Piecing together Scotland’s religious past with shards of glass

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Elgin Cathedral aerial photograph
Elgin Cathedral, historic ruin in Elgin, Moray, north-east Scotland.

Two Scottish researchers are attempting to piece together part of Scotland’s religious past by combining hi-tech science with historical knowledge.

Dr Michael Penman, a historian at the University of Stirling, and Dr Craig Kennedy of Heriot-Watt University, are seeking to discover what Scotland’s lost medieval stained glass looked like and identify its wider religious meaning.

Reformation’s destruction wiped out church windows 

During the Protestant Reformation of 1560, most of Scotland’s Catholic churches faced widespread destruction and items considered idolatrous were targeted and destroyed.

Significantly, stained glass windows were smashed and buried on-site, or otherwise left to decay, and were replaced by austere, plain glass.

In England and across Europe, church windows survived and still bathe visitors in their colourful light. In Scotland, visitors and historians have had to use their imaginations.

That’s what Dr Kennedy and Dr Penman want to change with their research.

Dr Michael Penman said: “If you visit the great medieval churches at Canterbury, Westminster or York, the stained glass windows are the main attraction for visitors, alongside the paintings on the walls.

“In medieval times, most of the congregation would have been illiterate, so stained glass and paintings would have been the best way to address them. Nowhere else would they have seen anything so colourful and lavish. They were positioned and designed based on when the light would move round the church and shine through to best effect.

“You can step inside these cathedrals and get a real sense of what congregants would have experienced, sitting for worship several times a day, basked in colour.

“In Scotland, the Reformation was much more destructive, and absolutely nothing remains in place.

“We want to try and recreate this experience and learn more about medieval daily life by combining historical research with scientific findings.”

Recreating church windows from just 16 shards

Drs Penman and Kennedy, who’re supported by research associates Dr Helen Spencer (Heriot-Watt) and Dr Tom Turpie (Stirling), have focused on two churches: Elgin Cathedral and Dunfermline Abbey.

14th century glass fragment from Elgin Cathedral.

14th century glass fragment from Elgin Cathedral, painted in the style of the time.

Dr Kennedy previously worked on a project that tested 30 shards of glass from Elgin Cathedral, using a state-of-the-art electron microscopy facility and x-ray fluorescence to identify the elements present, which in turn revealed the colour of the glass, and where it came from.

Dr Kennedy said: “Over the last few decades, we’ve been able to recover shards of medieval church glass during excavations. We can narrow down the age of the glass to part of a century, and from there can use scientific techniques to determine where it was produced. We can work out when it was produced from some decorative patterns.   

“We know the colours but so much more. The presence of certain glass tells us where Scotland had trade routes, and who sponsored or supported churches here.”

Combining scientific information and historical studies has led to an educated guess on how the chapel windows may have looked at Elgin Cathedral.

Dr Kennedy added: “The glass recovered from Elgin was red, brown, blue, green and clear, and many of the clear sections were decorated in the French grisaille style.

“Elgin Cathedral’s windows may have had grisaille borders and abstract top lights highlighting saintly figures. As to who those figures were, we have a number of candidates. The Virgin, Thomas Becket, St Columba of Iona and a few others are known to have regional dedications in the North East of Scotland.”

Trying to accurately imagine the stained glass windows of Dunfermline Abbey is proving difficult: only 16 shards of glass have been found.

Dr Kennedy said: “It is fascinating that a site of such national importance as Dunfermline Abbey has yielded so few glass shards to date. This site, Scotland’s national mausoleum, yielded red, white and blue glass samples.

“This site had a highly spiritual connection with St Margaret and we can assume that high-quality narrative glass was at some time installed in the Abbey.”

Next steps: A modern day medieval church window

Kennedy and Penman hope that they will win funding to support two researchers, one historical and one scientific, so that they can try to answer a simple question: ‘What did the glass look like?’

Using scientific techniques to trace the origins of the physical glass and historical studies to understand the religious stories that were conveyed, an attempt to recreate these lost windows can be made.

Through engaging with local communities near these sites, they also aim to shed a light on a previously unknown part of Scotland’s religious history. They hope to commission an expert glass artist to create medieval glass to tour Scotland and give people a window to the past.

Dr Penman said: “All the stained glass currently in Scottish churches of a medieval origin is modern –

from the 19th and 20th century – and often for Protestant congregations. If our research can identify a distinctive Scottish palette and styles for stained and painted medieval church glass, either figurative or decorative, then an artist might be able to recreate the imagery and thus the spiritual and huge emotional effect of such windows on Scottish worshippers before the Reformation.”

The research was published in the journal Heritage.