|SAINT HELENA CYCLE
All information courtesy of Dr. Penny Hebgin-Barnes, preparing the Corpus Vitrearum survey of Cheshire
The parish church of Ashton-under-Lyne, now St. Michael, was formerly dedicated to St. Helena. The present structure was begun during the incumbency of John Huntington, rector from 1406 until 1458. The three generations of the Ashton family contributed to the construction: Sir Thomas (1403-c.1458), his son Sir John (d.1484) and Sir Thomas’ grandson and namesake (d.1516). John Huntington’s successors, Laurence Ashton (rector 1458-86) and Gervase Ashton (rector 1486-c.1515), both younger sons of the Ashton family, also contributed.
The stained glass depicting St. Helena was originally above the main altar in the east window, the most prestigious placement in a church. It was divided into seven vertical lights by stone mullions and the story was set out in three rows, totaling twenty-one scenes relating to the saint. In a bottom row of scenes, the Ashton family had themselves depicted with inscriptions noting their support of the church. In a rebuilding campaign of 1872 these panels were taken out to make way for a new window on the theme of the archangel Michael installed by James Ballantine of Edinburgh. They are now set in four windows of the south aisle.
The story of St. Helena and the Discovery of the True Cross was well known in the late Middle Ages. According to legend St. Helena was the daughter of King Coel of Colchester, which made her a favored saint in England during the later Middle Ages. The Golden Legend and other popular hagiographical treatises of the period and provided sufficient incidents to fill the large east window at Ashton. The number of these scenes makes it the most ambitious St. Helena cycle known in English medieval art. Fragments of others from a similar period have survived in glass at Tattershall (Lincs.) and Morley (Derby) and wall-painting at Stratford-upon-Avon (Warks.) The subject was also popular with continental engravers towards the end of the fifteenth century
The original placement
of the panels (each: h 0.72m, w 0.54m) can be reconstructed from
a manuscript record of 1596 which also recorded heraldic glass in several
other windows of the church.
Marriage of St. Helena: a priest stands between St. Helena and Constantius, who hold hands. King Coel of Britain and a man stand behind Helena and five men behind Constantinius, on a checkered floor; blackletter inscription: /H/(ic)/ mri/moni/û in/t’ / 9nstan/ciû et/ elinâ/ solêniz/at’; Here the marriage between Constantius and Helena is solemnized; Paint loss from floor and faces of figures at top center of panel, which are also pitted, many breaks. Ashton-under-Lyne, parish church, 1497-1512. © Raguin/MMK
A story of the Empress' conversion stresses the power of the pope, St. Sylvester, who also called the Nicean Council, from which comes the Nicean Creed, a regular part of Roman Catholic mass ritual. In the Golden Legend, the story of St. Sylvester describes his curing Constantine of leprosy. The ailing emperor had received a dream telling him to seek Silvester. When Sylvester baptized him he was also restored to health. Helena congratulated her son for turning away from pagan idols, but reproached him for believing that a man was a god. In the presence of Constantine and Helena, Sylvester then entered into a long debate with learned Jewish doctors, the twelfth of which was Zambri or Zambres, who attempted to proved the superiority of Judaism by showing the power of the name of God. He spoke God's name into the ear of a bull, causing it to die. When Sylvester brought the bull back to life, the twelve Jews, Helena, and all witnessed were converted to the Christian faith.
Conversion of St. Helena: Zambres kills bull by speaking in its ear: St. Helena stands facing Constantine and Pope Silvester, with 4 doctors behind her, and in the right foreground Zambres leaning over the prostrate bull; blackletter inscription: /Hic arte/ diabolii/(zãbr/es) / mag’ êlene sufflabat/ î aure/(tauru) / /cecidt mortû/: Here Zambres the sorcerer is whispering in the ear of the bull which is about to die. Silvester’s face cracked, slight paint loss from inscription. Ashton-under-Lyne, parish church, 1497-1512. © Raguin/MMK
Conversion of St. Helena: Zambres kills bull by speaking in its ear: detail of St. Helena with 4 doctors behind her. Head of doctor to extreme right is modern. Ashton-under-Lyne, parish church, 1497-1512. © Raguin/MMK
Conversion of St. Helena: The bull is brought back to life by Pope Sylvester: St. Helena kneels in prayer with Zambres and the 4 doctors kneeling behind her and the bull standing beside her, all facing Silvester who blesses them, with Constantine standing on his right extending his hand to St. Helena, within a townscape; blackletter inscription: (/Hic Sil/vester de/i virtu)/te taur*/ resussitant/ (et/ elen/a con/vertit/u/) ad fidê cû/ sua t * d/(?) /s/ (?) Here Sylvester, by the grace of God, revives the bull and Helena is converted to the Faith with all her household. Left side of panel largely restored by Caldwell, paint loss from bull and St. Helena’s arms, Constantine’s face cracked. Ashton-under-Lyne, parish church, 1497-1512. © Raguin/MMK
Conversion of St. Helena: The bull is brought back to life by Pope Sylvester: detail of Zambres and 4 doctors behind him. Head of Zambres is modern. Ashton-under-Lyne, parish church, 1497-1512. © Raguin/MMK
