April 2015

THE FRIENDS OF ST GREGORY’S MINSTER KIRKDALE

newsletter april 2015

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Dear Friend

A friend once told me that in an interview for admission to an art college she was asked what stained glass windows were for, in churches. She talked confidently for a couple of minutes about iconography, picturing the words of the Scriptures - even managed to quote the Venerable Bede’s justification for images of the Divinity in churches, against the iconoclasts who demanded obedience to the second Commandment. The interviewing professor smiled in the manner of one who has got the wrong answer he was hoping for. No - the correct answer was ‘To let in light’. I agreed with my friend that academics can be too smart by half. Yes, to let in light, of course - but not solely so as to avoid stumbling about in the dark. Light is one of the natural phenomena to which we are deeply conditioned to respond at levels ranging from primitive to sophisticated. I have a cherished memory of a family outing to Lincoln one summer day, when the floor of the vast chair-free nave of the cathedral was splashed with coloured pools of light from the stained glass windows. My baby grandson let go his push-chair, holding which he had learnt to stand up, and tottered forth, delighted, into one pool of light after another, walking for the first time - and changing colour as he went. Those windows were not there just to let in light, full stop. That very simple response of delight in my grandson was also the basis of the far more complex satisfaction his granddad got from interpreting the imagery of the colourful glass through which the light passed. 

York has roughly half of all surviving medieval stained glass in England. For a remarkable display of the role of York’s early stained glass in adorning, teaching, celebrating and commemorating, visit The Orb - the temporary installation in York Minster featuring John Thornton’s magnificent and wonderfully inventive East Window (1408). Or browse the accessible glass in All Saints North Street - the Acts of Corporal Mercy based on Matthew 25, teaching the principles of a welfare society; or the ‘Prick of Conscience’ window based upon an extremely popular 14th-century English ‘eschatological’ poem; or the exquisitely beautiful and tender representation of St Anne teaching Mary to read.

Our glass in St Gregory’s Minster is modern work of the 20th century - but not without both quality and interest. The East Window, set in the original medieval stonework, is from the leading workshop established by Charles Eamer Kempe. It was given in 1914 in memory of Mrs Mabel Beckett (the Hon. Mabel Theresa Duncombe; died 2 April 1913) , wife of William Gervase Beckett of Kirkdale Manor, Conservative M.P. for Scarborough and Whitby, created Baronet in 1921 (whose memorial tablet is on the north wall of the nave). It is one of the workshop’s more complex windows. It depicts the Crucifixion, witnessed not only by Mary and John but by St Gregory (with the Virgin, on Christ’s right hand) and St Hilda of Whitby (with St John on Christ’s left hand). In the lower part are three lights, all depicting the Annunciation. Gabriel and the Dove of the Holy Spirit attend Mary, and a scroll across the lights contains Gabriel’s greeting (Ave Maria) to Mary, Mother of God: thus St Gregory’s Minster is one of a number of regional churches where a devotion to Our Lady is expressed, notably in glass commemorating women. Incidentally, the Kempe workshop also provided the window depicting Hilda of Whitby in St Hilda’s Church, Beadlam.

In the north wall of the nave are two more windows containing notable stained glass. The easterly one is signed with the initials ALW and the date is 1938, but as far as I know the artist’s identity has been lost. Research is needed. Mrs Phyllis Foster to whom the window is dedicated may well have been remembered as an animal lover, since both panels - one depicting St Giles, the other St Hubert - illustrate saintliness associated with the protection of animals. The westerly window, whether by chance or design, picks up the same theme of that rapport between saints and animals which so often features in saints’ legends. Behind such legends lies the ancient idea that, in achieving their sanctity, such holy people as Cuthbert of Lindisfarne (the subject of this window) were surrounded by such an aura of innocence as put away the fear or even enmity which existed between the animal world and humankind since the Fall of Adam and Eve. Instead, animals honour and serve the saint, just as the wild creatures of the desert honoured Christ and kept him unharmed during his forty days in the wilderness. So here, in one light, Cuthbert is assisted by his horse who finds divinely sent food for him in the thatch of a hut where they take shelter, and, in the other light, otters come to warm Cuthbert’s feet after he has been standing penitentially by night in the North Sea. The window is a memorial to Mr Peter Shaw. The glass (dated 1951) is by the distinguished artist Harry J. Stammers (1902-69), whose mark, a ship’s wheel, can be seen in the bottom left corner of the left light. Stammers, already an established artist in stained glass, was invited to move to York at the end of the Second World War by Dean Eric Milner-White of York Minster, and much of his work (which is found all over the country) was carried out in York. A curiosity of Stammers’ work was that he frequently featured himself somewhere within his windows. In the light depicting the otter-story, there is a tiny figure of a monk spying on Cuthbert (as the story tells): is this also Stammers? A clear photograph of the Cuthbert window can be seen online (https://www.flickr.com/photos/davewebster14/sets/72157625976385955/detail) on a site which has other good photographs of features of St Gregory’s Minster. Anyone charmed by Stammers’ work can find out much more about him in the recently published book by the local author, Henry Hinchcliffe, The Stained Glass Windows Of Harry Stammers (privately published 2015).

