Herkenrode Stained Glass book review #1

This is the first part of a passionate layman’s ignorant and tentative review of the book The Stained Glass of Herkenrode Abbey by Isabelle Lecocq and Yvette Vanden Bemden, published by the British Academy and Oxford University Press, 2022. This first outing covers some overall impressions of the work, but concentrates on the opening 40-odd pages (out of the tome’s 500-odd) which focus on the Belgian abbey; the creation and reputation of its 16th Century stained glass up until the end of the 18th Century The windows’ rescue and adventurous passage to England is posted as “Herkenrode Stained Glass book #2”. (Their arrival at Lichfield Cathedral, installation in the cathedral, religious symbolism and recent restoration will have to wait whilst I catch my breath and read things up.)

DRAFT – I am very open to comment and correction

The Stained Glass of Herkenrode Abbey (£165) is published by OUP and written mostly by Isabelle Lecocq and Yvette Vanden Bemden as part of The Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi (CVMA), an international association of medieval stained glass institutes and experts whose UK branch is badged as a British Academy operation. I say the work is authored by Lecocq (IL) and Vandem Bemden (YV) but it has several other distinguished contributors whose work is traceable within the volume by their initials. I am fascinated that Lecocq seems to have taken the majority of the lovely photographs in the volume (more on that in a separate post).

This tome has two separate tasks, I think. One is to expand on the tantalising article by Yvette Vandem Bemden in The Journal of Stained Glass (Volume XXII, 2008) whose 42 pages told the Herkenrode/Lichfield story up till 2008. The other is to tell the story – and give us the images – of the restoration of the glass undertaken 2010-15. In brief, it does all this work very well. Given its several authors, some material seems disjointed. Notably, the story of Sir Brooke Boothby is scattered over a couple of separated chapters and has its essential romance and interest diluted.

Beyond being academic, this book is also unwieldy. I read my review copy on a sofa-surfer’s laptop lectern, which works pretty well. Otherwise its weight, size and bulk require one to sit at a table. If I may, I will address this sort of issue when I move to an important and related theme: that a book with so many images ought to be available as an e-book, or its images at least ought to be online in various resolutions. Whoever funded the restoration of this vast, beautiful glass artwork missed a trick in not insisting on this point, I believe.  That’s for another post.

I love the early-16h Century glass which Lichfield Cathedral in the early 19th Century bought from the remnants of the Herkenrode Abbey near Liège when it was secularised. In autumn 2021 my wife and I made a pilgrimage to see the windows. I strongly believe that they speak of a timeless image-making which is alive and well in Marvel comics. That is to say, its faces and figures – and its story-telling – are about heroes. In our churches, the far more commonly found 19th Century glass and occasional 20th Century glass has great strengths (often when it nods to the Medieval, but occasionally at its most modern) and it is sometimes by artists who deserve to be distinguished.  But 19th Century stained glass often tends to the sophisticated, whimsical, sighing and swooning religiosity which suited the frenchified evangelical Anglo-catholic taste. True, the pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts stained glass creators sometimes gave us strong figures and faces. Still, high and late Medieval image-making (on glass or in illuminated documents) is often naive, gutsy, cartoonist, muscular, and sometimes humorous. When suffering, its faces tend to be authentically tortured, not anguished.

What is known of the creation of the Herkenrode glass is thrilling if incomplete. From the 13th Century until Napoleon’s secular vandalism in the late 18th Century, Herkenrode Abbey in the east of modern Belgium was an outstanding Cistercian monastery for women. As told in Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns Through Two Millennia by Jo Ann McNamara (1996), Christian female spirituality and monasticism has always been a story in which nuns and their leaders had to be twice as devout, tough and canny as their male counterparts. Male monastic orders had to work out how to separate themselves from the “real world” whilst earning some sort of living from it. They had to decide on a chain of command and authority within each of their establishments, and between their establishments and the non-monastic church authorities. Convents faced the additional difficulties that they had to defer both to male priests in religious  matters and to male functionaries when it came to their economic matters. We learn from SGHA that Herkenrode Abbey had the great advantage that its community was composed of affluent and aristocratic women. Over the centuries, it tended to thrive: it was well embedded in regional aristocratic networks. Its abbesses were drawn from great families, as were its “choir nuns” (the equivalent of a male monastery’s choir monks, who were also priests). It had substantial land holdings, and found ways to manage them. It had lax and devout periods, and periods when it was at peace with the world and when it fell foul of secular authority or near-anarchy.

TSGH’s authors give us an especially rich account of the aesthetics of the three Abbesses of the Lexhy family who successively commissioned decorative pieces for their convent. It is fascinating to note that the abbesses’ aesthetic seems to have been in line with a wide northern European trend for affluent and creative women to follow and admire accounts of brave (in old-speak, “virtuous”) female figures throughout the ages. They seem to have been influenced by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) and his late work, Famous Women. Accounts of Elizabeth Hardwick and her friend and prisoner Mary Queen of Scots in the late 16th Century show this sort of proto-feminism alive and well. (Try An Elizabethan Inheritance: The Hardwick Hall Textiles, Santina M Levey, 1998 on these themes.) It is nice to think of the convent where, supposedly secluded from the world, Belgian women worked with this intelligent fashion a few decades earlier than English and Scottish women of style. TSGH tells us that although we know a good deal about Herkenrode’s commissioning of works in other media, the record is silent about its stained glass windows. Circumstantial evidence suggests that they were made in the 1520s and ’30s. Their creators remain anonymous, though comparison with other glass work of the period seems to give some general clues as to their probable Low Countries origin (I am blowed if I can find the right TSGH page to confirm this tit-bit).  After that, nothing. No-one seems to have written about these wonders. In 1770, PL Soumery published a book on the Liège region and its art and architecture. He is glowing on other Herkenrode treasures, but does not mention glass. TSGH speculates that he may have thought the work, “very old-fashioned”. Indeed , he may have disdained the medieval glass in much the way many modern vicars positively dislike their church’s Victorian stained glass.

And so we fast-forward to the Napoleonic period and the closure of Herkenrode Abbey. TSGH tells us how some ousted nuns of the abbey bought some of the estate, including its stained glass windows, and that a local entrepreneur bought it and the windows from them. There was at the time quite a thriving business in Britain for the purchase of medieval glass, much of it Continental, and prices were low since the Continentals didn’t rate such art. Besides, secularism was the order of the day. By the time of widespread religious Catholic revival, in the mid and late 19th Century,  tastes had changed. Enter Sir Brooke Boothby and his purchase of the under-appreciated and under-priced glass. See “Herkenrode Stained Glass book #2”.

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Publication date

11 May 2022


Mind & body; On art; On books