tiers contain Saints and Worthies of the early Church, the lower ones the twenty-six Anglo-Saxon Bishops of Sherborne and ten Abbots.

North Aisle Windows

Three of these windows depict the twelve Apostles, the fourth a scene from Holy Week. They were installed at the same time as the South Transept and former West Window and suffer from an extreme case of under-fired paint. Here it has almost completely disappeared.

The Lady Chapel

The modern Chancel Bay was added to the east end of the 13th century Lady Chapel by the architect W. D. Caroe in the 1930s. It has glass to the east and two side windows all by Christopher Webb.

In the centre of the East Window is the Virgin and Child with St. Aldhelm presenting a model of his Cathedral to the Patron.
To the left, the Annunciation and to the right, the Nativity. In the tracery lights are the figures of St. Aldhelm being presented with his crosier by King Ine of Wessex and King Alfred as a boy with his mother Queen Osberga and Bishop Ealstan of Sherborne (824-867).

The North Window has the figures of King Alfred and Bishop Asser of Sherborne, mentor to Alfred with arms of the donor and Sherborne Abbey above. In the tracery lights St. Michael and the Dragon are flanked by a Norse ship and Leek.

The South Window shows St. Birinus and St. Swithun with scenes from their lives above. In the tracery lights are the arms of the Dioceses of Salisbury and Mombasa. The window is a memorial to Canon S. H.Wingfield Digby, Vicar of Sherborne 1916-32, who retired to Kenya and was made a Canon of Mombasa Cathedral.

The South Aisle of the Nave

Detail: Sleeping Soldier

The South Aisle of the Nave has a window dated 1860 installed in memory of George Medd Butt, Q.C. (1797-1860). He was M.P. for Weymouth and was born in Sherborne. The subject of the window is Joseph of Arimathea with sleeping soldiers below and the resurrected Christ above. In the tracery, angels hold instruments of The Passion.

The Sepulchre Chapel

The Sepulchre Chapel East Window contains glass also by Christopher Webb. The subject of The Resurrection runs through the three lights, with Christ in the centre flanked on the left by the Virgin Mary and St. Mary Magdalene and on the right the Angel. In the four corners are Instruments of The Passion and in the tracery two angels with, on either side the badges of the Royal Engineers and Sherborne School. The window is a memorial to Thomas Wilfred-Nash, Captain R.E. who died in a Japanese POW camp in Siam in 1943.

School Window

This window by Whitefriars Studios was commissioned by Sherborne School for Girls to mark the fifty year jubilee anniversary of the founding of the school in 1899. It was dedicated by the Bishop of Salisbury in December 1951. It depicts the Archangel Gabriel with the words of the Annunciation above. A ring of cherubs play musical instruments and the arms of the school complete the circle.

The small white friar at the bottom right is the studio signature.

Porch and Saxon Doorway

The porch was built in 1943 as a thanksgiving for the preservation of the Abbey Church which was straddled by bombs during the German air raid of 30th September 1940. The glass was designed and made by Frederick Cole in 1962. It shows St. Stephen Harding, the second Abbot of Citeaux (1109-1134) who was the true founder of the Cistercian Order and creator of its constitution, the Carta Caritatis. He was born near Sherborne of Saxon parents and educated as a novice in the cloisters of Sherborne Abbey. The doorway itself was built at about the time of St. Stephen’s birth.

The Great West Window

John Hayward, commissioned to design and create the new Great West Window of Sherborne Abbey

The Great West Window is the most recent addition to the Abbey glass. It was designed and made by John Hayward and installed in 1997.

The theme of the window is The Incarnation. Its subject matter contains elements which though drawn from a sequence of events are intended to operate as one image seen at a single moment. The window is treated as a triptych with centre and flanking lights divided by the heavy mullions allowing for a change of scale.

The Patron Saint of the Abbey, the Blessed Virgin Mary, with the Christ-Child on her lap, is seated among the branches of a tree. She the Christ-Bearer, He the Second Adam. Below, the origin of the Tree, the Genesis story of the Fall and the loss of innocence. At the advent of the Child, the Redeemer, the tree throws up new shoots on either side and blossoms. There is a roof over their heads, a place of birth.

