And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

tirsdag 19. juli 2016

Saints, Stained glass, and Serendipity

Created purely from glass the saint stands,
Exposing his gifted quite empty hands
- Geoffrey Hill,
In Piam Memoriam

Towards the end of June I arrived in England for an intense bout of conference activities, starting in York for a few days and then continuing to Leeds. It was a hectic period, but by a stroke of luck it all began just in time for me to catch the last performance of the 2016 York Mystery Plays. From the beginning of the performances on 26 May I had seen several favourable comments and many tantalizing pictures from people who had gone to see the plays. I became very envious, especially since I had seen a performance of the 2012 Mystery Plays, and I knew I was missing out. I was therefore very happy when I had managed to procure a ticket for the very last performance in the evening of 30 June.

This year, the Mystery Plays were performed in York Minster, with a stage arranged like the stairs of a temple, with three broader steps on which the action was performed. The top step was Heaven, while the bottom step served both as the entrance to Hell and the tomb of Christ. It was a masterful performance, and I might write more about it at some later point. In this blogpost, however, my focus is a very serendipitous detail of that evening.

Window from the south side of the cathedral

Since the stage of the mystery plays was arranged like a stair, the seating was arranged like in a stadium, and in order to get a good overview I had bought a seat very high up, which brought me level with the first row of stained glass windows. I had been inside the Minster numerous times since my first visit there in 2009, but I have never been that high up and I might never be again. I knew that this might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so before the play started I made sure to examine the glass of the south wall as well as I could. Suddenly, however, I realized that I had been more fortunate than I could ever have imagined.

Edmund to the left of me, Edward to the right

As I was standing by the railing, I saw that one of the closest windows contained stained glass depicting two saints with which I have become very familiar over the past few years, namely Edmund Martyr and Edward the Confessor. I knew that the two kings were to be found in the wilderness of stained glass in York Minster. I once wrote a blogpost about the iconography of these saints as found in York, and experts on the subject told me that they were there and provided me with details. But there I was, staring them in the face and for the first time seeing them in real life and with my own eyes. I spent a long time trying to take good pictures of the individual windows, and the best results can be seen below. Regular readers of this blog, or people who know me well enough, will know that I have something of an obsession with these two saints, and this obsession has its root in my academic career. I wrote my MA on the cult and literature of Edward the Confessor, and I'm currently working on a PhD thesis in which an examination of the cult material of Edmund Martyr is one of the three major parts.

Edward the Confessor is easily recognized in this right-hand panel. This is not the only depiction of Edward in York Minster, another stained glass window featuring the saintly king can be found in the chapter house vestibule, dated to the latter two decades of the 13th century. In both depictions, however, Edward is seen with the ring, which is perhaps his most famous attribute and the one which is most often used in representations of him in glass, sculpture, painting or illuminations. The ring is of great importance due to the miracle depicted in the stained glass window above.

The miracle of the ring appears first in Aelred of Rievaulx's Vita Sancti Edwardi, which was finished in 1163, two years after Edward's canonization and in time for his translation on October 13. According to Aelred, Edward had once met a beggar who asked for alms, and when Edward realized he had no money on him, he gave the beggar his ring instead. Later, two English knights in the Holy Land were approached by a man who said he was John the Evangelist, and gave them a ring which he asked them to bring to the king of England. This the knights did, and Edward recognized the ring understood the miracle. The miracle of the ring was so famous that it was included in the chapter on John the Evangelist in Legenda Aurea, but with Edmund Martyr in the place of Edward through some strange confusion.

Edmund Martyr is also found other places in the Minster. He is also found among the seven windows of the chapter house, and on a wooden panel once found in the chapter house ceiling (13th century), but now among the treasures of York Minster displayed in the crypt. Edmund is recognized by the arrow he holds in his hand, and this is his most common attribute. The arrow - or sometimes arrows - are the instruments of his torture. According to the first life of Edmund, Passio Eadmundi, which was written by Abbo of Fleury in the 980s, Edmund was seized by a group of Danish Vikings, tied to a tree like Christ on the cross and then pierced through with arrows like Saint Sebastian. When Edmund still refused to submit to the lordship of the Danish chieftain, he was decapitated and his head carried off, but that is another story.

Having worked this much with these two saints, it was a very pleasing serendipity to find myself on the level with these two otherwise inaccessible depictions, and that on the very last day it was possible for me to do so. Such instances of good luck can sometimes be found in the course of academic work, and they are always very welcome and very pleasing.

Similar blogposts

Edmund likened to a hedgehog

Edward the Confessor in the North of England

The miracle of the ring in Legenda Aurea

Edward the Confessor in Dringhouses, York

The cult of Edward the Confessor

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