Canterbury Cathedral Stained Glass – Recent Discoveries and Newer Developments.

By Liz Findlay

January 2022

The Great South Window. Photo:- Liz Findlay

The stained glass in Canterbury Cathedral is one of its greatest highlights but our knowledge of it is ever evolving. For many years the oldest glass was thought to date from around 1176-8, showing a figure of Adam delving in the Garden of Eden. It was made soon after a fire which raged through the cathedral in 1174 and formed part of a group of stained glass pieces which are known as the ‘Ancestors Series’, installed over a period ranging from the late 1170s through until 1220. However, our understanding has been transformed following scientists’ discoveries using techniques previously unused.

The “Windowlyser” Technique

Back in the 1980s, art historian Prof Madeline Caviness suggested that some of the panels could be earlier than previously believed because they were stylistically different. This earlier age has been confirmed by a team from University College London, who built a device called a “windolyser” to solve this mystery. This technology is basically a hand-held device that can discover the age of the glass without damaging it. The group analysed the windows using a non-destructive method of chemical analysis known as “portable x-ray fluorescence”. Using this method the glass’s chemical makeup is revealed, from which researchers were able to work out its age.

Findings proved that this glass dates back to the period between 1130 and 1160. The particular panels are installed over one of the cathedral’s entrances, in the Great South Window and in the West Window. For more about this discovery follow this link to the BBC article :-

The Ancestors of Christ

Detail from the Ancestors Series in Great South Window. Photo:- Jonathan Fenner

They are a remarkable collection and form the largest known series depicting the genealogy of Christ in mediaeval art. Forty-three figures of the original series survive, twenty two of these have been housed in the Cathedral’s Great South Window. Following refurbishment in recent years to this window, their colours positively glow when sunlight is behind them.

To add historical context to this discovery, these glasses would have stood as silent witnesses to that most famous event of 29th December 1170, when Archbishop Thomas Becket was famously murdered at the behest of King Henry 11 in his own cathedral. More information about The Ancestors windows and detailed images of some of the restored panels can be found by following this link to the cathedral website:-

Peace Window by Ervine Bossanyi.
Photo:- Liz Findlay

The Purposes of Stained glass – Newer Developments

Bringing the story of cathedral glass right up to date, we find that the purpose of stained glass has partly changed its role. Originally it was used to tell the stories of the Bible and the life of Christ to those who were illiterate. In Canterbury, they were also used to tell the stories of the miracles which happened after the murder of Thomas Becket.

Following WW2, Canterbury Cathedral decided to employ this medium, following the horrors of the holocaust to express the relief at the release of prisoners from Nazi prison camps in the form of two stunning windows designed by Hungarian artist Ervine Bossanyi.

Detail of the Damson Tree Window.
Photo:- Liz Findlay

Recent windows also celebrate the lives of those who have contributed to the Cathedral in different ways. Tucked away in the Great Cloister you’ll find a very unusual modern glass – The Damson Tree window – which perhaps stylistically could be linked to “Impressionism” and refers to Richard Oldfield, a benefactor of the Cathedral. It sparkles with life, movement and colour.

Liz is a South East England and London Blue badge Guide based in Canterbury