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Canterbury Stained Glass Opens Window on Medieval World

A display of stained glass art, now in Los Angeles, has opened a window on life in medieval England. The art work from Canterbury Cathedral conveys the color and drama of an earlier era.

The color and pageantry of medieval England has been portrayed on the big screen, from jousting knights to historical tales like that of Thomas Becket, the 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered in his cathedral at the instigation of King Henry II. In the 1964 Hollywood version of the story, Richard Burton played Becket and Peter O’Toole was King Henry.

Some of the color from that time and place has come to the Getty Museum, a few kilometers from Hollywood. Six of the cathedral’s stained glass windows have been brought here while workers in Canterbury repair its surrounding stonework.

It's a first, says the Dean of Canterbury, Robert Willis, who oversees the cathedral.

“It has never happened before, and so this is a unique experience for us, and also for the characters portrayed in the stained glass," he said.

Those characters are from the Bible, but the images were based on people in 12th century England.

The windows are being displayed along with a 12th century prayer book called the St. Alban’s Psalter, a collection of psalms from the Bible. It's on loan from the Cathedral Library in Hildesheim, Germany.

The colors are as vibrant as those in the windows, says the Getty’s Kristen Collins.

“Around 1130, when this book was created, there was an explosion of illuminated book production and book painting," she said.

The impact was dramatic, says Leonie Seliger, who oversees the stained glass at Canterbury Cathedral.

“You had wall paintings, you had textiles, you had mosaic floors, you had these illuminated manuscripts, works in metal and stained glass. So it would have been a riot of color and form and information and imagery," she said. "And for your average medieval person who lived in a little mud house, this would have been seriously overwhelming."

Dean Willis says the windows have been a source of inspiration.

“And the light shining through means that you get a completely different view every time that the sun changes or it’s cloudy, and there’s that kind of almost cinema effect, which must have been wonderful for folk in those days, and still is for us today," he said.

They're less flashy, perhaps, than Hollywood spectacles, but Willis says these 12th century art works are still inspiring.

The windows are on display in Los Angeles through February 2. They then move to The Cloisters, a branch of New York's Metropolitan Museum, before returning home to Canterbury.