York Minster is undoubtedly one of the world’s most magnificent cathedrals. Since the 7th century, it has been at the centre of Christianity in the North of England and today remains a thriving place of worship. Every aspect of this ancient building – from the exquisite, handcrafted stone, through to the unrivalled collection of medieval stained glass – tells the story of faith in the city, and has attracted visitors from across the globe for more than 1,000 years.
But this autumn, visitors to York can experience the Minster in a different light – quite literally – when the critically-acclaimed and highly celebrated Northern Lights installation returns from 24th–31st October to raise much-needed funds to protect the Minster’s medieval stained glass windows.
The sound and light installation, which debuted to sell-out audiences in June last year, will transform the cavernous Nave with projections of images and audio inspired by the cathedral’s medieval history.
‘The York Glaziers Trust entered into a formal partnership with York Minster in 2017 and, at the same time, we embarked upon a new plan for the conservation of its windows,’ explains Sarah Brown, Director of the Trust. ‘But our relationship with the Minster goes back over 50 years. In the years after the Second World War, the then-Dean of York – a man called Eric Milner-White – spearheaded a major project of restoration to return to the Minster 80 windows that had been taken out for safekeeping during the war. As this drew to a close in the 1960s, the Dean wanted to ensure that the expertise in stained glass that had been built up should be maintained, and in 1967 the York Glaziers Trust was formally set up. So we’ve been working with York Minster since Noah was a boy!
‘In 2017, we had 70 medieval windows that had absolutely no kind of protection from the elements. York Minster has the largest and most diverse collection of stained glass in any medieval building in the UK, with a collection ranging from the 12th century through to the 18th century, so it’s hugely important to our cultural heritage. And stained glass is very susceptible to a chemical alteration which is initiated by moisture. As well as corrosion to the internal decoration that makes the windows works of art, moisture can also make the glass thinner and, therefore, more susceptible to mechanical pressure. Our main priority is to have all of those medieval windows in a stable position within the next 20 years.’
The most effective form of protection for stained glass windows is a ventilated double-glazing: a small gap is created at the top and bottom of each layer of glazing to allow air into the interspace between them which keeps the glass dry from the inside. Additionally, the external glazing groove of each window pane will be given a new ‘skin’ as part of the York Glaziers’ work, meaning the weather will be battering against what is essentially a new, clear glass window – not, in itself, of any great value – rather than against the Minster’s precious medieval glass. But as with most conversation projects, this all comes at a cost – and that’s where Northern Lights comes in.
Designed by Ross Ashton and Karen Monid from the double-Guinness World Record holding company The Projection Studio, Northern Lights takes inspiration from the Minster’s own windows to invite visitors into a world of hyper-reality: transforming the Nave into something like the medieval cathedral it once was and telling the stories of the local people who worshipped there, using a whirlwind of colour, sound and imagery.
‘I’m a Yorkshireman, I’m from Sheffield originally, so I know York very well and already had some ideas of my own,’ explains Ross. ‘So when the Minster approached us, both Karen and I jumped at the chance. It’s an absolutely magnificent space – who wouldn’t want to be given the opportunity to work there?’
With the only instructions being that the installation needed to celebrate the Minster’s stained glass, Northern Lights is centred around the theme of the apocalypse – both in Christianity and in pagan beliefs, drawing particularly upon York’s Viking heritage. This theme is vividly explored in the Great East Window of the Minster, the conservation of which was completed last year in what proved to be one of the world's largest and most complex conservation projects. A monumental work of medieval art, the Great East Window was created by celebrated glazier John Thornton and contains two biblical cycles: Creation and Revelation. Beneath the ‘heavenly realm’ at the head of the window – populated by angels, prophets, patriarchs, apostles, saints, and martyrs – there are three rows of 27 Old Testament scenes, from the Creation to the death of Absalom. Below this, scenes from the predicted apocalypse appear, with a row of historical figures at the base of the window. Although a well-known subject in medieval art, the selection of apocalypse iconography in this artistic medium was without national precedent.
Come October, the Minster’s Nave will be completely cleared of all furniture to allow for the Northern Lights installation, which will project scenes onto the Minster’s walls and ceiling, while recordings from the York Minster Choir, voices telling first-hand accounts of life in medieval York, and readings of prophecies and poetry envelope the listener in an immersive sensory experience.
‘The Minster carried out a 3D laser scan of the inside of the building, where a laser measure was used to send out millions of light beams, each of which telling the exact distance to a certain point,’ explains Ross. ‘From that data, we were able to digitally reconstruct the inside of the building and create a projection map – meaning we could design straight onto it and then put the finished product into the computers that will project the images onto the Minster’s walls. That’s how the really intimate magic of the installation works, because each of the images fits exactly onto the architectural detail of the Minster.’
We’re used to working on a large scale,’ continues Karen. ‘We’ve created projections for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002, and have worked with the Houses of Parliament and a number of cathedrals now, but for this piece we adopted something of the medieval artisan view. They designed the windows to be seen from the ground, and had to think about space in terms of sound – how the cathedral was going to make voices and music, essentially, divinely acceptable. That musical expression of devotion had to carry to God, so the Minster was created in order to not only bring heaven to earth, but also to take something of earth to heaven.’
Using medieval imagery, iconography, texts and music, Northern Lights’ theme explores what academics have established as being one of the major preoccupations for people living in the period – fear for the soul after death.
‘Those fears really come through in the material we’ve found,’ says Karen. ‘For example, we use a homily delivered by Wulfstan the Second, who was the Archbishop of York in the 11th century, where he talks about the end of the world. It’s quite strident stuff! But there’s something special about taking words that were first spoken in the Minster and bringing them back to life. Especially alongside images of the Apocalypse Window, which was installed about 400 years later. The importance of leading a good life on earth to make sure you got to heaven in the afterlife was clearly a very strong concern for centuries.’
The fact that stained glass was a powerful enough medium to convey this to visitors to the Minster is also remarkable, and the many stories and parables contained in the windows are constantly addressed throughout Northern Lights. After all, the installation is centred around raising funds for the restoration of the stained glass and this work is important for a reason: these windows have been major points of communication for the people of York for over 1,000 years.
‘Northern Lights starts with a very famous fable from the Venerable Bede, about a sparrow which flies into the hall of the king,’ says Ross. ‘During a feast on a winter’s night a window blows open and a sparrow flies in, flies around the hall for a moment and then finds its way back out of the window into the darkness. It’s a parable about the brevity of human life, centred around the fact that we don’t know where we have come from or where we are going in the afterlife.’
Visitors to Northern Lights will have the chance to explore the imagery of the windows themselves as the last of the day’s natural light comes through, before the installation begins and they are transformed. The Minster will also be hosting a series of talks with academics so that visitors can learn more about the scenes they’re witnessing and the voices they’re hearing.
‘York Minster is one of the great Gothic buildings of the world, and the glass is part of its unique selling point,’ reasons Sarah. ‘No conservation can be achieved or afforded without the support of the wider public, and that’s what is so exciting about events like Northern Lights: public interest in the stained glass and its conservation has risen hugely because we’re presenting the images within these windows and the stories behind them.’
Northern Lights will be presented at York Minster from 24th–31st October. For more information, visit www.yorkminster.org
To read our full interviews with Sarah, Ross and Karen, visit www.livingnorth.com