Sunday, 7 April 2013

The Fairford demons

On Easter day we went to Fairford – an old Cotswold market town through which the river Coln quietly flows – to see one of England’s great surviving works of medieval art: the stained glass in its church. Such glass is a rarity – so much was destroyed in the Reformation: the sculptures pulverized, the wall paintings plastered over, the windows smashed. Whatever the corruption, the cynicism, the extortion of the Church, it provided medieval people with colour, pageantry, festivals, entertainment, visions of heaven.

Somehow the glass at Fairford survived this purge almost intact. On a bright sunny Easter afternoon, brilliant blues and greens, purples and scarlets glow with an astonishing depth of colour.

For the illiterate shepherd or peasant, accustomed to the dull colours of earth, stone and bleached grass, it must have been the most luminous vision they’d ever see. It’s not only a visual bible story but a wondrous inventory of late medieval life. Amongst the lives of saints and old testament prophets, there are men in armour, distant turreted castles, brilliantly coloured gowns and hats, animals, fruits, plants and trees.

Most extraordinary of all is the west window - the last judgement. The upper half has been replaced by dull Victorian glass, but below, the scene of the weighing of souls - those destined for heaven, those for hell - is quite extraordinary. Whilst the virtuous are whirled up towards the light by piping angels, the sinful are being carried off to hellfire by terrible creatures - green monsters with scaly tales, spotted demons with horns and whips, purple ones hauling their pallid victims away in chains. Their mouths are open in silent horror as they slide down into the flames. It is too late to repent.

And at the bottom Satan waits, multi-eyed, lustful, pitiless, his gobbling stomach ready to devour the screaming souls being sucked into his blast-furnace so fiercely red you can almost feel the scorching heat coming off the sheets of glass. It could be a scene from Hieronymus Bosch - and you wonder if the men who made the glass, who were Flemish, could have shared his imaginative world. It must have scared the living daylights out of the humble folk of Fairford five hundred years ago.

1 comment:

  1. Great photos. A good reminder for the shutter bug in all of us travelers to take aim at detail as well as the grand overview that such windows provide.