“Behold the great Creator makes Himself a house of clay”

The growth continues into the upper lights where the Tree becomes the Cross of Good Friday, and as a canopy. The Empty Shroud of Easter: The cross itself breaks into new growth and becomes a great Tree of Life, whose leaves fill the tracery lights against a sunburst of God the Father. The Holy Spirit as a descending Dove in a tongue of flame completes the Trinity.

On either side of this central image are events attracted to it. To the left, the Magi, led by the Star and under the Moon, bring gifts of gold, incense and myrrh. They themselves represent three attributes of Christ as King, Priest and Victim. In the same way the Shepherds opposite as a Green Man (‘raise the stone and thou shalt find Me, cleave the wood and I am there’) the Good Shepherd and the Light of the World. They are summoned by flying figures.

Across the lower openings are the two Saints John, Poet and Prophet, who proclaimed the great event -The Evangelist: ‘The Word was made Flesh and dwelt among us’. The Baptist: ‘Behold the Lamb of God that takest away the Sins of the World’.

The lozenge at the bottom right of the window records the hearing of the Court of Arches of the appeal by the Victorian Society against the replacement of the 19th century glass. The initials of the Vicar and Churchwardens as successful Petitioners, and of their Counsel, appear between the Arms of a Cross and the Scales of Justice, under the Arches. To the right is the signature of the artist and the date.

Other than the invention of more sophisticated tools, the materials and techniques used in making the new window for Sherborne have changed little since the Middle Ages. A medieval glazier would envy the large sheets of glass that replace his whitened table as an ‘easel’, the tungsten wheels that make cutting glass less chancy than his ‘grozing iron’ and the gas or electric kiln that replace his wood-fired oven. Otherwise, he would have no difficulty in recognising what was going on in a small modern studio, even though the end product might look very different from his own. The medium is very versatile.

Very little of this ‘hand-made’ glass is now produced in this country – most in the Sherborne Window comes from France, Germany and Poland and is bought through an importer, although the central figure of the Madonna is largely cut from a stock of English blue glass, much of it fifty years old.

The most obvious element in a stained glass window is coloured glass. It is made by adding metallic oxides to molten glass in the crucible, from which it is blown into sheets. Cobalt will give blue, manganese purple, iron red and yellow and so on. It is these sheets of glass that are the ‘palette’ from which the window is cut.

Most glass is coloured throughout its substance and is known as ‘pot-metal’. Some, however, notably red but also a number of blues and greens, are so dense that only the thinnest layer of colour will be translucent. This layer is ‘flashed’ onto a basic sheet of white glass, a feature that can be turned to advantage in that it is possible to remove areas of colour in a controlled way to produce particular qualities. Much of the gold background with green leaves on either side of the Madonna is added from flashed blue glass. Here it has been used together with an important 14th century discovery that a solution of silver nitrate painted on the back of some glasses will, when fired in a kiln, produce a range of yellows varying from pale lemon to hot orange depending on the softness of the glass, the heat of the oven and the length of firing time. Fired on the back of this acided blue, it has given a variety of greens and some spectacular golds. Used in conjunction with the Dove above, the acided and stained rubies have run to orange and gold. Silver stain produces some of the most beautiful stained glass qualities and has been used extensively in the Sherborne Window.

Detail: Added and stained blue flashed glass on either side of Madonna

The experience of glass is quite distinct from that of any other pictorial medium and it is both its attraction and its difficulty that it is never completely predictable. With the design approved, the first step in making the window is to take sizes and templates of all the openings in the stonework. This resulted in twenty-seven templates and sizes for the main light, and eighty-odd for the tracery, measured to enable them to be related to each other as a group. The design, drawn to a scale, is then taken up to full-size by enlarging each light and expressing its content in terms of shapes of glass. The resulting ‘cutline’ becomes a working drawing from which glass, selected for colour and quality, is cut to make up each light. These pieces of glass (a total of something like 20,000 at Sherborne) are temporarily stuck onto plate glass easels and put up against the light. This is the first glimpse of the final image. The collection of glass is then painted.

