This is pane 7g of York Minster’s East Window, the largest expanse of Gothic stained glass in the United Kingdom. Designed by John Thornton of Coventry between 1405–08, the window consists of 311 panes, depicting (from top to bottom) God the Father and the heavenly company, followed by scenes from Genesis, and then 81 panes dedicated to Revelation. Surrounded by this superabundance of beginning and end-time imagery, pane 7g represents Revelation 12’s fight between the dragon and the heavenly angels.
Thornton’s three-on-one depiction shares many similarities with images from illuminated Apocalypse cycles (e.g. the Douce c.1260–65; Getty c.1255–60; and Queen Mary c.1400–25). Yet this portrayal is distinct. Unlike these earlier manuscripts, which represent the pierced dragon and the deadly precision of angelic lance work, Thornton represents a different moment: one where the figures are still mid-battle. The finely painted expressions on the angels’ faces show their tumultuous task and reveal that for them the outcome is still unknown. The dragon is below, his blue head biting at the lance extended towards him, while his brown body shows no wounds to indicate that his defeat is near. In this composition, the tense and ongoing battle has no clear outcome.
However, it is only one part of a vast celestialscape that illuminates York Minster’s worship space. Embedded in this sea of decorated glass, this one fight is caught up in a fusion of eternal narratives, and Revelation 12’s war scene is contextualized amongst other heavenly scenes.
As this scene soars above, light streaming through, the ways of the divine realm seem out of our grasp, and the ultimate outcome may not be clear when we only glimpse one small span. This pane holds us in the grip of turmoil—but other events swirl around it, setting such struggles amongst something bigger, something stranger: the heavenly realm breaking out into the earthly.
Brown, Sarah. 2014. Apocalypse: The Great East Window of York Minster (London: Third Millennium)
De Winter, Patrick M. 1983. ‘Visions of the Apocalypse in Medieval England and France’, The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, 70.10: 396–417
7 Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, 8 but they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9 And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. 10 And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. 11 And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. 12 Rejoice then, O heaven and you that dwell therein! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”