06 October 2023

‘The Jewish Window’
in York Minster and
blind ‘Synagoga’ in
a church in York

The ‘Five Sisters’ window in the north transept of York Minster has also been called ‘the Jewish window. (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

The ‘Five Sisters’ window in the north transept of York Minster was reputedly paid for by a loan from the Jews of York. This five-light window is executed in abstract grisaille work The 13th century window is filled with grisaille glass – from the French for ‘greyness’ – or finely painted clear glass that is set into geometric designs with jewel-like points of coloured glass making the pattern.

It is said the creation of the window was funded in part by York’s Jewish community, notably the wealthy Aaron of York, leading to the windows being called ‘the Jewish window.’

The window dates from ca 1250-1260 and is named in the Guinness Book of Records as ‘the largest ancient stained-glass window in the British Isles.’

The five lights feature a grisaille design comprising 100,000 pieces of glass. Each light measures 16.31 metres high and 1.56 metres wide, separated by columns of stone and Purbeck marble, with foliaged capitals. The design includes clusters of grapes and leaves, together with some early examples of embryonic naturalistic leaf forms. The pattern is said to be an elaborate but restrained arrangement of the foliage of the Planta Benedicta or herb Bennet. The plain border surrounding the glass was inserted in 1715.

The window is without human representation, which is in accordance with the dominant tradition in Jewish art.

The massacre of York’s Jews at Clifford’s Tower in 1190 overshadows the fact that from the 1210s on there was once more a thriving Jewish community in the city, living and working in mostly harmonious relations with Christian neighbours.

Aaron of York, whose supposed funding lead to the windows being called ‘the Jewish window,’ was one of the three leading members of the post-1190 Jewish community who lived on the west side of Coney Street in York. Aaron of York lived where Next is now, his father-in-law, Leo Episcopus, lived where Boots is, and his son-in-law and nephew, Josce le Jovene, lived where Waterstones and Fabrication are.

Recent research suggests the mediaeval synagogue was to the rear of today’s No 19 Coney Street, York Fabrication.

Leo and Aaron both served as chief representative of the whole Jewish community of England, and in the 1230s and 1240s Aaron was considered to be the richest man in the country.

There is documentary evidence of Aaron of York co-operating with the senior clergy of York Minster in purchasing the large stone building that became the city’s Guildhall, the mediaeval civic centre, ensuring that the city had a central meeting-place and contributing greatly to York’s civic history.

It is said that Aaron co-operated with the Minster on other major civic projects, including the construction of the ‘Five Sisters’ window in the Minster itself, previously known as the ‘Jewish Window’, in return for land extending the mediaeval Jewish cemetery in York.

At the bottom of the central light, however, is one panel of earlier Norman glass (ca 1180), showing Habakkuk feeding Daniel in the lions’ den. The design includes ivy, symbolising love and sacrifice, and maple, symbolising victory. It probably came from a medallion window and may have been moved into the Five Sisters window during the 17th century.

The ‘Five Sisters’ window also shows Cistercian influence. The window was restored in 1923-1925 and rededicated to women who were killed during World War I, the only memorial in the UK dedicated to these women.

Blind ‘Synagoga’ carved in stone in the portal or tympanum of Saint Wilfred’s Church or Oratory Church near York Minster. (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

A fragment of 13th century wall painting from the Chapter House depicts an allegorical ‘Synagoga.’ It is preserved at the Minster, but is not generally on view to the public. However, a Victorian representation of ‘Synagoga’ can be seen carved in stone in the portal or tympanum of Saint Wilfred’s Roman Catholic Church, Duncombe Place, close to York Minster.

The image of ‘Synagoga’ appears on cathedrals throughout Europe and is often interpreted as a mediaeval antisemitic image. Two statues, known as ‘Ecclesia’ and ‘Sinagoga,’ are often seen as a pair on mediaeval cathedrals. Ecclesia is often dressed in fine clothing and appears to be bathed in light, while Sinagoga is dishevelled, with a large snake draped over her eyes like a blindfold.

Together, this pair forms a common mediaeval motif that represents the theological concept known as supercessionism, in which the Church is triumphant and the Synagogue is defeated. ‘Sinagoga’ is sometimes seen – for example in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris – with head bowed, broken staff, and the tablets of the law or Ten Commandments slipping from her hand and a fallen crown at her feet. Ecclesia stands upright with crowned head and carries a chalice and a staff adorned with the Cross.

Images mocking Jews and Judaism and encouraging antisemitic violence were common throughout Europe since the early Middle Ages. In a time when many were illiterate, these images were the political cartoons and posters of the age, and the ridicule and carnage they promoted was both routine and sanctioned by the secular and religious authorities of the day.

Ecclesia and Sinagoga often appear as large, sculpted figures on either side of a church or cathedral portal. Famous examples include those at Strasbourg Cathedral. They are also found in Romanesque art standing on either side of the Cross at the Crucifixion.

In images of the Crucifixion, Ecclesia may hold a chalice catching the blood flowing from Christ’s side, while Sinagoga may hold a sheep or goat or its head, signifying Temple sacrifice, in contrast to Ecclesia’s chalice representing the Eucharist. If she is not blindfolded, Sinagoga is usually looking down.

