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Discovery of Earliest Known Image of Pilgrims on the Road to Canterbury

Researchers have made a remarkable discovery of a stained glass panel picturing pilgrims travelling by horse and on foot to visit the tomb of archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral.  The newly discovered stained glass panel dates to the mid 1180s, less than twenty years after Becket’s death. “Most stained glass surviving from the Middle Ages dates to the thirteenth century or later,” said Rachel Koopmans, associate professor of history at York University in Toronto.  “You certainly don’t come across stained glass of this date every day, and the irony is that it was found in the window for which it was made over 800 years ago.”

Newly discovered panel, dating to the mid 1180s, in lightbox. Photo courtesy Rachel Koopmans

Thomas Becket quickly became an internationally renowned saint after he was killed by four of King Henry II’s knights in 1170. Thousands of medieval pilgrims from across Europe made the trip to Canterbury to visit Becket’s tomb and the site of his martyrdom.

The panel depicting travelling pilgrims was found in the Trinity Chapel of Canterbury Cathedral in one of the “miracle windows,” so-called because they depict the miracles of Thomas Becket.  The panel, measuring about two and a half feet square, had been dismissed as a creation of a late Victorian glazier at Canterbury, Samuel Caldwell Sr., in the catalogue of Canterbury’s glass published in 1981.  Caldwell had indeed created a number of panels to fill gaps that existed within Canterbury’s windows at the end of the nineteenth century. However, Koopmans, who is writing a new catalogue of the miracle windows, found evidence that suggested this panel existed well before Caldwell’s time, including an early photograph that clearly shows this panel in place.  “That photograph made us look at the panel with fresh eyes,” Koopmans said. “We were then very pleased that the Dean and Chapter gave us permission to remove the glass from the window and that the Friends of Canterbury Cathedral provided funding for the project.”

Panel being examined under a microscope by Leonie Seliger. Photo courtesy Rachel Koopmans

Once the panel was removed from the window, Leonie Seliger, the head of the stained glass conservation studio at Canterbury, examined every individual piece of glass within the panel (over 250 pieces in total) to determine which were medieval originals and which were modern replacements.  Due to centuries of exposure to the environment, medieval glass usually shows signs of corrosion and wear. This corrosion can affect the painting of the faces, draperies, and other details, making them appear faded or even blank altogether. The medieval glaziers and modern restorers had different types of glass at hand and utilized different painting styles, so this too helped the team to distinguish medieval glass from modern replacement.  Seliger and Koopmans determined that while repairs had been done to the panel, including modern replacements for all but two of the heads of the pilgrims, so much original glass remains that there is no question that the panel was designed and created by medieval glaziers.

It was on one of the much corroded pieces in the panel that the team made perhaps their most exciting discovery.  When the panel is viewed from a distance, the pilgrims appear to be walking and riding along a thin, white strip of glass.  When the panel was out of the window and in the studio, however, the pair spotted faint traces of letters on the white “road.”  Using a microscope and raking light, they found that enough traces of the original inscription remained to be confident of the wording of the panel’s inscription.  It reads PEREGRINI ST, “Pilgrims of the saint.” “We were pretty confident by that point that we had a genuine medieval panel,” says Koopmans, “but it was fantastic to have that confirmed by the inscription.  It was almost as if the medieval glaziers were tapping us on the back to tell us that we were on the right path.”

Remains of the inscription visible under raking light. Photo courtesy Rachel Koopmans

The medieval pilgrimage to Canterbury is best known today as the inspiration of the Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer’s seminal, late-fourteenth century work in Middle English verse.  Chaucer’s often bawdy tales and sketches of pilgrims such as the genial Host, the conniving Pardoner, the fussy Prioress, and the Wife of Bath have delighted generations of readers.  Illustrated versions of the Canterbury Tales date from in the fifteenth century, including the famed Ellesmere manuscript (a digital reproduction of the manuscript is available on-line), which includes individual portraits of all of the pilgrims and Chaucer himself.

Made two centuries before the Canterbury Tales were written, the panel discovered by Koopmans and Seliger portrays the first flush of pilgrims to Canterbury in the years immediately after Becket’s death.  Whereas Chaucer’s pilgrims are almost always represented on horseback, in the stained glass panel pilgrims on horseback are portrayed alongside pilgrims on foot and, in the foreground, a disabled man on crutches.  The foremost rider, clothed in blue, is taking a ring off of his finger to give as alms to the disabled man. “There are numerous contemporary sources describing how poor, ill, and disabled pilgrims were given alms to make their pilgrimages possible,” states Koopmans. “The glaziers were clearly working to create a realistic portrait of pilgrims journeying to Canterbury.  We are especially charmed by the wonderfully decorated boots being worn by the pilgrims on foot. Those boots may have been meant to underline the importance of the pilgrimage to Canterbury.”

Legs and feet of the pilgrims on foot. Photo courtesy Rachel Koopmans

The dating of the panel to the mid 1180s was determined by the date the Trinity Chapel construction was completed (ca.1182-84) and stylistic comparisons with stained glass at Canterbury dated ca. 1180.  Seliger, who has worked at Canterbury for more than twenty years, termed the discovery of the panel “a tremendous find,” stating “it’s like thinking you had a modern copy of the Mona Lisa, only to discover that you have a real Leonardo da Vinci on your hands.”  Koopmans and Seliger plan to continue their investigation into the early stained glass connected to Thomas Becket’s cult at Canterbury Cathedral in the years to come.

To learn more about Canterbury Cathedral, please visit their website

See also: The Bruce Dynasty, Becket and Scottish Pilgrimage to Canterbury, c.1178-c.1404

See also: Servants’ Tales at Twelfth-Century English Shrines

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