St. Helena imprisons Judas: St. Helena stands on left while jailer pushes Judas into prison; blackletter inscription: /(Hic elen/a bonis/ operi/bus ple/ni ssima c/arc/eres/ fr/eq/uentat): Incorrect modern inscription; Panel largely restored by Caldwell, St. Helena’s flashed ruby mantle corroded, her crown missing, jailer’s face cracked, paint loss from jail, faces lightly pitted. Ashton-under-Lyne, parish church, 1497-1512. © Raguin/MMK
The discovery of a cross: St. Helena and Judas stand on right and on the left are two men, one with a pickaxe. In the foreground are two more men, one holding a cross and the other digging a pit in the turf upon which all stand; blackletter inscription: /(Hic/ crucem/ vera/m/ peten/tes/ fodiunt): Here they dig in search of the True Cross. Panel is heavily restored by Caldwell, faces of St. Helena and man with cross badly cracked, flashed ruby corroded, paint loss from St. Helena’s left hand. Ashton-under-Lyne, parish church, 1497-1512. © Raguin/MMK
St. Helena examines the three crosses: St. Helena stands to the left facing Judas, both with a man behind them. In the foreground two men hold crosses and the third cross lies on the chequered floor; blackletter inscription: /hic/ invebât/ (tres cruce/s) a(?)/ ali/is/ et (ver/â/ cr/u/cê/ non disce/rnebant): Here they found three crosses and could not tell which was the True Cross. Panel is heavily restored by Caldwell, figure behind Judas badly cracked, inscription also cracked, flashed ruby corroded, paint loss from heads of two2 men in foreground. Ashton-under-Lyne, parish church, 1497-1512. © Raguin/MMK
The true cross revives a dead man: St. Helena stands on the left with two men praying behind her and facing Judas, all four praying. A man behind Judas throws up his hands. In the left foreground a man holds a cross before a shrouded corpse who sits up on the turf; blackletter inscription: /(Hic/ pos/sunt/ veram/ cruc)/m (mor/tuo app/osi/to)/ nven/ire/ Here they are able to discover the True Cross by placing it over a dead man. Corpse pitted on both surfaces, flashed ruby corroded, paint loss from faces and figures on left of panel, St. Helena’s head restored, two heads on right cracked. Ashton-under-Lyne, parish church, 1497-1512. © Raguin/MMK
Members of the Ashton family: Sir Thomas Ashton (d.1516): Knighted circa 1491 Sir Thomas married Elizabeth Staveley circa 1471, Anne Greystoke in 1482, Agnes Harrington circa 1497 and Joan Mainwaring in 1512. It is recorded that his first marriage produced three daughters and his third a son and a daughter. The window suggests that he had eleven children. A man kneels facing rightwards at a reading desk with an open book on it, and three other men behind him. Behind this group is another, comprising a woman kneeling facing rightwards at a reading desk with open book, and six other women behind her; all figures are praying and set on a chequered floor against blue rinceau; blackletter inscription: /(A°/ D/i Mi/llimo)/ quad/(ri /ngentîmo/) nô/ag/(imo nono)/; The date given here is 1499, but the last number a modern restoration. The window was installed during Thomas' third marriage (1497-1512) since it contains his wife Agnes Harrington. Little restoration, many cracks in men’s faces and woman’s desk, flashed ruby corroded. Ashton-under-Lyne, parish church, 1497-1512. © Raguin/MMK
Members of the Ashton family: Thomas Ashton (d 1516): Knighted circa 1491 Sir Thomas married Elizabeth Staveley circa 1471, Anne Greystoke in 1482, Agnes Harrington circa 1497 and Joan Mainwaring in 1512. A man in armor kneels facing rightwards at a reading desk, with four women kneeling in prayer behind him, each facing rightwards at a reading desk, all with open books; all figures display the Ashton mullet and are set on a tiled floor; blackletter inscription: /O (rate pro/ bôo/ statu) / Thoê As/(heton Militis)/ A/(gnetis/ uxoris suee)/ p aîab(us Elizabethe)/ m/ (uxo/rum/ eius q can/..../om ecclesi)/ fiiebatl. Pray for the good Estate of Thomas Ashton, Knight, Agnes his wife, and for the souls of Elizabeth and Anne, his wives. He completed (the chancel of) this church. Little restoration, pitting and corrosion on women’s garments. Ashton-under-Lyne, parish church, 1497-1512. © Raguin/MMK
Members of the Ashton family: Sir John Ashton (d.1484): Sir John and Dulcia Trafford, whom he married in 1437, were the parents of Sir Thomas Ashton (d.1516). Sir John’s widow Isabella Elland died in 1488; his second wife Margaret is not otherwise recorded. A man wearing armor and a surcoat kneels facing rightwards at a reading desk, with three women kneeling in prayer behind him, each facing rightwards at a reading desk; all figures display the Ashton mullet and are set on a tiled floor; blackletter inscription: /Orat/(e pro aiâbus Johanîs A)/shet/on /(militis/ Dulcie Marger/ie et Issab)/ella/ (uxorum eiu/s qui inpredicam)/ edific/acô/ (procedebat/; Pray for the souls of John Ashton, Knight, Dulcie, Margaret, and Isabel, his wives. He proceeded with the building as planned. Little restoration, corrosion on ruby glass and elsewhere, cracks in man, first woman, third woman’s face and original inscription. Ashton-under-Lyne, parish church, 1497-1512. © Raguin/MMK
Ashton, rector 1458-86: He had continued the building of
the church along with Sir Thomas and Sir John Ashton orate p[ro] ara
Laurinci assheton quondam rectoriz istiz ecclie q’ istam ecclie
Thome Assheton et John Assheton militibz edificiome p’dtam continuavit.
Pray for the soul of Lawrence Ashton, one time rector of this church who
with Thomas Ashton and John Ashton, Knights, continued the building of
this church. Ashton-under-Lyne, parish church, 1497-1512. ©
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