The technique of painting on coloured glass with black pigment is a misunderstood but vital element in a window, and is as old as the art itself. It extends and makes more specific an image only hinted at in the colour of the glass and the projected pattern of the lead. Painting the glass moves it to another level altogether where it becomes more subtle and pervading. It makes glass more than the sum of its parts — it gives texture, enhances or reduces the intensity of colour, and controls light as well as the more obvious function of providing details of features, folds and lettering.

Most of the Sherborne Window was painted and fired twice, but some panels needed three or four applications to achieve the depth and quality of paint and stain needed to fully develop the image and hold the design against strong light at great distance. The ceramic paint when correctly fired in a kiln becomes a permanent part of the glass.

The realisation of the design in glass, paint and stain is artistically complete at the moment it is ready for leading up. Then begins the glaziers painstaking work containing each piece of glass in lead ‘calms’, soldering the joints and making each light into structurally sound panels that can be fitted to stonework where it is held with an armature of metal bars and pointed with lime mortar.

The realisation of the design in glass, paint and stain is artistically complete at the moment it is ready for leading up. Then begins the glaziers painstaking work containing each piece of glass in lead ‘calms’, soldering the joints and making each light into structurally sound panels that can be fitted to stonework where it is held with an armature of metal bars and pointed with lime mortar.

A window as large and complex as Sherborne’s cannot be seen as a whole before it is finally put in place. However carefully contrived, the window that is eventually revealed will always contain some elements of the unexpected. The artist must hold on to the big idea but allow (in the case of Sherborne by a rather free painting style) the unexpected ‘bonuses’ to appear with changes of light and time of year.

The Millennium Window

The design for this window commemorates two important events in the life of Sherborne Abbey separated by a thousand years. First, the year of the Millennium celebrations marking the arrival of the Benedictines at Sherborne Abbey in AD 998 and, second, the highlight of 1998 with the visit on 8 May of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and HRH Prince Philip for the dedication of the new glass to the Great West Window.

The design is centred on the Royal Arms with an inscription below recording the Royal visit:

“This window commemorates the Millennium of the foundation of the Benedictine Community here in AD 998 and the Dedication of the Great West Window in the presence of HM The Queen and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh in 1998”

Above is a ‘paraphrase’ of the central feature of the West Window, the purpose of the visit, with the Virgin and Child under a canopy of trees. On either side of the Royal Arms are emblems of those directly involved with the service of dedication of that window. To the left, the Arms of the Bishop of Salisbury who performed the ceremony, together with those of Sherborne Abbey and its Vicar. To the right, the Arms of Lord Digby, Lord Lieutenant of the County, with those of Dorset behind. Below, heraldry for the town of Sherborne whose inhabitants turned out for the event with such enthusiasm.

The four images at the top and bottom of the side lights are concerned with the Benedictine Millennium. At the top are two seated figures, both based on images from early seals. To the left, Ethelred, King of Wessex and, to the right, St Wulfsin, Bishop of Sherborne at the time. Ethelred, with the Arms of Wessex behind, issues the charter in AD 998 authorising Wulfsin to eject the secular canons from what was then a Cathedral and to introduce the Benedictines in their place. Ethelred holds the signs of office — orb and sword, Wulfsin holds a model of the orginal Cathedral based on its stylised appearance on the eleventh century Abbey seal. He holds a crosier and has the Arms of Sherborne behind.

Below, the two small scenes are treated stylistically on the lines of the Sherborne Missal where the incident concerning the introduction of the Benedictines is shown on the page for Wulfsin’s feast-day. To the left, Wulfsin welcomes the Benedictines and, to the right, the secular canons wearing white fur tippets and carrying prayer-books depart from the Abbey. The small cameo at the bottom left contains the demi-figure of St Stephen Harding, who was born near Sherborne and educated in the cloisters of the Abbey. The lozenge to the right records the window as the gift of The Friends of Sherborne Abbey.

The window was designed and made by John Hayward.

Text by James Gibb FSA and John Hayward
Photographs by Sonia Halliday and Bryan Knox ARPS of Sonia Halliday Photogrpahy
by Les Warr FBIPP
Photographs of the making of the West Window are by the artist