They first appear in documents in the early ninth century. They appear in Crucifixion scenes from the 11th century, and reappear in the 12th century in a more strongly contrasted way that emphasises the defeat of Sinagoga. From then on, blindfolded Sinagoga is seen with a broken lance becomes usual. The portal figures at cathedral portals date from the 13th century on.

These figures reflect a Christian view, often known as Supersessionism, that held that Judaism was no longer a valid religion with a covenantal relationship with God, and that all Jews should convert to Christianity.

Mediaeval Sinagoga’s blindfold reflected the charge that Jews had stubbornly failed to ‘see’ that Christianity had replaced Judaism. This view spread throughout the mediaeval church and became an excuse for anti-Semitism, typified in the vile anti-Semitism expressed by Martin Luther and others. Today, this has been replaced generally by dual-covenant theology.

The paired figures are generally found on the cathedrals of larger cities in northern Europe that had significant Jewish communities, especially in Germany. They were intended to remind Jews of their place in a Christian society. Many Jews, like Christians, conducted business in churches, and, coming and going, they would pass through these figures.

There are examples on the portals of the cathedrals at Minden, Bamberg and Freiburg in Germany, and Paris, Metz and Strasbourg in France. There are remains of pairs in England at Rochester, Lincoln, Salisbury and Winchester. There may have been pairs in London and York too, and there is a similar image at Lichfield Cathedral.

In most cases, they date to the arrival of larger Jewish communities in Western Europe from the late 10th to the 12th centuries, and to the 12th-century Renaissance debates between Christian and Jewish scholars on interpretations of the Hebrew Bible.

But what is surprising about the York Sinagogia is that it is found on modern church. Saint Wilfred’s Church, a Grade II building, was designed by the architect George Goldie in 1862-1864. It is now the Oratory Church of Saint Wilfrid, also known as York Oratory, and is considered by many to be one of the most perfectly finished Roman Catholic churches in England

The arch above the main door has the most detailed Victorian carving in York. But it was not until last weekend that I noticed that it included a detailed Victorian repetition or interpretation of ‘Blind Sinagogia.’

It is disturbing how this antisemitic trope continues to have a presence today, unnoticed by churchgoers as they enter or lave the church, and without any notice to explain their significance and the frightening consequences of perpetuating antisemitic imagery.

Shabbat Shalom

The arch above the main door at York Oratory has the most detailed Victorian carving in York (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

An era comes to
an end in Wexford
as Brendan Howlin
decides to stand down

With President Michael D Higgins and Brendan Howlin at the launch of the Wexford Ambassadors programme in Iveagh House in 2011

Patrick Comerford

I felt a tinge of sadness this morning as a read the announcement by George Lawlor that Brendan Howlin is to retire as a TD for Wexford at the next general election in Ireland.

Brendan Howlin has been elected member of Dáil Éireann continuously since 1987, and before that was a Senator from 1983. During those years, he also been Leader and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. He has been a Cabinet Minister in three governments, he has witnessed the positive transformation of Ireland, both economically and culturally, and he has had the opportunity to introduce into law many important and transformative pieces of legislation.

Brendan Howlin was born in Wexford in 1956. I first got to know him during the 1973 general election, when I was living on High Street, Wexford. His father, John Howlin, one of Wexford’s best-known trade union activists, was the election agent for the Labour leader, Brendan Corish. Indeed, Brendan Howlin was named after Brendan Corish. John Howlin was the secretary of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union in Wexford, for 40 years, working from the Corish Memorial Hall.

Our friendship continued in the 1970s and 1980s when he was active in the movement against plans for a nuclear power station at Carnsore, Co Wexford, as chair of Nuclear Opposition Wexford (NOW). Later he was also involved with me in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).

In political life, he was has the Minister for Health (1993-1994), Minister for the Environment (1994-1997), Deputy leader of the Labour Party (1997-2002), Leas-Cheann Comhairle (2007-2011), Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform (2011-2016), and Leader of the Labour Party (2016-2020).

We continued to meet in Wexford over the years. He launched the Wexford Ambassador programme in Iveagh House in 2011, alongside the chair of Wexford County Council, Councillor Michael Kavangh.

Four well-known Wexford personalities have been appointed as Wexford Ambassadors – the authors Colm Tóibín and Eoin Colfer, the Irish rugby international star Gordon D’Arcy and the Irish soccer international Kevin Doyle.

The ambassadors’ programme honours the achievements of Co Wexford’s iconic ambassadors, supports young and emerging Wexford talent and promotes the culture and heritage of the county.

The variety of Wexford people at that launch included the playwright and author Billy Roche and his wife Patti recalled poetry readings in the 1970s in Wexford YMCA. The writer Colm Tóibín hitched to from Enniscorthy as a schoolboy that night to an event that paved the way for the foundation of the Wexford Arts Centre.br />
That evening, Brendan’s brother, Ted Howlin, and another former Mayor of Wexford, George Lawlor, recalled John Howlin, Brendan Corish and some other politicians we knew and worked with, including Des Corish, who had died earlier that month.

