New research suggests that some of the stained glass windows from Canterbury Cathedral may be among the oldest in the world.
The paintings, depicting Christ’s ancestors, have been re-dated using new, non-destructive technology.
Analysis indicates that some of them may date back to the middle of the eleventh century.
Therefore, the windows would have been in place when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, was murdered in the cathedral in 1170.
Leonie Seliger, the cathedral’s head of stained glass preservation and a member of the research team, told BBC News that the discovery was a “very significant” landmark.
“We have almost nothing left of the artistic heritage of that early building [apart from] A few pieces of stone carving. But until now, we didn’t think we had any tinted glass. “It turns out we do,” she said.
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She said she was so happy to hear the news, and was “ready to dance.”
Ms Seliger added:[The stained glass] They would have witnessed the murder of Thomas Becket, they would have witnessed Henry II kneeling begging for forgiveness, and they would have witnessed the fire that engulfed the cathedral in 1174. And then they would have witnessed all of British history. “
Thomas Becket was killed in the cathedral by four knights who believed they were acting on the orders of Henry II, with whom the Archbishop clashed. However, some historians suspect that Henry ordered the assassination of Beckett, and that his words may have been misinterpreted.
The re-dated panels are part of the series Ancestors of Christ depicted above one of the cathedral’s entrances. It was believed for centuries that it was made by great craftsmen in the 13th century.
Art historian Professor Madeleine Cavennes noted in the 1980s that some of the paintings were older than previously thought because they were stylistically different. This suspicion has now been confirmed by a team of researchers from University College London (UCL), who have built a device called a “windolyser” to solve the mystery.
It can be used on site and does not damage the glass. It shines a beam at the surface – causing the substance in the glass to radiate. This radiation contains the glass’s chemical fingerprint – which the researchers were able to determine its age. Astronomers use the same technique, called spectrometry, to discover the chemical composition of distant stars.
Dr Laura Weir Adlington, who led the research, said the wind bag findings were “very exciting”.
“These findings will cause us all, from art historians and scholars, to members of the public visiting the cathedral, to look at Canterbury stained glass in a whole new light.”
Professor Cavennes said she was “delighted” to hear that her assessment had been confirmed by Dr Weir Adlington.
“The scientific findings, the observations and the chronology of the cathedral itself all fit very well now,” she told BBC News. Professor Cavennes, now 83, told me the discovery rocked her from the ‘Covid numbness’ she was feeling.
“I wish I was younger and could throw myself more into helping Laura with her future work. But I definitely have a few projects to feed. ”
Dr Weir Adlington’s study suggests that some of Canterbury’s ancestors may date back to the period 1130-1160, at least 10 years before Thomas Beckett was murdered at the site in 1170.
It is also believed that three other stylistically distinctive windows in the cathedral may also have been from an earlier time than originally thought.
The cathedral’s “Ancestors Series” was created beginning in the late 12th century, as part of a rebuilding program that occurred after a devastating fire in 1174. The installation of windows continued from the late 1170s until 1220.
The new dating indicates that the panels were located in the choir of the previous building and survived the fire. It is now believed to have been stored for future use and later adapted for the new building.
Professor Ian Friston, of the UCL Institute of Archeology, described the research as a “detective story”.
He said, “We’ve been working on it for some time, putting all the pieces in place. And then we finally get the answer to something new, bringing science and art into one story.”
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