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Radiant Light: Stained Glass from Canterbury Cathedral at The Cloisters

February 25–May 18, 2014

The Ancestors of Christ Windows at Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury, as the seat of the archbishop of Canterbury, primate of England, was the richest and most prominent monastic cathedral in Britain and an important center of learning and the arts throughout the Middle Ages. It housed a community of Benedictine monks who commissioned some of the most famous works of English medieval art and architecture. The large stained-glass figures in the Ancestors of Christ are considered some of the finest surviving examples of monumental English painting of the period. These figures are among the first in the series and date from 1178 to about 1180. The almost sculptural gravity of the rendering of the draped bodies conveys an imposing presence. Equally impressive is the degree of psychological animation expressed in each unique character, while the group retains an overall feeling of substance and poise. The figures are complemented by a limited but rich palette and by broad and elaborately patterned borders. Depicted are the Old Testament patriarchs who represent the generations of humankind, from the Creation to the coming of Christ, underscoring the medieval Christian belief that Old Testament prophecy was fulfilled in Christ. The series originally included eighty-five ancestor figures, based primarily on the genealogy in the gospel of Luke (3:23–38). As a group, these figures symbolize the history and the continuity of the Christian faith in very human terms, as a sequence of fathers and sons.