Six of the medieval stained-glass windows that usually soar some 60 feet up in England’s Canterbury Cathedral are on their first journey outside of their ecclesiastical home, brought down to a more intimate level in an exhibition at the Cloisters in Upper Manhattan. Radiant Light: Stained Glass from Canterbury Cathedral opened last month with the 12th-century works beaming from an installed tower in one of the Metropolitan Museum of Art branch’s Romanesque rooms.
Before arriving in New York, the windows first visited the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Before that, they had never left Canterbury since their creation between 1178 and 1180, and had never been at all close to eye level. An ongoing conservation project required their removal, allowing for the tour. They still loom slightly above viewers at the Cloisters, so you have to tilt your head to really see them, re-creating the original experience somewhat while also letting their exquisite details and craftsmanship be appreciated in a new way.
The exhibition itself isn’t expansive; aside from the constructed tower, there’s a small interactive screen showing a panorama of Canterbury Cathedral as well as a video that demonstrates the process of creating a medieval stained-glass window. Yet, the history of both art and religion that the show evokes is sprawling. The windows are old now, but they were a relatively new innovation in art when they were first made, using a process of painting metallic oxides and ground glass on the colored panels. There were originally 85 windows, but due to the toll of time, only 43 survive. Each one is part of a cycle showing the male ancestors of Jesus, with the names of figures displayed on banners behind their heads.
The windows were also created just after the brutal martyrdom of Thomas Becket right on the floor of the cathedral. As noted in The Ancestors of Christ Windows at Canterbury Cathedral by Jeffrey Weaver and Madeline H. Caviness:
Despite the inclusion of David […] the extended ancestry in the windows avoided giving much importance to kings, as expected at the site where Archbishop Thomas Becket had been murdered in December 1170 owing to conflicts with King Henry II.
The windows once overlooked a shrine to Becket, and with their proclamation of patriarchy echoing the lineage of the king of England, they may indeed have been a not-too-subtle jab at the ruling royals after the stabbing of Canterbury’s archbishop. Later, the windows were relocated and separated from their floral borders, the designs of which are reminiscent of illuminated texts of the time. Four of the windows have been reunited with these flourishes in the exhibition.
Even though the display in the Cloisters uses electric light rather than the natural sunlight that would filter through them in Canterbury, there’s still an ethereal effect, and the painted lines of each figure — from Abraham to Noah to Thara, all in their draped clothing — are captivating. I visited Canterbury Cathedral back in 2012, and it’s almost impossible to pick out any individual detail from the mass of windows that confronts you in the church, not to mention the sculptures, tombs, and cavalcade of other art. It is without a doubt a different experience to view the windows separated like this into their individual panels. They lose some of their imposing nature but offer a rare insight into some of the oldest English paintings that, for most of their life, have gazed down upon us humans from afar.
Radiant Light Stained Glass from Canterbury Cathedral continues at the Cloisters (99 Margaret Corbin Drive, Fort Tryon Park, Washington Heights, Manhattan) through May 18.