The Great West Window, Winchester Cathedral, southern England

Philip Mitchell

WINCHESTER, United Kingdom

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Artist's Description

We owe the present form of Winchester Cathedral’s magnificent West End to William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester. William the Conqueror had a new church begun in the Norman style in 1079 to replace the older Saxon cathedral. In the later 1300s, however, the original twin Norman towers at the West End became unsafe, and this prompted the shortening and remodelling of the whole of the Nave. Bishop Edington undertook the work, but it fell to his successor as Bishop, William of Wykeham, to complete the task. Immensely rich and influential, he was also Chancellor of England, and he had the work on the West End crowned with this splendid window in the Perpendicular style and the statue of St Swithun above. The glass would have cost a small fortune, but it would have been considered a fitting ornament for such a wealthy and powerful diocese as Winchester, which at that time stretched from the Thames to the Channel Islands. In the early evening the sinking sun catches the glass’s myriad pieces. But if you go inside and look carefully, preferably with binoculars, you will soon discover that this was not the end of the window’s story.

Today it is in fact a huge, largely abstract mosaic, albeit a spectacular one, with only a few of its original prophets and saints left intact. This is because in 1642 a group of Cromwell’s reforming soldiers, presumably offended by this show of worldly extravagance, deliberately wrecked it by throwing at it whatever came to hand, including bones from some of the Cathedral’s mortuary chests! Luckily the glass fragments were painstakingly collected by some of the locals, and after the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660 a reconstruction of the window was attempted; but the difficulty of recreating the original design was just too great, and so the result is, out of sheer necessity, a pre-figuring of collage art by several hundred years!

Keats tells us that he passed under this wonderful front near the start of his daily walks during his visit to Winchester in 1819.

Winchester Cathedral is one of English Heritage’s Grade 1 listed buildings.

(Technical note: to cope with the brightness of the sun’s reflection in the glass, the sky and the stone had to be noticeably under-exposed, but I think this adds a certain visual impact.)

Artwork Comments

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