Canterbury Cathedral, in the south-east of England, is home to some fine examples of medieval stained glass. Reliable dating of these fragile windows and those of other churches has been difficult, as typically samples would need to be removed, but now researchers at University College London have developed a new tool (called a ‘WindoLyzer’) to aid study of the glass in situ.
Using the WindoLyzer – a 3D-printed attachment for a spectrometer that allows for non-destructive chemical analysis without removing the windows – UCL researchers and conservators from Canterbury Cathedral have analysed three panels from a series of windows showing the ancestors of Christ. The Ancestor Series was installed in the clerestory over a period of a few decades from the late 12th century to 1220, as part of a rebuilding programme after a major fire in 1174. Based on their style, four panels were identified as potentially older than the other 13th-century windows in the series by art historian Madeleine Caviness in the 1980s. One of these was Nathan, moved to the Great South Window in the 1790s. As the new x-ray fluorescence analysis suggests, this was not the first time Nathan had been moved.
Reporting their findings in Heritage, the team observed a change in the type of glass used around the late 12th or early 13th century, with Nathan being glazed before this change. The figure of Nathan was installed in the clerestory between 1213 and 1220, the same period in which a panel of Ezekias (also part of the study) was glazed, but differences between the two suggest Nathan was glazed earlier. Comparison with the Methusaleh figure studied shows that while some of the glasses used for Nathan are the same type as seen in this figure (glazed c.1178-1179), they are not identical, suggesting some time had passed between the two. Nathan possibly dates to AD 1130-1160, making it perhaps the earliest surviving stained glass in England, and among the oldest in Europe.
The figure of Nathan was most likely originally part of the cathedral’s choir, which was largely destroyed in the 1174 fire. Surviving pieces from the choir windows were reused and adapted for the clerestory windows (which were then moved into large windows elsewhere in the cathedral in the 18th century). Some 13th-century glass was identified in Nathan, a detail Caviness had also pointed out. Lead author Laura Ware Adlington of UCL said, ‘Indeed, the agreement between her art-historical analysis and the chemical analysis was rather remarkable – down to details such as Nathan’s hat, which she identified as an early 13th-century addition, and the scientific data confirmed was made with the later glass type found at Canterbury.’
The analysis of the Nathan panel, said Léonie Seliger, Director of the Stained Glass studio at Canterbury, ‘provides clues about the iconography of the early 12th-century church at Canterbury, including the “glorious choir” – as the 12th-century historian Gervase called it – that was familiar to Thomas Becket, and was destroyed by fire only four years after his murder in the cathedral.’