Festival in the Chapel

Carola Hicks takes a seasonal look at the stained glass of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, the subject of her new book.

However, the service is not an ancient ritual, for it was instituted in 1918 by the Dean, Eric Milner-White, to commemorate the first Christmas of the peace, just six weeks after Armistice Day. The annual broadcasts began in 1928. Milner-White was a Fellow of the college for more than twenty years, and his other great legacy to the Chapel was complementing its famous stained-glass windows by installing in the side-chapels other examples of sixteenth-century glass from England and the Continent; he established a major collection which is still being added to today.

These smaller panels can be seen at eye-level, and so provide an opportunity to appreciate the glaziers’ skills and techniques close-up. This gives a key to understanding the great windows above, whose stunning colours, dramatic figures and epic narrative were created by a team of designers and glaziers who were the supreme masters of their art – despite being unpopular economic migrants from Flanders who were seen as a threat to English craftsmen.

These stained-glass windows appear to us in perfect ensemble with the Chapel’s soaring Gothic architecture, its culmination the exquisite, stonework tracery of the fan-vaulted ceiling. Viewing the building’s distinctive profile against the winter sky, with its spiky turrets and jutting parapets, it is hard to comprehend its chequered history: a building campaign that stalled and stalled again, lacked regular funding, had to express changing tastes and the needs of different royal patrons, and, hardest of all, reflect the fundamental shift in doctrine after Henry VIII made himself Head of the Church of England. For all these reasons, the glass, installed as the final phase of the project, was in a more advanced artistic style than its stone framework, for Gothic had given way to Renaissance.

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