Museums: Saving the poor man's bible: Tony Kelly visits the country's leading collection of stained glass, spanning 750 years

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The Independent Culture
THE MOST arresting exhibit was a round glass panel with the inscription 'Swedish Physical Training Colleges Bed'. The words reminded me of those printed cards left surreptitiously in telephone boxes near King's Cross, advertising unspecified services - and the accompanying picture of an alluring Diana, goddess of the chase, with her dogs, did little to dispel the image. But the innocent explanation was that the panel had been endowed to a hospital and inscribed with the name of the donor.

I was visiting the Stained Glass Museum, in the north triforium of Ely Cathedral. The setting is perfect, looking down over the Norman nave and up into the 14th-century octagonal lantern, with views denied to most Cathedral visitors; but to get there you must climb 41 spiral steps, sadly restricting disabled access.

The museum is divided historically into eight manageable sections, together with a model display of a modern workshop, showing the various stages from the drawing of a 'cartoon', through the cutting, painting and firing of the glass, to completion in the lead workshop.

The tiny scenes are beautifully lifelike, down to the wavy grey hair of an old worker and the tub of Saxa salt for the paintbrushes, but the word 'modern' seemed out of place. The techniques have hardly changed for centuries, and the people also seemed lost in a time-warp. Perhaps that is what happens when you practise an ancient craft.

Founded in 1972 to rescue glass from redundant churches, the museum has grown to become the country's leading collection, spanning 750 years. The earliest piece, a 1240 Cistercian 'grisaille' panel, was found in a drawer at Whitefriars Studio in 1968, simply labelled 'Old Glass' - amazingly, the original lead and most of the glass survives.

In medieval times, stained glass was known as 'the poor man's bible' because it was used to instruct illiterates in the scriptures; examples from this period sparkle with demons and angels, and delightful vignettes of domestic life. They also illustrate the political movements of the times: a 15th-century roundel of Reynard the Fox shows a fox in clerical garb preaching to a flock of chickens as he gathers them into his cloak. This wicked anti-clerical satire was found in a Northamptonshire church.

Stained glass almost died out after the Reformation but the with the 19th-century Anglo-Catholic revival came renewed demand; most of the windows in Britain's churches are Victorian. This was the age of artists like Charles Kempe and Sir Edward Burne-Jones, whose work dominates the central section of the museum. Their talents were not only used to glorify God - there is also a portrait of Queen Victoria (from a church in Barnstaple) and a memorial window featuring the head of Victoria's grandson, the Duke of Clarence, superimposed on the body of St George.

The 20th-century collection shows both sacred and secular stained glass still flourishing. Two pieces from 1930 stand out: the enigmatic Commerce, commissioned for the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, and my personal favourite, Moira Forsyth's Prodigal Son. Pictures show a cowboy leaving home to drink and dance with beaded women, while captions tell the tale:

'This is the story of the prodigal son

Who left home and wasted his inheritance in riotous living

And all his bad companions helped him to spend it.

After which he was very sorry and hungry

And wanted to eat the pig food.

So then he came back and his father was very pleased.

But his elder brother was not pleased

Neither was the fatted calf'.

The modern glass also throws up some fascinating contrasts. Carl Edwards' Head of Christ, from Liverpool Cathedral, stares at you the length of the gallery, strikingly powerful with its bold colours and lines of thick black lead. Nearby is Benjamin Finn's Head of Christ, simply portrayed as a Byzantine icon.

Or try comparing The Temptation of Eve by the 19th-century architect Augustus Pugin with Adam Grabs The Apple, created for the 1990 International Women's Fortnight by Rosalind Grimshaw, reversing the traditional blame for our moral decline. Fair enough - but why did she have to make Adam black and Eve white?

Besides the permanent exhibits, the museum provides a changing showcase for young artists. The latest addition is a 1992 work by the Irish designer Peter Young, entitled Sure Enough the Duck. Several diverse characters meet in a single tableau around an outsize yellow duck; Young's stated intention was 'to create something magical, compassionate and daft'.

He has at least created something that people notice. As I was leaving, an American visitor approached the ticket desk. 'Have you got a postcard of Sure Enough The Duck?' he began. The woman apologised. 'Pity - it's easily the best thing in here,' he went on, and I watched the woman wince as Pugin and Kempe turned in their graves.

And then I bought a card of The Prodigal Son.

The Stained Glass Museum, Ely Cathedral, Cambridge (0353 667735). Open March to October and all weekends, bank holidays and school holidays, 10.30am-4pm (Sundays 12-3pm). Admission pounds 1.50, 70p concessions. Disabled access restricted.

(Photograph omitted)