Imagine what it must have been like for the typical mediæval worker in the 16th century. Rich dyes for clothes would still have been reserved for the wealthy, so the lives of ordinary people would have consisted of a palette of browns, dull dark blue, rust red, and a bit of green, with a lot of grey when the colour washed out. Going into a church and seeing the wonderful colours in mediæval manuscripts when the books were paraded around the church must have been a sight for dull eyes. This was even more true for those churches that had stained glass. (Above from St Mary’s, Fairford: part of the 12 persecutors of the faith window – on the left: Herod Agrippa, then the murderer of a bishop, and finally a woman-killing man – note the heads being carried by the last two)
The rich, jewel-like colours would have sung out as well-known Biblical stories, saints, and the life of Christ were depicted in wonderful detail. The church of St Mary’s, Fairford, in Gloucestershire, has the most complete set of mediæval stained glass in the country. The Gothic architecture allowed for large windows and here the whole of the Christian story is depicted. (Right: St Bartholomew with his book and a rather large knife; this is a tanner’s knife as the saint was martyred and he was flayed. He certainly doesn’t look very happy, which is not really very surprising!)
Flemish craftspeople based at Southwark worked on the 28 windows at St Mary’s Church, Fairford, Gloucestershire, to produce a stunning array of colour and figures such as the window showing the Judgement Hall of St David on the right. It is thought that Bernard Flower designed them. Flemish craft workers settled in Southwark as it was outside the jurisdiction of the restrictions of the Livery Companies in the City.
What is particularly exciting about the windows if you do visit, is that a new audio-guide has been produced with a cast of the best-known British actors including Joanna Lumley, Bill Nighy, Anna Massey and others, who have all given their time freely. More details here.
An amazing find in the back of a workshop in 2003 resulted in the Victoria and Albert Museum acquiring a few panels from St Mary’s. Restoration work of the windows in the 19th century meant that some of the panels were replaced and the originals ended up at G King and Son of Norwich. This company were well-known restorers until they closed. Read more about the history of the panels and their conservation at the V&A here.
It is certainly a church worth making a detour to visit!