Thus, the stained glass of St Gregory’s Minster comprises one of the minor and more modern treasures of our ancient church. Each window repays close attention - and they make good subjects for expositions to visitors to the church (challenge them, for example, to spot Harry Stammers’ spying monk)!

The extensive works undertaken following the recommendations of the architect’s Quinquennial Report have now been largely completed. Drainage around the building has been improved, the church floor has been repaired, and the pathway from the churchyard gate to the porch is in process of being re-grouted. An archaeological watching brief was carried out by Lorna Watts who generously waived her fees as a donation ‘in kind’ to the Friends (who will be covering the considerable costs of the extensive repair project). Temporary exposure of the foundations of the east end of the chancel revealed stonework which could perhaps belong to a much earlier phase of the chancel’s development: we await expert assessments.

Somewhat frustratingly, however, attention to the belfry had to stop when the presence of bats was revealed, as mentioned briefly in the last Newsletter. Bat roosts are so firmly protected by law that to damage one, even inadvertently, can lead to prosecution. When the contractors also suspected the presence of bats in the Stables, preliminary work towards the installation of a toilet facility there also came to an abrupt halt. The JCC now has to receive commissioned Bat Reports from official observers, before continuation of these works can be considered. Protection of wild-life environments is a cause which most people support in principle - but a Private Members’ Bill has been making its way through Parliament, aimed at modifying the law so as to control the extensive damage done by bats to the contents, and sometimes even the function, of historic buildings. Those white-bleached flecks on much of the woodwork in St Gregory’s Minster are caused by bat urine; and, during the bats’ most active season, pews need to be swept clean of bats’ faeces - which, fortunately, is firm and dry and unlikely to create a health hazard. As can be imagined, fabrics such as altar cloths and embroidered work such as kneelers can suffer badly from the airborne bombardment of bats.  Meanwhile, the Parliamentary Bill has run into vigorous opposition from those who believe management of bat roosts is a viable alternative to their elimination. Perhaps for us in Kirkdale our stained glass windows in the north aisle have a timely message …

This is a year of substantial expenditures - as anticipated - and our reserves must be expected to shrink. The Trustees are therefore all the more grateful not only for the support of your subscription as a Friend but for the quite substantial additional donations which have come in over the year from Friends and especially for the very generous donation (once more) from the Ryedale Show Committee.

The Annual General Meeting and other events of the annual Friends’ Weekend draw near (information is enclosed with the Newsletter): we hope to see many Friends over these two days in May. The Kirkdale Lecture, to be given immediately after the AGM by the Revd Dr John Toy, formerly Chancellor of York Minster, promises to be colourful and interesting. Just at the time Orm Gamalson was rebuilding our Minster and rededicating it to Gregory the Great, Apostle of the English, a powerful nobleman in York, Siward (a relative of Orm’s), was building the church in Marygate dedicated to St Olav - former viking, savage in his determination to convert Norway to the peaceful ways of the Christian faith, martyred in battle at Stiklestad (1030), immediately proclaimed as a saint by his English confessor, enshrined in the cathedral at Nidaros (Trondheim), and eventually declared national saint and Perpetual King of Norway. An interesting juxtapositioning of cultures in Anglo-Scandinavian Yorkshire of the 11th century.

The Trustees wish you an enjoyable summer. Please don’t hesitate to make contact with any of them if you wish to communicate any comments, suggestions or criticisms relating to the Friends. Contact details for Chairman and Secretary and a list of present Trustees will be found among your AGM communications.

Yours,

Sid Bradley

Chairman

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The Trustees: Mrs Heather Harris (Chairman); Mrs Margery Roberts (Honorary Secretary); Mrs Diana Pearce (Honorary Treasurer); Reverend Susan Binks; Professor Sid Bradley; Mr Bob Chapple; Mrs Erica Dineen; Mr James Lloyd; Mr Gordon Mellor and Mr John Turner.  “The Friends of St Gregory’s Minster” is a charity registered with the Charity Commission, Charity Number 700344.

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