Intrepid historian spurs “electrifying” discovery in Canterbury Cathedral

Professor Rachel Koopmans convinces a conservation expert at Canterbury Cathedral to re-examine a panel of stained glass believed to have been created in the Victorian era. It turns out the glass is 800 years old – two centuries older than Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – and is, in fact, the earliest surviving portrait of pilgrims to the site.

To historians of religion and art, England’s Canterbury Cathedral is one of the world’s most significant medieval buildings. Dedicated to St. Augustine (sent by Pope Gregory the Great to the pagan Kingdom of Kent in 597 AD), it became a major pilgrimage site following the martyrdom of Britain’s most important saint, Thomas Becket, in 1170 AD. Becket was archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until his murder by agents of King Henry II with whom Becket openly disagreed over the rights and privileges of the church. The importance of this cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is reflected by the fact it receives close to a million visitors every year.

Enter York University historian and Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada Rachel Koopmans, an expert in medieval religious culture, currently writing a book on Canterbury’s medieval stained glass. She became suspicious about a stained glass panel that had long been thought to had been made by Victorian glaziers in the late 19th century.

Enlisting the help of Leonie Seliger, director of Canterbury’s Stained Glass Studio, Koopmans determined that this glass dates all the way back to the 1180s. That’s 200 years before The Canterbury Tales, depicting this same pilgrimage, was penned by Geoffrey Chaucer.

Left: Image of Chaucer as a pilgrim from “Ellesmere Manuscript” in the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. The manuscript is an early publishing of The Canterbury Tales (Wikipedia). Right: Canterbury Cathedral, a major pilgrimage site for centuries

“Astoundingly, this glass was created within 15 to 20 years after Becket was killed. This means that this is the earliest surviving portrait of pilgrims on the road to Canterbury. Moreover, once the glass was installed, thousands of later pilgrims would have seen this glass – including Chaucer himself, if he came on pilgrimage to Canterbury,” Koopmans explains.

Seliger adds that she and Koopmans were “literally hopping with excitement” when they made this discovery.

It began in the archives of Canterbury Cathedral

The story begins deep in the Cathedral’s archives where Koopmans was poring over documents about the “miracle” windows, 12 large windows surrounding the spot where Becket’s magnificent shrine, covered with jewels, stood in the eastern-most chapel of Canterbury Cathedral. These windows, eight of which still survive, depict Becket’s life and his posthumous miracles.

Koopmans homed in on one in particular: window nV.

Koopmans examining the portrait of Canterbury now known to date to the late 12th century (Image: Gareth Fuller/Press Association. Image reproduced with permission of the Press Association)

In the cathedral’s archives, Koopmans had been working on the papers of Emily Williams, author of the earliest guidebook to Canterbury’s stained glass (1897) and the first woman to write a book about stained glass in England. She realized that Williams had discussed window nV with the glazier at the time, and that he had told her the panel picturing pilgrims on the road was “old” – that is, medieval.

Left: The window nV (Image: Courtesy of Canterbury Cathedral). Right: Koopmans on the scaffolding before the window’s panels were removed (Image: Courtesy of Rachel Koopmans)

Koopmans then recalled that there was an early photograph of the window, dated 1861. When she checked it, she found that the pilgrims on the road panel was indeed there – decades before it was thought to have been created. “This photograph, along with other documents and materials in the archives, strongly suggested the glass was much older than previously thought,” Koopmans explains.

Koopmans asks Canterbury Cathedral to investigate

She then approached Seliger, the head of Canterbury’s stained glass conservation studio, and convinced her that this was worth investigating. So, in July 2018, with permission from the cathedral’s authorities and funding from the Friends of Canterbury Cathedral, the panels from window nV were removed to authenticate their true age.

For two months, Seliger and Koopmans painstakingly examined the thousands of individual pieces of glass in nV’s panels. They used a magnifying glass, stereo microscope and the application of different kinds of light.

Koopmans and Seliger examining the glass in the conservation studio (Images: Courtesy of Rachel Koopmans)

Seliger was able to determine that the panel picturing pilgrims on the road was indeed created by medieval glaziers – an “electrifying” discovery, according to Koopmans.

Glass offers unprecedented glimpse into medieval life

Under special lighting, the researchers could see its original inscription, “PEREGRINI S(ANC)T(I),” meaning “Pilgrims of the saint.” “I think we actually started dancing around the studio, we were so happy to find that the inscription had survived,” Koopmans says.

How the pilgrims are depicted can tell us a great deal about their lives. Some are walking, some are on horseback, one is disabled and on crutches. The central rider sports a bright blue tunic, crimson cloak and purple riding boots. There are some indications of wealth and/or the importance or status of the pilgrimage: vibrant capes, detailed staffs, decorated boots and the white stallion with a braided mane.

Images of the pilgrims tell us a great deal about life in the medieval era. Right: Close-up of the pilgrims’ decorated boots (Images: Courtesy of Rachel Koopmans)

The medieval glaziers used symbols and imagery that they knew would be instantly understandable to illiterate pilgrims. The yellow purse indicated that this person was a pilgrim, for example. As well, the man on crutches is positioned closest to the viewers, likely to inspire sympathy and identification. Becket was known for miraculous cures and his compassion for the sick, Koopmans explains, which would have been the impetus for many pilgrimages.

“These are the pilgrims as the medieval glaziers saw them, and as we can now see them too – human beings who, despite their differences in wealth, status and physical ability, were united in their journey,” Koopmans emphasizes.

“The most exciting discovery is to find that we have a medieval scene that we didn’t know we had – one of such historical importance, and such beauty,” adds Seliger.

Further investigation is being planned to test the dating of the glass in the seven other miracle windows over the next few years. “More discoveries surely await,” Koopmans says.

There are many resources to learn more about this research: a BBC video; a Times (U.K.) article; the Canterbury Cathedral website, which also features a video; a Vidimus article; a Medievalists article; and a YFile article. To read an article by Koopmans about Williams, see the 2018 issue of Women’s History Review. For more about Koopmans, see her faculty profile page.

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By Megan Mueller, senior manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University, muellerm@yorku.ca