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The Worlds Oldest Stained Glass Windows Have Been Revealed After 900 Years Of Hiding In Plain Sight

Canterbury Cathedral is one of Britain’s most famous buildings, and it has been at the heart of Christian life for centuries, but it appears it still has some mysteries.
Four figures staring down on the cathedral have now been confirmed to be the UK’s oldest stained glass windows, dating back nearly 900 years.
The masterpieces – finely painted statues depicting four biblical characters – were created in the early to mid 12th century for a reconstruct of the cathedral’s eastern part, according to scientific studies.
Art historians had no way of determining their age until the scientific examinations.
All that was known for certain was that they were created in or before the early 13th century.
In the United Kingdom, stained glass from the first half of the 12th century or earlier is exceptionally rare, with no other large-scale examples remaining.
Professor Tim Ayers of the University of York, one of Britain’s leading specialists on medieval stained glass, stated, “It’s astonishing that Canterbury’s newly re-dated first half of the 12th century stained glass has survived through the years.”
“The 12th century masterpieces have, in a sense, been lurking in plain sight,” said Leonie Seliger, senior stained glass conservator at Canterbury Cathedral.
Although several art historians speculated on a possible mid-12th century dating based only on stylistic considerations, the true age of the four stained glass figures could not be determined until scientific testing were conducted.” The newly redated Canterbury stained glass masterpieces are especially significant worldwide, because only a handful of large-scale pre-1150 stained glass works of art survive.
Dr Laura Adlington, an archaeological scientist at University College London, pioneered the novel portable testing technology.
She was successful in developing a hand-held X-ray equipment to guide a beam of x-rays onto the surface of stained glass, resulting in an exact x-ray fingerprint of the glass’ chemical makeup.
Research indicated that the four Canterbury ancestor statues’ glass makeup is older than other similar figures in the cathedral.
Professor Ian Freestone, a senior UCL archaeological scientist working in the Canterbury research, remarked, “The technology is particularly intriguing since it displays how science is contributing to answering historical and art historical challenges.”
The unusual nature of the early history of the newly-dated artworks has also been exposed by fresh scientific and historical study, a story that ultimately involves features of Ancient Egypt, Imperial Rome, and England Puritan iconoclasts.
Although the stained glass figures themselves were formed in the first half of the 12th century (possibly around 1130), studies on other church stained glass from England and France suggest that elements of the Canterbury figures were fashioned of remelted old Roman glass, manufactured around a thousand years before.
Late Norman stained glass in red, pink, purple, yellow, green, and blue has recently been identified.
However, scientific testing have since proven that the blue pigment is cobalt, a material for which European glassmakers had no natural sources in the 12th century.
They (or their suppliers) probably certainly obtained their cobalt by recycling thousands of Roman blue/cobalt glass cubes used in Roman wall mosaics, which are frequently found in Italy.
It is estimated that medieval salvage workers took up to 40 tonnes of mosaic cubes from the walls of the Baths of Caracalla, one of ancient Rome’s most important public buildings.
Back in Roman times, the cobalt in the Canterbury windows probably certainly came from the Balkans or the Middle East.
In addition, the Canterbury glass is likely to contain an important component from ancient Egypt.
Scientific investigations on blue cobalt stained glass from medieval church windows elsewhere strongly imply that the flux (glass-melting ingredient) used to manufacture the blue glass used in the early Canterbury masterpieces was soda (sodium carbonate) – and it is known that nearly all of the soda used by the Romans to make their cobalt-blue glass mosaic cubes was acquired from salt.
The location was initially designed for soda extraction, as the ancient Egyptians need soda for the transformation of corpses into mummies.
By implication, the new research also discloses the nature of crucial elements of the huge Norman building’s interior design.
The four images depict four of Christ’s conventional Old Testament forebears, but it’s almost clear that they were originally section of a sequence of roughly 40 such ancestor figures “parading” around the cathedral’s interior, in practically every window in what would have been the upper part of that portion of the building.
The fact that most of Christ’s traditional Biblical forebears were kings and princes – a politically relevant notion for the Church, which was determined to promote the image of Christ as King of Heaven and, through the Church, the ultimate power on earth – was of potential ideological importance to the medieval Church.
Medieval glass blowers created the glass for the Canterbury windows.
The procedure is seen in this rare artwork from a medieval illuminated book ( (c)British Library Board, Add.
24189 f.) The vast majority of the original Norman period ancestor figures were very definitely lost in a devastating fire that erupted in 1174.
The four who survived were most likely in the church’s apse at the far east end of the Norman structure, which was probably less damaged than the remainder of the cathedral.
Unfortunately, that apse was later demolished to make way for a large shrine to the martyred Canterbury Archbishop, Thomas Becket (who was assassinated in the cathedral due to royal provocation in 1170).
Christ’s four surviving Norman-made ancestor statues (King David, Prince Nathan [King Solomon’s brother], King Rehoboam [Solomon’s son], and King Abijah [Solomon’s grandson]) were likely stored for roughly 40 years before being transported to windows at the cathedral’s newly constructed extreme east end.
They stayed until the very late 18th century, when the foursome was split up and two figures were installed into the cathedral’s Great South Window and two into its Great West Window, according to historical evidence.
The window of Solomon’s grandson, King Abijah (Courtesy of The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral) Nevertheless, historical research suggests that the relocation was prompted by events that occurred more than 150 years earlier, when Canterbury Cathedral’s most detested clergyman had purposefully shattered the original stained glass figures in those windows during the English Civil War.
Richard Culmer was the cathedral’s principal puritan enforcer, a guy dedicated to destroying representations of saints (or any other images that people may have prayed to).
He was a devout follower of the Ten Commandments, which forbade the worship of images, which he deemed idolatry.
Fortunately, Christ’s forefathers were not seen as objects of prayer, and thus were spared destruction.
His iconoclastic activities against depictions of saints, the Virgin Mary, and even Jesus himself sparked riots in Canterbury and even uproar in parliament, but they also provided the space in the cathedral’s South and West windows where the four original Norman-made ancestor figures were relocated to in the late 18th century, and where they still are today.
Despite the fact that all of Canterbury’s other original ancestor figures were destroyed in the 1174 fire, they were rebuilt (although in late 12th and early 13th century style) and significantly augmented in number during the cathedral’s post-fire reconstruction.
Thirty-one of the reproduced figurines have survived, and coupled with the four surviving original earlier figures, they form the world’s biggest collection of medieval depictions of Christ’s traditional forebears.

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