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St Katherine at Ludlow

There is such a huge wealth of medieval stained glass in St. Lawrence’s Church in Ludlow, known as the Cathedral of the Marches, that it is difficult to take it all in on a single visit. I wondered how the fragile material had survived over five hundred years of existence, given not only the outright iconoclasm of the 16th century Reformation, but also periods of uncertainty during the 17th century Civil war and everyday neglect and vandalism. I learnt that while pictures and statues can be smashed or defaced, the precious metals and gems in church plate resold and reused, likewise rich textiles, broken stained glass had no value and once the reformers’ initial rage filled wave of destruction was over, the empty windows would have to be re-glazed at some expense.

Out of the many beautiful translucent works of art which still grace the window openings here,

one of the most beguiling is the glowing “Golden Window”, situated in St. John’s Chapel and depicting Saint Katherine, John the Baptist and St. Christopher. It dates from the middle of the 15th century and was installed in memory of one John Parys, a wealthy draper and Warden of the Palmers’ Guild in Ludlow. The rich shades of gold were produced by the use of silver nitrate, an expensive technique the results of which could be difficult to control , giving differing depths of colour according to varying firing temperatures. It is clear that no expense was spared in the manufacture of this complex window, which also features the text of the Creed and assumes literacy in the eyes of the 15th century beholder.

John and his wife Katherine are depicted as tiny figures, kneeling in prayer inside a walled enclosure with their son and daughter occupying a similar space nearby. Their stature is in contrast to their namesake saints who literally overshadow them in both size and presence, and suggests a humility appropriate to the occasion as the upper part of the window depicts also the Virgin Mary and the Risen Christ in attendance.

St. Katherine sits before a backdrop of a golden damask patterned with grasses and threaded through with crimson streamers, the rich colours of amber and gold reflected in her immense crown studded with rubies and sapphires, which also decorate the edges of her white cloak. She has taken possession of the sword and cruel spiked wheel with which she was to be put to death ; the wheel is now reduced to a harmless accessory tucked under her arm, while the fearsome broadsword is being used to skewer the head of an understandably grimacing man being trampled underfoot, presumably the Emperor Maxentius who ordered her execution.

Katherine displays an impressive expression of nonchalance during this act of somewhat unchristian retribution, as her face is serene and impassive beneath beautifully arched brows.

It is a beautiful window indeed.

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