The King's Glass, By Carola Hicks

How migrant artists made England's glory shine
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The Independent Culture

In the bleak midwinter of 1643, early in England's civil wars, an inspector sent by Parliament to find and destroy idolatrous images toured the churches and colleges of Cambridge. On 26 December, late in the short and gloomy day, William Dowsing made a slapdash survey of King's College chapel and vaguely noted the "one thousand superstitious pictures" in its stained-glass windows. He had many more visits to make on his Puritan mission of sacred vandalism. Besides, some Parliamentary troops were already quartered in the chapel and shielded from the bitter weather by that Popish glass. So through tiredness, prudence or oversight, one of the greatest works of visual art ever created in England happened to survive. In Henry VII's chapel at Westminster Abbey, by contrast, the iconoclasts did their shattering worst.

Carola Hicks's jewel of a book about the King's windows and their making reveals this "story of Tudor power and secret art" with an abundance of delicate and striking detail. As in the radiant panels themselves, their matched tales from the Old and New Testaments teeming with minutely crafted sailing-ships, farmyard scenes and walk-on parts both human and animal, from hunting-dogs to hedgehogs, she enriches the big picture with a host of shimmering sidelights.

The disturbed and deposition-prone Lancastrian king Henry VI had founded his college at Cambridge in the 1440s. Sporadic warfare, regime change and the financial ups and downs of Henry Tudor – Henry VII after his victory in 1485 – delayed the works for decade after decade. The masonry of the grand chapel, with its stupendous fan-vaulting, was not completed until 1512, by which time Henry's more spendthrift and grandiose son had mounted the throne. So the glazing of the windows at King's, largely between 1515 and 1546, coincides crisis by crisis, axe-blow by axe-blow, with the all-too-interesting times of Henry VIII, and with his misadventures in marriage and theology.

Hicks traces the slow transformation of a Catholic devotional project into a celebration of Henry's claim to supremacy in church and state, with some later windows given a Lutheran steer by a reform-minded Provost of King's. She also shows how panels reflect the new influence of Renaissance masters such as Dürer and Raphael. Assured accounts of the complex – and risky ­ arts of staining, firing and painting glass throw new light on their mysteries. The shifting backgrounds of art, faith, education and politics stand out clearly – in spite of an odd blip when Hicks has Henry meet "the French king Louis" rather than François I at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520.

Above all, her book becomes a tribute to the mainly Flemish master-craftsmen who designed and made the windows, and a tale of their war of attrition with the insular London guilds. Barnard Flower and Galyon Hone, successive glaziers to the king, and of King's, emerge as artist-entrepreneurs who approach the stature of their fellow-migrant, Hans Holbein.

Hicks moralises a touch too heavily as she points to the resonance today of this drawn-out quarrel between high-skilled, hard-working "strangers and aliens" and local tradesmen fearful for their status. After all, the fashionable Low Countries craftsmen had the king and other mighty patrons, notably Cardinal Wolsey, on their side. But the uncanny familiarity of the guilds' complaints and accusations – which culminated in the "Evil May Day" riots of 1517 – suggests that the emotional history of migration into England runs on an endless loop.

In the end, the windows weathered erratic monarchs, migrant-baiters, image-breakers and clumsy Victorian restorers to delight countless visitors quite unbothered by the doctrinal and dynastic wrangles that they cryptically describe. The last urgent threat to their fragile beauty came in 1940, when the multi-tasking Bursar of King's helped to oversee the temporary removal of the glass to protect it against German bombs. Conceived by the ultra-pious "royal saint", Henry VI, the chapel owes the wartime safe-keeping of its crowning glory to the far from godly JM Keynes.

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