Last edited 04 Feb 2024

Main author

Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

The abstract stained glass of Manchester Cathedral

Manchester Cathedral has had the foresight and finances to allow British designers and craftspeople to continue to make a distinctive contribution to the art of stained glass.

St Denys window Manchester Cathedral.jpg
A detail of the St Denys window (Photo: Nathan Staziker).

Stained glass has been crafted for thousands of years, evolving from early mosaic work and glass object making in the Roman and Egyptian Empires. Larger scale images were created using small pieces of coloured glass divided by a came (the dividing bar). It is the work of skilled craftsmen and stained glass designers who often served as apprentices.

Stained glass is often associated with religious buildings, being an excellent early medium to explain and educate the masses in medieval Britain in theology, using religious imagery with symbolic details. It became a principal element of late medieval art and architecture and a crucial element of Gothic architecture. By Victorian times, stained glass was common in domestic as well as ecclesiastical buildings.

The specialist artisanry of stained glass making was first recognised by the formation of the GlaziersCompany, now known as the Worshipful Company of Glaziers and Painters of Glass. This dates back to the late 14th century at least. Today, through its charity the Glaziers Foundation, the company supports both the education and conservation of glaziers and glazing.

In 1921 the British Society of Master Glass Painters (BSMGP) was founded, recognising the importance of the skilled artisanry and the artistic value of stained glass. This society is devoted to the art and craft of stained and painted glass. Holding a wealth of information about our stained glass heritage, it continues to promote education, preservation and high standards of craftsmanship. The BSMGP Centenary Exhibition included 60 bespoke panels. Created by members during the Covid lockdown, it travelled around the country. In November 2022 it ended in Manchester Cathedral, the home of some of the best modern stained glass in Britain.

Although located in the medieval heart of the city, Manchester Cathedral lost its visual dominance during the expansion of the city in the industrial revolution and developments in the 20th and 21st centuries. It recently celebrated its 600th anniversary. When the medieval church of St Mary was considered too small, permission was granted by charter in 1421 by King Henry V and the pope to build a new church: the Collegiate Church of St Mary, St Denys and St George. In 1847 it became Manchester Cathedral, formally the Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St Mary, St Denys and St George. The origins of the earliest church building on this site can be dated to 700 AD, as evidenced by the Angel Stone, which was found during the Victorian restoration and is securely displayed in the cathedral.

The cathedral has been described by John Harvey as ‘one of the best examples of the (Perpendicular) style with its spreading array of chapels, its grand tower, and its exquisitely carved stalls’. Beside the magnificent 15th-century chancel, including choir stalls, misericords and Bishop’s chair, the various chapels, memorials and furnishings and the impressive Stoller organ, the stained glass windows inserted in the past 60 years have added an exciting and colourful experience. Any historic glass that had survived the Civil War, the Reformation and the Victorian restoration was obliterated by the Luftwaffe in the 1940 Manchester Blitz. Part of the cathedral building was also destroyed.

The repairs to the blitz damaged windows were managed by Hubert Worthington (1886– 1963), the cathedral architect. His restoration of the windows included the use of transparent or slightly tinted Norman slab glass from Sunderland, except for the east window. Many of these windows are still in place today. They provided a blank canvas for the dean and chapter to create, as funds allowed, a new artistic identity for the cathedral.

The oldest is the east window, located in the Lady Chapel. It was restored and part of the wall was rebuilt. The stained glass artist was Gerald Smith (1883–1959), working in a traditional style following AK Nicholson (1871–1937) with whom he worked. The window was created in memory of Henry Boddington JP (1849–1925) and includes figures of other local people (John Byrom, Thomas Langley and Hugh Oldham), saints (Chad and Aidan) and Christ in Majesty and has lights with shields and motifs.

There are several excellent windows by Mark Cazalet, Alan Lewis, Margaret Traherne and Linda Walton. However, it is the sublime windows of Tony Holloway that are of particular importance. Combining abstract designs and contextual symbols with traditional glass colours, they read as a group of five windows.

Antony Holloway (1928–2000) was an artist, sculptor and lecturer. He worked with Manchester architect (and cathedral architect) Harry M Fairhurst on projects such as the 68 metre concrete brutalist sculptural wall at UMIST in Manchester (1968). Fairhurst and Holloway continued to collaborate on a series of five windows at the west end of the cathedral. The first three were designed around the history of the city and dedicated to the saints of the cathedral, using abstract designs and traditional colours.

Holloway’s three central windows, showing St George, St Mary and St Denys, connect directly to the building through symbolism. The design of the St George window (1971), set within the 15th-century fabric, incorporates the white cross of Christianity and the red cross of St George. The use of colours and glass shapes define the tail, scales and eyes of the dragon.

