Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury, United Kingdom


The origins of Canterbury Cathedral date to 597, when it was founded by Augustine, who had been sent the year before to England by Pope Gregory the Great with a group of missionaries to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. Today, one of the cathedral’s best-known associations is with Archbishop Thomas Becket, who was murdered at the high altar during a service on the night of December 29, 1170, by four knights angered by an escalating conflict between Becket and King Henry II. Shortly after his violent death, reports of miraculous healings in Becket’s name spread throughout England, boosting the cathedral’s importance and attracting visitors from all over Europe. In the early thirteenth century, most of Becket’s remains were removed to a large shrine constructed in the Trinity Chapel, which became the focal point of pilgrimages to the cathedral. Until its destruction during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the site was one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the country. Following a fire, beginning in 1170 the cathedral was largely rebuilt. The rebuilding included the construction of the Corona Chapel, built to house the crown of Becket’s head, which had been severed during his assassination. The chapel was decorated with elaborate stained glass windows, including a Tree of Jesse, a popular medieval design for illustrating the genealogy of Christ. Today the cathedral attracts over a million pilgrims and visitors each year.

How We Helped

The Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII, Puritan iconoclasm in the seventeenth century, and subsequent re-ordering of panels resulted in the loss of many of the original stained glass windows at Canterbury Cathedral, and currently only two panels of the Tree of Jesse remain. More recently, the damaging effects of wind, rain, frost, heat, and pollution have posed a serious threat. In 2010, WMF began comprehensive conservation of the Tree of Jesse window. Evidence of active deterioration was found and many of the fractured pieces of glass were in danger of falling out of supporting lead frames. In several places, previous attempts to provide extra support were ultimately doing more harm than good, allowing water to penetrate into the interspace and causing new and rapid corrosion. In addition, the panels were covered in dirt and dust, which provided a basis for microbial attack. To combat these problems, the panels were first cleaned under a microscope then fractured pieces were re-bonded and stabilized with copper wire supports. Subsequently, conservators created a clear protective panel to shield the historic stained glass from harmful external elements.

Why It Matters

The two surviving panels of the Tree of Jesse window are extremely rare and artistically and technically sophisticated treasures. The glass is an integral part of the pioneering Gothic architecture designed to glorify Thomas Becket’s shrine and is of great interest to historians, theologians, and students of stained glass alike. Thanks to the conservation work executed at Canterbury Cathedral, these windows are now protected from the harmful effects of the weather and pollutants and can be enjoyed by future generations.

Last updated: October 2015.

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