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York Minister’s Massive Medieval Stained-Glass Window Restored to Its Former Glory

Conservators spent some 92,400 hours cleaning and protecting the great east window’s 311 panels

(York Minster)
smithsonian.com

The church in the city of York has been the focal point of Christianity in northern England for centuries, with early versions of York Minster dating back as early as 627 C.E. But it is the current incarnation of the grand Gothic cathedral, which took some 250 years, from 1220 to 1472, to complete that is regarded as a global architectural masterpiece. Now, the stunning centerpiece, its great east window, has just completed a 10-year, $14.9 million restorationreports the BBC.

The great east window is the largest expanse of medieval glass still standing in Great Britain. The window was originally completed by John Thornton, one of Britain's greatest glaziers, between 1405 and 1408; he was paid £56 for the job.

According to a press release, back in 2005, conservationists assessed the east end of the church and the windows, finding that weathering of the stone had weakened it, causing the window to bow. That’s what set off the decade-long process of repairing the stonework and meticulously cleaning, restoring and putting state-of-the-art protective UV coating on the glass to restore the tennis court-sized window to its former glory. In total, conservationists at the York Glazier’s Trust workshop spent some 92,400 hours restoring the 311 window panels.

“The great east window is one of the great artistic achievements of the Middle Ages, a stunning expanse of stained glass of unparalleled size and beauty in Britain,” Sarah Brown, director at York Glaziers Trust, says in the release. “The work undertaken as part of this project will ensure this masterpiece is preserved for hundreds of years to come.”

Great East Window
The Great East Window Before Restoration (Great East Window)

The window is so large that the stained glass was re-installed in two stages. In 2015, 157 of the panels were replaced. Then, between August 2015 and September 2017, restorationists worked on the remaining 154 panels, returning them to the church between November 2017 and January 2018. Mike Laycock at The York Press reports the final panel, which was installed on January 2, is called “The Fifth Day of Creation” and depicts angels watching as the hand of God creates birds and fish.

That’s not all that’s depicted on the massive expanse of glass. Half of the window depicts the creation of the world from the Book of Genesis. The other half is a tells the story of the Book of Revelations and the events that presage the return of Christ and the end of the world.

The great east window isn’t the only significant window in the cathedral. It is also home to the five sister windows, which date to the mid-1200s. After World War I, that window was restored and was rededicated as a monument to the women of the British Empire who died while serving their country during the war, including Edith Cavell, a nurse who was executed in 1915 after helping more than 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium. The great west window, installed between 1338 and 1339, includes depictions of the archbishops of York and Christ’s apostles, along with panels showing scenes from the life of Christ, as well as a panel depicting Mary as Queen. It was restored in 1989-1990 because of erosion.

These and the rest of the 128 medieval windows throughout the cathedral will also received the UV protective glazing over the next 20 years. In the meantime, workers are beginning the task of carefully removing the massive amount of scaffolding used to work on the great east window. A celebration to mark the return of the piece is scheduled for May.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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