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A Colourful Look into the Past: The Guildhall’s Oriel Window

June 11, 2024
Author: Rosemary Siddles, Volunteer Blogger

In the Great Hall (1394 – 1414) there is a gated niche opening into an oriel and stained-glass window, which we would today describe as a bay window, and is framed by a tall, painted, perpendicular stone arch. The surrounding stone arch, which serves as an entrance to the bay, was rebuilt in 1826. Joan Lancaster writes in the guidebook from 1980 that the medieval stone masons and wood carvers who had worked on St. Michael’s church “transferred their labours” to the Great Hall implying an equally high standard of workmanship, including the Oriel.

The window comprises a fascinating mix of fragments of old glass. Some of the glass fragments may have originally come from the North Window in the Great Hall. There is an inscription within the bay which reads ‘The fragments of old glass placed in this window were removed from the large North window at the time of its restoration,1893.’ That is not to say that all those fragments were original or that all the fragments are from the North window, as the North Window has had many repairs over the years. The Oriel is a patchwork of pieces of glass which could have been originally designed by John Thornton, specifically for the Oriel, but there is no authentication of that. The window would probably not have been designed as a fragmented display.

There is no discernible design to the whole window, but looking closely you will see whole faces and recognisable whole fragments. There are several roundels (round piece of glass): one of a person threshing corn, another of corn being cut by two people. If you examine the panels, you can see angels’ wings, a piece of a chess board or tiled flooring, sheep grazing, a bishop’s miter, a church (possibly representing a benefactor) or castle, a figure holding an open book, as well as indecipherable inscriptions and dates. Easily recognizable are the two peasant workers, a barefooted man, two pairs of shoes, a curly haired man with downcast eyes, a griffon’s head and talon, and a hand raised in blessing.

It is thought that some of the clearly drawn pieces are John Thornton’s work and may have been designed for the Oriel itself. His drawing of faces is distinctive and can be seen in eyes, noses and mouths. Some of the glass is brightly coloured, some plain and transparent. John Thornton (born probably in the 1360s) came from Coventry and was a celebrated glass painter. He was commissioned to do prominent work in York and probably secured a contract for his Guildhall work via his York Minster contractor, the Archbishop of York, who had been Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield. Thornton had a workshop and home near the Burges in Coventry.

A BBC 4 TV programme about York Minster windows, presented by Dr Janina Ramirez (Britain’s Most Fragile Treasure, 2024), presents the stained glass windows which Coventry’s John Thornton designed, authenticated, and painted from 1405-8. Prof. Emeritus Richard Mark describes Thornton as a ‘superstar artist’ who introduced the highly acclaimed International Gothic style of painting. Richard Mark further describes Thornton as astonishing in his virtuosity. We can accept such high acclaim as the highest praise for Coventry’s son. We have no contract to confirm this Guildhall work as Thornton’s, but the Coventry windows surely replicate his drawings found in York.

If you’re fascinated by history and eager to delve into the rich heritage of St Mary’s Guildhall and Coventry, why not plan a visit? Step inside and uncover the intriguing stories and vibrant history that this iconic building holds. From its medieval origins to its role in the city’s cultural tapestry, St Mary’s Guildhall offers a captivating journey through time. Don’t miss the chance to explore this historic gem and immerse yourself in Coventry’s fascinating past.

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References

111 Places in Coventry That You Shouldn’t Miss (2021) Ganley. R. Photographer, Williams .I .Emons Verlag 2021 ISBN 9 78-3-7 40. 8-10443

Coventry in 50 Buildings (2015) McGrory. D. Amberley Publishing, Stroud. ISBN 978 -1-4456-6578-8

St. Mary’s Hall Coventry A Guide to the Building its History and Contents (1981) Lancaster. Joan, C. Drawings Overy Robert. City of Coventry. ISBN 0-901606-65-0

The Little History of Coventry (2019) Walters. P. The History Press, Cheltenham. ISBN 978-0-7509-8908-4

Paper accessed from Wilson Webb online. Title – John Thornton and the Stained Glass of St Mary’s Guildhall, Coventry. Source- The Journal of Stained Glass. 31. 2007, pages 14 – 35 . Author, Andrew Rudebeck Publisher – The British Society of Master Glass Painters. Public plaque in Burges, Coventry, dedicated to John Thornton.

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Please note: the Guildhall will be closed on 19th June for a private event. The Tales of Tea restaurant will remain open during this time.
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