With former Wexford Mayor George Lawlor

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (131) 6 October 2023

Saint Michael’s Church, a former parish church in York city centre, dominates the south-west side of Spurriergate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and the week began with the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XVII, 1 October 2023).

The Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today recalls the life and work of William Tyndale (1536), Translator of the Scriptures and Reformation Martyr. Before today begins, I am taking some time this morning for prayer and reflection.

The Church celebrated Saint Michael and All Angels last Friday (29 September). So my reflections each morning during Michaelmas last week and this week are taking this format:

1, A reflection on a church named after Saint Michael or his depiction in Church Art;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Church Lane runs along one side of Saint Michael’s Church, Spurriergate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Saint Michael’s Church, Spurriergate, York:

Two of enjoyed last weekend in York, and during those few days one of the churches I looked at was Saint Michael’s Church, Spurriergate, a Grade I listed former parish church on Spurriergate in York.

The church stands at the junction of Spurriergate, Low Ousegate, Church Lane and Nessgate in York city centre. Spurriergate is a short street that follows the line of a Roman road that ran between the walls of Eboracum and the River Ouse. In the mediaeval period, it was regarded as part of Coney Street, sometimes distinguished as Little Coney Street. It was a narrow street, known for its spur makers, and by 1538 this led to it becoming known as ‘Spurriergate.’

The south-west side of the street is dominated by Saint Michael’s Church, and its churchyard once lay on both sides of the street. Two rows of cottages were built along Spurriergate in 1337, on part of the churchyard.

When the width of the street was doubled in 1770, all the buildings on the north-east side of the street were demolished, other than No 1 Spurriergate, and they were replaced by a terrace, that was itself demolished in 1959. The street was widened again in 1841, when the length of Saint Michael's Church was reduced, and all the other buildings were demolished and also replaced by a new terrace.

The street now forms part of the city’s central shopping area. It runs south-east, from the junction of Coney Street and Market Street, to the junction of High Ousegate, Low Ousegate and Nessgate. On the south-west side, there is a snickelway, the mediaeval common lane to the river. Notable buildings on the south-west side of the street include Saint Michael's Church, and the terrace at 4-24 Spurriergate, which is listed.

The north-east side is largely occupied by Spurriergate House. The City of York Council is critical of the building, which it describes as having a façade ‘with no interest or depth,’ while the corner is ‘overly dramatic.’

Saint Michael’s Church dates from the 12th century, with elements from the 14th and 15th centuries. It was reduced in size in 1821 by JB and W Atkinson. The foundation stone of the new wall of the east end was laid by the rector on 15 January 1821, and work was completed on 16 June 1822.

The tower was lowered in 1966-1967. The church was declared redundant and closed in 1984. The building re-opened as a restaurant and café in 1989. The conversion retained a small chapel upstairs that is used occasionally for worship, but it seems today the café is open only sporadically.

The exterior west end of the south wall contains a painted clock face. The clock mechanism inside is inscribed with ‘Reconstructed by GJF Newey in 1896.’ The clock was originally inset to the tower, but after its lowering in 1966, it was moved to its current location.

The church had an organ by Denman and Son which was installed in 1890. It had nine stops on the Swell, seven on the Great, two on the Pedal and cost about £300. It was moved in 1972 to All Saints’ Church, Castleford.

The panelled reredos at the east wall was in form of Palladian arch with fluted Corinthian pilasters, a frieze with shell and palm mouldings carved in relief, and an enriched cornice. It incorporated round-headed boards displaying the Ten Commandments, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer.

Other carvings included a dove in glory in the head of central panel, winged cherub heads over flanking panels, and Saint Michael slaying a dragon above, between urns.

The stained glass windows included early 15th century glass, reset in south aisle windows, and depicting Saint John the Baptist, the Nine Orders of Angels, the Tree of Jesse and panels depicting Noah building the Ark and Saint Margaret slaying a dragon.

The name of the church is retained in the name of All Saints Pavement with Saint Crux and Saint Michael Spurriergate, York. All Saints is the Guild Church of the City of York.

Saint Michael Spurriergate became a café in 1989 but seems to open only sporadically (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Luke 10: 13-16 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:} 13 ‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. 14 But at the judgement it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 15 And you, Capernaum,

will you be exalted to heaven?
No, you will be brought down to Hades.

16 ‘Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.’

The exterior painted clock face at the west end of the south wall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Supporting Justice for Women in Zambia.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (6 October 2023) invites us to pray in these words:

Let us pray for the Church of the Province of Central Africa and its churches across Botswana, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The Collect:

Lord, give to your people grace to hear and keep your word
that, after the example of your servant William Tyndale,
we may not only profess your gospel
but also be ready to suffer and die for it,
to the honour of your name;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

God our redeemer,
whose Church was strengthened by the blood of your martyr William Tyndale:
so bind us, in life and death, to Christ’s sacrifice
that our lives, broken and offered with his,
may carry his death and proclaim his resurrection in the world;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The weathervane above Saint Michael Spurriergate … the tower was lowered in 1966-1967 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Saint Michael Spurriergate was declared redundant and closed in 1984 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)