14.06.03, Hart, Medieval Church Window Tracery in England

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Jennifer S Alexander

The Medieval Review 14.06.03

Hart, Stephen. Medieval Church Window Tracery in England. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2012. Pp. xiv, 154. ISBN: 9781843837602.

Reviewed by:
Jennifer S Alexander
University Warwick

Church builders before the early 13th century designed windows to be single openings in the wall and increased the light by grouping two or three together but it was only after the designer of Reims chevet promoted the use of bar-tracery, in which larger single openings were divided up by bars of stone, that windows could really be made much larger. English masons then displayed particular originality in the designs used for the windows and created a range of different styles and types of bar tracery, first of all based on geometric forms, then using more complex layouts in which arcs change direction to make patterns of sinuous lines across the heads of windows before regularity reasserted itself again at the end of the period.

Stephen Hart's new book presents a detailed study of English church window tracery that seeks to establish an "unambiguous basis of classification" for the elements that make up the various tracery patterns, and to show how, despite variations, developmental threads can be determined across time. It is a closely-focussed account of parish church windows that only occasionally allows reference to a major building where it is unavoidable, as in the case of Westminster Abbey and Binham Priory, the first English sites to use bar tracery, or medieval St Paul's in London for the introduction of the elements of the Perpendicular style.

The first two chapters provide a brief historiography of tracery- studies, starting with Rickman's classification of periods according to style and its refining by later writers, followed by an overview of the development of windows, the frames in which the tracery sits, across the whole medieval period. Included in this is a helpful diagram for the construction of the window arches. Technical terms appear early on, and are supported by a useful glossary at the back.

In categorising primary tracery designs Hart adopts a geometrical approach that distinguishes between those subdivisions that follow the same radius as the window head, "Coincident" and those that do not, "Non-Co-incident." The simplest "Coincident" form is that found in two-light windows where further motifs occupy the space below or above a Y-shaped division, the other incident of this, and perhaps the most visually significant, is that of intersecting or so-called "Y tracery," where there are no further elements within the design, and this is duly considered in Chapter 5. Once the Curvilinear phase of Decorated is reached the term becomes less useful as single radius arcs are replaced by the more complex ogee, or double-return, curves of windows of the second quarter of the 14th century. Distinction is drawn between elements that constitute the framework and those that articulate the space, or create what Hart describes as the "style" of the tracery, thus imposing a hierarchy within the process of design. In some cases the skeletal framework dominates the design, in others the frame and the lesser details are balanced, there seem to be no cases where the framework takes second place.

A further short chapter on the origins of tracery follows which plots the development from grouped lancets to bar tracery and introduces some new terminology, "strap tracery" for example, for flat rather than moulded sections of stone, and "sunk-spandrel tracery" for minor spaces that are articulated but not pierced. In the latter case the examples quoted are mostly from the East Midlands area and it would be interesting to know how much wider the distribution of this feature is, and whether the buildings they are in share other common features, such as period, patronage or stone type.

The main section of the book is the four chapters that deal with the major divisions of window type, under the traditional headings of Lancet, Geometric, Curvilinear and Perpendicular. The declared a- chronological perspective allows the author to discuss a range of periods within the chapter on lancets, covering single-light narrow pointed windows through to multi-light examples that might equally have appeared in the subsequent chapters and it is here that distinctions become blurred. By emphasizing the primacy of the framework evident in "Coincident" tracery, quite complex structures can be described as lancet in form, even including the Curvilinear example at East Malling.

Bar tracery having already appeared in the chapter on lancets, an examination of the geometric layouts of pre-ogee tracery follows next with a brief description of those windows in which compass-drawn features such as oculi occur. Encircled motifs soon broke free from their circles and some became pointed, others extended beyond the virtual circle, and both were to be integrated in turn with the freer shapes developed from the ogee arch. Tracery was the main site for the exploitation of this non-structural type of arch, either pierced for windows, or used as a type of surface enrichment, indeed its origins lie in precisely that form as it was developed for use on the sculptural Eleanor Crosses of the 1290s, as Hart notes.

It is in this phase that the parish church masons took the initiative in window designs away from the big cathedral workshops rather than follow in their wake, providing their patrons with an unprecedented degree of variety and visual richness, although for Hart independence was a feature from a much earlier date. A visual catalogue of photographs and a wide-ranging series of examples allow the reader to follow the increasing complexities of design possible in the Curvilinear style. Lincolnshire and Norfolk seem to have had the most extravagant and spectacular designs in use during the period and their organic, plant-like forms paradoxically ushered in a greater regularity with a more restrained use of drooped or pear-shaped motifs, marshalled into formalised units. The term "stem and leaf" tracery was coined in the 19th century to describe these still organic forms, presented here as "leafed stem" tracery since Hart now adds "petal" as well, for a variant that lacks the vertical element. French masons adopted elements of Curvilinear in their Flamboyant tracery, and Hart uses the term for some of the "flame-like" tracery in England which seems to share characteristics with the French designs albeit arrived at independently.

In discussing the Perpendicular style, Hart follows the established diagnostic determinant of the vertical mullion that meets the window arch without deviation, and the reduction of ogee arches to minor elements. The multi-curved shapes of Curvilinear tracery units became regularised, both in their shape, with more straight lines used, and in their repetition as units so that the window heads started to assume the grid-like shape that was to be characteristic of Perpendicular. It is at this point that windows achieved their greatest size, and in particular, width, and certain tracery elements such as "super transoms," the horizontal bars within the tracery itself rather than those across a lower section, are described by Hart as providing lateral stability across these greater spaces. Curvilinear designs did not disappear but were often incorporated within the more regular grid-like forms of Perpendicular and there was evidently a long transition period between the two styles. Perpendicular itself can be found as long as Gothic was a style used by masons, with Christopher Wren's Tom Tower in Oxford from 1681, or Nicholas Hawkesmoor's completion of the west front of Westminster Abbey in the early 18th century constructed with Perpendicular window tracery, but Hart adheres firmly to the medieval aspect of his title and finishes his book with a single, and unparalleled, example from the 16th century.

The coverage is broad although with a strong southern bias, Yorkshire is the most northerly county represented and that has only four entries, whereas Lincolnshire and Norfolk are more comprehensively covered and there are no entries for the south-west of England. The rationale for this is not discussed, but it has been determined by Hart's search for the main developmental lines of tracery design, his "continuous thread" linking groups of windows, in which development evolves through continuity of use. This is an interesting approach and one that could be developed further by reference to a series of other factors, involving more detailed discussion of aspects such as the importance of regionalism, in turn affected by periodic prosperity, which need to be factored into the discussion, but these are left for other authors.

Hart's approach invites comparison with 19th-century antiquarians such as Edmund Sharpe, and E.A. Freeman who last focussed attention in this much detail upon the designs of window tracery used by the parish church builders in medieval England. Departing from Sharpe's emphasis on windows from the 14th century when the Decorated style was current and from which the most inventive designs can be found, Hart considers earlier and later periods as well. Where Sharpe used engravings, Hart uses photographs, some rectified, with occasional diagrams to clarify points. Hart has re-opened the debate about tracery for the modern age and by providing a new vocabulary for the details of tracery design he has enabled the subject to develop further. It remains for others to seek reasons behind the dissemination of style, and discussion of the wider issue of the place of window design within the whole program of parish church building, involving stained glass, sculpture and other imagery, and of the influence of patrons in the process. For building archaeologists questions about decisions regarding relative proportion and the striking points of tracery motifs made at the geometric lay- out stage remain to be addressed, but Hart has opened up the possibility for such study in the future.

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Author Biography

Jennifer S Alexander

University Warwick