Exhibitions/ Radiant Light

Radiant Light: Stained Glass from Canterbury Cathedral at The Cloisters

February 25 / 2014–May 18 / 2014
Exhibitions are free with Museum admission.

Exhibition Overview

This exhibition of stained glass from England's historic Canterbury Cathedral features six Romanesque-period windows that have never left the cathedral precincts since their creation in 1178–80.

Founded in 597, Canterbury Cathedral is one of the oldest Christian structures in England. It was an important pilgrimage site in the Middle Ages—as witnessed by Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, a literary masterpiece from the fourteenth century—and is also the cathedral of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the leader of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion worldwide. Recent repairs to the stonework of the magnificent historic structure necessitated the removal of several delicate stained-glass windows of unparalleled beauty. While the restoration of the walls has been undertaken, the stained glass has also been conserved.

The windows shown at The Cloisters are from the clerestory of the cathedral's choir, east transepts, and Trinity Chapel. The six figures—Jared, Lamech, Thara, Abraham, Noah, and Phalec—were part of an original cycle of eighty-six ancestors of Christ, the most comprehensive stained-glass cycle known in art history. One complete window (Thara and Abraham), rising nearly twelve feet high, is shown with its associated rich foliate border.

Masterpieces of Romanesque art, these imposing figures exude an aura of dignified power. The angular limbs, the form-defining drapery, and the encompassing folds of the mantles all add a sculptural quality to the majestic figures. The glass painting, which is attributed to the Methuselah Master, is striking for its fluid lines, clear forms, and brilliant use of color.


"Seemed to have been beamed down from on high"—New York Times

"As bold and imaginative as any modern works…. Go see them."—New York Sun


The exhibition is made possible by the Ruddock Foundation for the Arts.


Exhibition Objects

Canterbury, as the seat of the archbishop of Canterbury, primate of England, was the richest and most prominent monastic cathedral in Britain and an important center of learning and the arts throughout the Middle Ages. It housed a community of Benedictine monks who commissioned some of the most famous works of English medieval art and architecture. The large stained-glass figures in the Ancestors of Christ are considered some of the finest surviving examples of monumental English painting of the period. These figures are among the first in the series and date from 1178 to about 1180. The almost sculptural gravity of the rendering of the draped bodies conveys an imposing presence. Equally impressive is the degree of psychological animation expressed in each unique character, while the group retains an overall feeling of substance and poise. The figures are complemented by a limited but rich palette and by broad and elaborately patterned borders. Depicted are the Old Testament patriarchs who represent the generations of humankind, from the Creation to the coming of Christ, underscoring the medieval Christian belief that Old Testament prophecy was fulfilled in Christ. The series originally included eighty-five ancestor figures, based primarily on the genealogy in the gospel of Luke (3:23–38). As a group, these figures symbolize the history and the continuity of the Christian faith in very human terms, as a sequence of fathers and sons.

The best-known English saint, Thomas Becket was born in London in 1118. He was made an archdeacon of Canterbury in 1154, appointed chancellor to King Henry II in 1155, and became the archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. Soon thereafter, Becket came into conflict with King Henry regarding the authority of the church versus that of the king. This conflict led to Becket living in exile in France for seven years before returning to Canterbury, where knights loyal to the king murdered him on December 29, 1170. In the end, the king's attempt to silence Beckett failed. Miracles began to be recorded soon after 1171, and in 1173 Becket was declared a saint—the swiftest canonization in the history of the medieval church. His cult spread quickly, and pilgrims flocked to Canterbury. He was revered not only as a national hero but also, and primarily, as a symbol of ecclesiastical resistance to secular authority.

A fire that damaged the cathedral in 1174 presented an opportunity to redesign the eastern end. This building program included Trinity Chapel, which was completed in 1184 and housed a golden shrine for the saint's relics, dedicated in 1220. During this period the Ancestors of Christ windows in the clerestory and those in the ambulatory (walkway) around Trinity Chapel devoted to the miracles of Thomas Becket were completed.

The Ancestors of Christ series reflects this history, as it emphasizes the lineage of Christ through priesthood rather than kingship. Moreover, ancestry and succession were important themes at Canterbury, since the cathedral represents the foothold of the Christian church in England and houses the throne (or Chair) of Saint Augustine, the first archbishop of Canterbury. The Chair, used to enthrone archbishops, was an important symbol of continuity, legitimacy, and authority. This symbolism is echoed in the monumental figures of the Ancestors of Christ, all of whom are seated.

The stained-glass Ancestors of Christ were originally in the clerestory (uppermost) windows ringing the choir. Beginning with Adam in the northwest corner of the choir, the series continued, representing the genealogy in order, around the eastern end of the cathedral, concluding with a depiction of Christ in the southwest corner. Forty-three of the original eighty-five figures survive. All have a large name band running behind the head that makes them identifiable from the floor sixty feet below. In the late eighteenth century, the majority of the figures were moved to the Great South Window in the southwest transept, while many of the original borders were left in the clerestory windows. The panels from this transept window have been temporarily removed so that conservation can be done on the stonework of the architectural framing. Six Ancestors of Christ figures from this window are exhibited here along with sections of their original borders that have been removed for the exhibition. As a result, four of the figures are here reunited with their borders for the first time in more than two hundred years. They are shown in the twelfth-century manner, with the iron armatures (mounting bars) exposed.




Lamech (detail), from the Ancestors of Christ Windows, Canterbury Cathedral, England, 1178–80. Colored glass and vitreous paint; lead came. Images © Robert Greshoff Photography, courtesy Dean and Chapter of Canterbury