The Fake Medieval Images in Canterbury Cathedral

Thousands of visitors come into Canterbury Cathedral each day, where they gaze upon the hundreds of years of history in one of England’s greatest churches. Many of them will see the great stained glass images in the windows of the cathedral, believing that these were created in the Middle Ages. Unfortunately two of the most iconic images in the Cathedral are actually fakes created in the first half of the 20th century.

The Pilgrims panel in Canterbury Cathedral is actually a 20th century forgery

In ‘Fakes and Forgeries in Canterbury’s Stained Glass’, a lecture given at the University of Toronto, Rachel Koopmans explained how these images came into the cathedral and have fooled people for so long. One of the faked images is known as the Pilgrims panel, which shows four figures on the move and has been associated with the characters of the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. The other is a portrait of the famous martyr and saint Thomas Becket, which some books have even described as being a contemporary depiction of the twelfth-century Archbishop.

Koopmans explains that both of these images, and many more in the Cathedral, were actually created by Samuel Caldwell Jr., who was the person in charge of restoring Canterbury’s glass for more than fifty years. During this time he created dozens of works and duped various church officials into believing they were genuine medieval images.

Because of the fragile nature of medieval glass, only a small amount of genuine creations have survived into the modern period. It was only in 1819 that restoration efforts were started in Canterbury. In 1897, this job was handed over to Samuel Caldwell Jr. from his father, and for the next six decades he would remove various pieces of glass from the church and take it to his workshop. Koopmans notes that Caldwell kept no drawings, photographs or written records of his work, and it seems that none of the church officials kept watch over what he was doing. This gave Samuel a lot of opportunity to create fake stained glass images as well as sell some of the real medieval works he found.

Image of Thomas Becket created by Samuel Caldwell Jr.

Koopmans believes that Caldwell was very proud of his craftsmanship and perhaps enjoyed fooling the various Deans and church officials at Canterbury. In some cases he would used bits of old pieces to make the stained glass, and then explain that he had found the image in some high corner of the cathedral which could not be seen by anyone on ground level. These images were then placed in a prominent position in the church, where they were soon marvelled at by curious crowds. Since no one in the church had anywhere near the familiarity about the glass that Caldwell had, these works were accepted as genuine.

It was not until the 1950s that some suspicions started to surface about these medieval glass works. A historian named Bernard Rackham had published a book entitled The Ancient Glass of Canterbury Cathedral, where he had proclaimed that all the images restored by Caldwell to be genuine. Two years later, when he learned that Caldwell had restored more stained glass, he wrote to a colleague at the Cathedral:

I am much interested to hear that Mr. Caldwell is producing still more panels…and a good deal puzzled. Firstly, where has all this old glass from the Cathedral been all these years? In the workshop at Blackfriars? And how did panels so nearly complete and in such good condition…come to be removed and not put back into the Cathedral? Were they taken out for repair, or to make way for modern windows by Austin and others? Whose property are the legally? Is there still residue of old glass, and if so, where is it? I find it difficult to understand why successive Deans and Chapter should all this time have allowed not merely scraps, but whole panels of old glass to become alienated for so long from the Cathedral.

Despite these suspicions, Caldwell was never confronted with these accusations, and he died in 1963 at the age of 102. It was not until the 1970s that scholars uncovered that many of the stained glass works he restored in Canterbury Cathedral were actually forgeries. However, these works remain very popular and are still often depicted in books and on the web as genuine medieval creations. Koopmans notes that the story of Caldwell’s stained glass forgeries show that historians need to develop “image literacy” and be able to understand how medieval objects were created.

Rachel Koopmans, who teaches at York University, is the author of Wonderful to Relate: Miracle Stories and Miracle Collecting in High Medieval England, which examines how miracle stories were generated, circulated, and replicated. She is currently doing research on Thomas Becket.

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