The Five Sisters Window
The Five Sisters window dominates the north transept of York Minster. The transepts and crossing now form the oldest part of the present cathedral, and are built in the Early English style. The north transept was finished probably by 1255, and the constrast set up in the architexture, between the pale yorkshire stone and purbeck marble is echoed in the monochrome of the Five Sister’s window.(1)
The window was completed by 1260, and is the oldest complete window in the Minster. It is also said to be the largest single composition in Grisaille glass anywhere in the world. It consists of five lights, each of c.53 feet by c.5 feet (16.3 x 1.55 m), and (originally) thirteen compartments. The repeating pattern in each light is different.
At the bottom of the central light, there is a small, coloured vignette of Daniel being fed by Habukkuk in the Lions’ den. This is an earlier piece of glass; it does not belong to the original window, but was placed there at a later date, perhaps in the seventeenth century.
The window has been changed over the years by interpolation, restoration, and fire. The large amount of lead that has been introduced over the years to hold the window together, and the protective glazing outside it make it darker and more complicated than it would have been originally. (For an example of what a medieval window can look like once the accretions of lead have been removed, see the newly restored St William window in the north choir transept.) Fires in 1829 and 1840 also damaged the glass. In fact, a clearer view of the window’s original design can be gained from the careful drawings made by John Browne in the mid-nineteenth century.
The glass is also quite spoliated; according to Browne, what original panels remain seem to have been moved down, and the inserted panels, which try to replicate the patterns using fragments from a later period, are near the top, and further from view.
The Five Sisters is a Grisaille window, that is, made with grey monochrome glass. Grisaille was a style of glass that emerged around the same time as stained glass, though had a different evolution.(2)
In England, as in France, it was in current use from the twelfth century, and seems to have been popular, though its survival is uneven, partly because the way in which it was produced, and the quality of the glass used, meant that it tends to deteriorate and became opaque.(3) A tradition of unpainted grisaille was established in the Cistercian houses, but its use here does not seem to have been the determining factor for its use in other contexts, and the majority of what survives is painted, preserved in cathedral windows, which had more protection.(4)
It is characterized by the use of plain glass (though this was not always clear, particularly in the early years of its use; as techniques of glass-making and blowing improved in the thirteenth century, the pieces used for grisaille became more uniform in thickness and translucence.)
The glass was then usually painted with plant motifs, set within geometric figures which were connected with fillets to form patterns. From about 1240, colour was gradually introduced in the fillets to offset the grey of the glass. In the thirteenth century, a hatching was often used in the background to enhance the floral elements.
The painted plant motifs were initially contained within the pattern described by the leading, but toward the end of the thirtenth century, in France, the floral elements became more naturalistic, and moved beyond and across the individual glass pieces. In English grisaille of this period, including the five sisters, the formality remains, though there is also perhaps a greater degree of intricacy.
Although much of its foliage work is now lost or obscured, the Five Sisters is still an impressive example of this tradition, and has few equivalents for scale or complexity, even on the continent.
ArchitectureNon-figurative glass like the Five Sisters was a major element of glazing in big churches in the thirteenth-century.(5) Economic factors had a part to play in the use of clear glass, but the complexity of the designs in windows like the Five Sisters should warn us against thinking of this as a cheap option.(6) Apart from its inserted vignette, the Five Sisters does not therefore carry any iconographical meaning, but it does still need to be thought about in terms of its relationship with the other parts of the Minster’s architecture.