The St Mary window (1980), in the rebuilt tower (1868) above the west door, is the central of the five windows. It reflects the patron saint of the earliest church with a blue circle representing the ancient symbol of Christian perfection. The colour blue is traditionally associated with St Mary the Virgin. The circle is dissected by white glass, representing a shaft of light referring to the death of Jesus, thus breaking the perfect circle. The faint lettering in the blue glass area is from the Magnificat.

The St Denys window (1976), set within the 15th-century fabric, is dominated by a red double cross, referring to the double barred cross of Lorraine, an emblem of the French nobility in 1431. It can also refer to Jesus on the cross. A large pale circle refers to the martyrdom of a third-century priest St Denys, who became the patron saint of France. The smaller circles refer to St Denys’ two deacons who died with him. The link with the cathedral to St Denys is thought to be associated with King Henry V, who was married to Catherine of Anjou, the daughter of King Charles VI of France, and who gave the collegiate church of 1421 its charter.

Flanked either side of these three central windows are the Creation and the Revelation windows. These introduce the observer to the theology of the beginning and the end, from innocence to mystery, and through time and space. The Creation window (1991), on the west end south aisle, depicts the Genesis story and the rays of light coming from the sun and the moon at the top of the window. It also represents the passing of the seasons. The white zigzag across the centre of the window reflects the parting of the waters, referring to the salvation of the individual by baptism. At the bottom of the window are the ancient symbols of man and woman and a wheel of continuity reflecting God’s love reaching out to man. There are glimpses of flying forms and serpents. The window exhibits elements of control and chaos, movement and vitality.

The design of the Revelation window (1995), on the west end outer north aisle, is based on the mysteries of the Book of Revelation. Holloway intended to use his abstract design to depict the stones of the heavenly city. The perpendicular tracery does not define the glazing patterns, adding considerable interest.

Holloway uses extraordinary skill in his use of colour to reinforce the messages of each window, with a tapestry-like interplay between shape, form and colour. This invites the viewer to follow particular threads or meditations, guided and informed by the richness of imagery, while at the same time allowing the viewer to step back and see all five west windows as a group. Other windows of note are the Fire window, the Healing window, the Hope window, and the Frazer Chapel window. Although excellent, their impact is lessened slightly by the rebuilding of the wall, having reduced the windows from seven light widths to five.

The Fire window (1966) at the east end of the Regimental Chapel was paid for by the Manchester Regiment. Designed by Margaret Traherne (1919–2006), it is a memorial to Sir Hubert Worthington (1886–1963), the architect responsible for the restoration of the cathedral after the 1940 Manchester blitz. Traherne wanted to illustrate the impact of the war in her window, as the east elevation was most damaged in the blitz, drawing on John Piper’s painting of Coventry Cathedral. She demonstrates the feeling of battle and fire in her use of yellow, orange and red coloured glass. When the window was damaged again in 1996 by the blast of the IRA bomb, Traherne supervised the repairs.

The Hope window (2016), in the northeast quire aisle, is the latest. Designed by Alan Davis, it is dedicated to Manchester, the vibrant and colourful city. According to the order of service at the window’s dedication in 2016, the design incorporates “growth and regeneration, including tree and flower forms which move upwards through the central lancet. There is a pattern of woven fabric, relating to the textile industries and the concept of God as the weaver of the universe. The tilted cross in the centre of the window symbolises Christ’s final journey, while the angles add dynamism and a sense of forward movement”. The inclusion of a bee refers to the emblem on the Manchester Coat of Arms, representing the city’s hardworking people.

The Healing window (2004), above the east door, was designed by Linda Walton. The abstract design reflects the importance of Manchester as a city of medicine. It was intended to thank the hardworking medical profession and anyone involved in healing.

The Fraser Chapel window (2001), entitled ‘Flight’ and designed by Mark Cazalet, depicts the dove with an olive branch in its beak returning to Noah’s Ark.

Manchester Cathedral is one of many buildings that exhibits its glorious stained glass with pride. It has had the foresight and finances to allow British designers and craftspeople to continue to make a distinctive contribution to its evolution as a relevant place of worship and stained glass art in the twenty-first century. This comes at a time when Heritage Crafts, the national charity, has warned that stained glass window making is an endangered craft in the UK.

Acknowledgement: Thanks to Marion McClintock for her support and advice.

This article originally appeared in the Institute of Historic Building Conservation’s (IHBC’s) Context 177, published in September 2023. It was written by Alexandra Fairclough, conservation officer for Cheshire East, a lecturer and member of the IHBC legal panel. She regularly leads architectural tours of Manchester Cathedral.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

Related articles on Designing Buildings

Designing Buildings Anywhere

Get the Firefox add-on to access 20,000 definitions direct from any website

Find out more Accept cookies and
don't show me this again