The St James Window

All Saints Church

Left light – St James

The apostle St James the Great, son of Zebedee and brother of St John, is dressed as a pilgrim – his shrine at Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain was a hugely important pilgrimage centre in the Middle Ages. ‘Santiago’ is the Spanish for ‘St James’. He holds his pilgrim’s staff, and in his right hand a bound book (Acts of the Apostles? Gospels?). At the bottom of his diagonal shoulder belt hangs what is probably his scallop shell; only part of it survives in the glass.

Right light

The central image is one of the most beautiful in All Saints. An archbishop is saying Mass and genuflecting at the elevation of the Host. His mitre is behind him, and around his neck he wears the pallium, a woven cloth bestowed by the Pope as symbol of his authority as an archbishop. The risen Christ appears to him as he prays, his right hand raised in blessing, surrounded by angels. The whole composition in white, gold and deep blue is surpassingly beautiful.


The archbishop is not named, but research shows that he is St Dionysius, known in English as St Denys, the 3 rd -century martyr-archbishop of Paris who was put to death in Paris on the ‘hill of martyrs’, still called Montmartre. The clinching argument is that the inscriptions in this part of the window are taken from responsories after two of the lessons at Matins on the feast of St Denys, 9 October. They recount the legend that when Denys was in prison in Paris awaiting torture and execution, he was saying Mass. When he reached the point at which he elevates the Host, the risen Christ appears to him accompanied by a multitude of angels. Christ gives him the Host (the Bread of Holy Communion) and says to him the words on the scroll: Accipe hoc care meus, ‘Take this, my beloved’. He goes on with more words which don’t fit on the scroll, and then speaks the words on the other part of the scroll, Pro quibuscumque pecieris impetrabis, ‘Whoever you make intercession for, it will be granted you’.

Which St Denys/Dionysius?

The legend perpetuates a fine confusion among different men of this name, starting with the Athenian judge (‘areopagite‘) converted by St Paul in Athens in Acts 17.34 and going through to a neo-Platonist writer in the 5 th or 6 th century AD, taking in on the way a first-century bishop of Athens and our window’s St Denys, the 3rd-century archbishop of Paris martyred there on the ‘hill of martrys’, Montmartre, as it is known to this day. To the French he is ‘S Denis’, the patron saint of Paris and of the famous royal Abbey of S Denis there. The window refers to the legend of this Parisian Denys’s martyrdom, though the legend as it appears in Matins for St Denys’ day includes bits of the stories of the other men of the same name as well.

A contemporary York source for the legend of St Denys

The surviving texts of the Use of York include several copies of a ‘breviary’, a small hand-held volume suitable for use at home containing many of the texts used in church. From these we know that the office of Matins for the feast of St Denys (9 October) includes the legend of the vision received in prison by the archbishop, where the words on the scroll in the window are found. This is one such passage from a manuscript York Breviary of the 15 th century in York Minster Library. It is a responsory (signified by the red R) after the fourth (of nine) Lesson at Matins on St Denys’s day.

R Dum sacrum misterium sanctus Dio-
nisius celebraret in carcere apparuit ei Dominus
Jesus Christus cum multitudine angelorum. Dansque
illi sancta dixit ‘Accipe hoc, care meus.

As St Denys was celebrating the Holy
Mystery in prison, there appeared to him the Lord
Jesus Christ with a host of angels, who gave him
the sacrament and said ‘Take this, my beloved.’

The underlined words are those on the scroll in the window.

(The handwriting of this manuscript is tiny – there are two columns of writing on each page, and with margins the page is still only a few inches wide. Even more than usual the words are heavily abbreviated, to fit the tiny format. The images are considerably enlarged to be shown here.)

A few lines further down the page, in the responsory after the fifth lesson we find this Verse:

V. Dilec-
tio et benignitas quas habes semper; pro quibus-
cumque pecieris impetrabis.

kindness is ever thine; for whom-
sover thou makest intercession, it will be granted thee.

(Pecieris is the medieval spelling of petieris, the future perfect of petere, to seek, make intercession.)

The implication is clear: this beautiful window is not given for us just marvel at its beauty. Rather it is a call to practical action in prayer. Parishioners are encouraged to seek the powerful intercession of the saint as they look at the window. It is quite possible that this motive is strongly reinforced by the ‘indulgence’ (see below) - if indeed that does belong to this window.

St Denys’s missal is open at the words Simili modum postquam cenatum est accipiens et hunc preclarum, ‘Likewise after Supper he took’... These are the words that immediately follow the elevation of the Host and lead into the consecration of the chalice. They specify precisely the point St Denys has reached in the celebration of the Mass, and exactly tie in with the legend..

The indulgence inscription

Underneath St Denys’s mass is a three-line inscription, only parts of which survive, which has been identified by the scholar Robert Swanson as the only surviving indulgence in an English stained- glass window. His argument is presented in his article ‘Fragments of an indulgence inscription in a window at All Saints, North Street, York’ in The Antiquaries Journal, 88, 2008, pp. 308-12. Swanson built on the work of the York Minster Glaziers who restored the window in 1966 and recognised that these fragments belonged together in what could only be an indulgence – which was not, however, spelled out until Swanson.


Above is the inscription as it appears today. The words are too sparse to be worth attempting a translation, but Swanson shows how they connect with other undisputed indulgence texts. Clearly legible at the end is xxx annorum, ‘[a remission] of thirty years [in Purgatory]’.

What is an indulgence?

An indulgence reduces or does away with the penalty incurred by a confessed sin. In the medieval penitential system such a penalty was often expressed in terms of a number of years to be spent in Purgatory after one’s death – a terrifying prospect, inviting one to ask urgently ‘Isn’t there something I can do to mitigate this?’

The scandal of raising money by selling indulgences was one of the better-known abuses in the medieval Church and was rightly criticised by protestant reformers in the 16 th century. It is unfortunate that the abuse and associated polemic have obscured the nature of indulgences. To ordinary folk in the middle ages they were popular and welcomed, because they provided an escape from the despair that a genuine sense of sin could easily engender. This was something you could actually do to mitigate the admittedly awful consequences of your sinfulness. You might meditate in front of a statue or a stained-glass window, or undertake a pilgrimage, or invoke the Virgin’s aid in prayer to her Son or the aid of other saints’ prayers.

This window presents to the view the Virgin and Child, St James of pilgrimage-to-Compostela fame, and St Denys whose intercession is promised in the window’s inscription. The St Denys panel also shows the mystery of the Mass, another favourite subject for meditation fit for gaining an indulgence.

That is to say, the brief and fragmentary Indulgence inscription potentially ties the whole window together, with its otherwise disparate themes.

This is, however, only a hypothesis. The fragments of text were placed here in the 1966 restoration.Before that they were scattered amongst the chaotic jumble of glass filling the next-door window frame, mixed in with the fragments of the Nine Orders of Angels. We have no way of knowing which window they originally belonged with, though it cannot possibly have been the Nine Order of Angels because if it were they would certainly be visible in Henry Johnston’s 1670 sketch, and because there is no room for them anywhere in that window. The 1966 restorers may well have been right to place them here, for they certainly fit very well with the themes of the window.

All Saints Church

This page supplements the corresponding page in the Church Guidebook, available in the church or here on the website.