From c.1230 onwards, and in France particularly, the enlargement of windows openings brought about by the evolution of gothic architecture meant that windows now had to be divided into sections, or lights, to fill the wall space they were replacing. This meant also that the glass and its form had to develop in line with this, and coherent schemes and ‘architecturally unified compositions’ were needed, and several long, narrow lights replaced single, wider windows. The north transept, in the Early English style, does something similar with the Five Sisters, which, like the glazing of the south transept, was very much in the fashion of the day.(7) By c.1260, then, a lighter palette was sought, and grisaille, either on its own or, toward the end of the century, in mixed windows, was one way of bringing more light into the.(8)
It is possible to see the move away from solid colour to a lighter palette in thirteenth and fourteenth centuries as a reflection of the increasing complexity of the architecture and the corresponding practical need for illumination, to allow subtleties of new architecture to be visible. There is also some argument that overall control over the construction was increasingly in the hands of the architects, who wished to highlight and promote the fabric itself.(9) In any case, the Five Sisters stands opposite the entrance used by pilgrims to St William’s shrine, and would have had commanded and dominated their first impression of the space.(10)
Restoration in the 1920s
A campaign to restore the window was begun in 1923 by Mrs Little of York. According to the Minster pamphlet produced to commemorate the campaign, Mrs Little had a vision in which she saw her two dead sisters, before the two girls faded away to be replaced by a vision of the window. From this vision came the idea to restore the window as a monument to the women who had died in the First World War. £3,000 was quickly raised by the women of Yorkshire, including a donation of £50 from HRH Princess Mary, and the window was removed for restoration, which process was finished and the window replaced by 1925 – the lead used was medieval lead that had been found at Rievaulx abbey, where it had been melted down into ingots during the dissolution, and then forgotten. Also commissioned was an oak screen, bearing the names of those who had died – including Edith Cavell. The window now stands as a memorial to all those women who have died in the World Wars.(11)
Origin of the name
The name ‘Five Sisters’ is first recorded in the eighteenth century, in Drake’s Eboracum. The tradition of the window’s name recorded here is that it was based on the tapestry designs of five sisters, though the origin of this story is unclear. Browne does not think it likely to be based in truth, and sees no need to look further than the corresponding properties of the five lights, and the harmony of design and colour.
Another plausible suggestion, made by the Minster’s own, fact sheet, is that the name is in fact a corruption of ‘five Cistercians’, this type of glass being common to the austere design of Cistercian houses (though by no means limited to them.)
Despite the uncertainty over the origin of this story, it has remained tenacious in the popular imagination. The pamphlet report of the 1920s restoration reproduces the story of the tapestry designs. Of note here also is the appearance of this story in Nicholas Nickleby. Dickens uses this story, or an elaborated and moralized version of it, to talk about transience and death, though note that he places the composition of the window in the sixteenth century.
It is worth noting that another, more obscure name for this window is the Jew’s window. Browne thought this might have been due to the lack of figurative representation in the window, but the Minster’s fact sheet suggests a possible historical provenance. If a large sum of money, paid by the Jews of York for a grant of land to then treasurer John Romanus, the man most closely associated with the north transept, was channelled into the building fund, it is possible that it was this association that led to the name.
- Brown, S. Stained glass at York Minster (1999).
- M. Camille, The Gothic Idol, Ideology and Image Making in Medieval Art (1990).
- M. Camille, ‘The Language of Images in Medieval England, 1200–1400’, in J. J. G. Alexander and P. Binski (eds.), Age of Chivalry, Art in Plantagenet England, 1200–1400, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts (1987), 33–40.
- L. Grodecki and C. Brisac, Gothic Stained Glass 1200–1300 (1985).
- J. F. Hamburger and A.-M. Bouché, The Mind’s Eye, Art and Theological Argument in the Middle Ages (2006).
- R. Marks, Stained Glass in England during the Middle Ages (1993).
- R. Marks, ‘Medieval Stained Glass: Recent and Future Trends in Scholarship’, Journal of Stained Glass, XXIV (2000), 62–79.
- E. Sears and T. K. Thomas, Reading Medieval Images, The Art Historian and the Object (2002).
- York Minster Pamphlets – The Restoration of the Five Sisters’ Window (To the Memory of the Women of the Empire Who Laid Down Their Lives in the Great War) (1925)
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- Brown, pp.19-21.Back to (1).
- Grodecki, p.153, but see also introduction for development.Back to (2).
- Grodecki, p.153.Back to (3).
- Grodecki, p.186.Back to (4).
- Marks (2000), p.72.Back to (5).
- Marks (2000), p.72, Brown, p.21.Back to (6).
- Grodecki, p.17, Brown, p.19-21.Back to (7).
- Grodecki, pp.20-22.Back to (8).
- Grodecki, p.20ff., Marks (2000).Back to (9).
- Brown, p.19.Back to (10).
- York Minster Pamphlets – The Restoration of the Five Sisters’ Window.Back to (11).