A window onto the world of the early Church

A new book is shining a new light on one of the most important series of stained glass paintings in the country - a treasure trove of history in the church of Wiggenhall St Mary Magdalen

Apart from remarking on its unrelenting flatness, few people give much thought to the land west of the River Great Ouse - even though it contains some of the finest churches in the country. Indeed, when Simon Jenkins wrote England’s Thousand Best Churches in 1999 he included no less than ten of them - remarkable when you consider that’s more than the total for the whole of Northumberland.

One of these marshland churches is the impressive St Mary Magdalene in the village of Wiggenhall St Mary Magdalen, which was largely built on the back of the area’s thriving wool trade in the 15th century.

The interior is fairly typical of village churches of the time, but it does contain a fascinating and unique treasure - which a new book is hoping to help preserve for the future.

The six upper windows of the north aisle are divided into 10 sections and feature the largest collection of 15th century stained glass figures in the country. Comprising 39 male saints, three angels and three female saints, many of them are the only examples of their kind in Norfolk and some may be the only such paintings in England.

David King is an Honorary Research Fellow at the UEA and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, and he’s an acknowledged expert on stained glass - three generations of his family ran the Norwich-based restoration specialists G King & Sons for many years. He’s also more than familiar with the windows of St Mary Magdalene, having written an academic study of the glass for the British Archaeological Association in 2008.

The windows probably date from 1420-1440 and as far as I’m aware there’s nothing quite like them in the whole country

“The windows probably date from 1420-1440 and as far as I’m aware there’s nothing quite like them in the whole country,” he says. “The glass was made by a number of different 15th century painters who were probably based in King’s Lynn. That’s unusual in itself, because virtually all the stained glass for Norfolk churches at that time came from Norwich.”

Equally unusual is the subject matter. Rather than the familiar apostles and saints we’re all familiar with, the individuals featured here are relatively obscure bishops, archbishops and popes. It makes the windows even more important - and underlines the need to protect them.

“The glass was last conserved by cathedral glazier Samuel Caldwell Jr about 100 years ago, but weather and pollution have really taken their toll since then,” says David. “The exterior of the glass is corroding, the leading needs attention, and darkening is noticeable on some of the figures. If these saints are going to look down on the congregation for another 100 years, urgent action is necessary.”

Which is where Ian Stuart and Ed Fisher came in.

“I moved to the village about 15 years ago and I’ve always been interested in church architecture and history,” says Ian. “As a regular churchgoer I’d look at these remarkable windows every time I was there - and when an appeal was launched to help fund a restoration project for them I wanted to do everything I could to help.”

Faced with so many unfamiliar individuals from the very early days of the Church, Ian came up with a brilliant idea; a saint-by-saint guide to the windows, with a colour photograph of the glass in question faced by as much biographical information as possible - together with a handy diagrammatic plan on each page to enable people to locate the saint’s exact position.

He enlisted the help of good friend and keen photographer Ed Fisher, who spent hours standing on a tall stepladder getting as detailed images as possible of all 38 of the identifiable saints.

“Ed’s photographs are really amazing and are a brilliant record of the windows as they are today,” says Ian. “I never imagined we’d be able to reach that level of quality and they’ve really helped bring the book alive.”

Neither Ian or Ed could imagine the interest their 88-page book would generate. The first print run sold out within a week (with proceeds going to the church repair fund) and they’ve now taken delivery of the second edition.

In addition to bringing these incredible windows into focus (literally) the books also contains a wealth of fascinating historical detail about the people they feature.

There’s Saint Victor, who was the first pope to be born in Africa; Saint Swithun, whose countless miracles began when he repaired a basket of broken eggs; and St Hugh, who became an abbot at the age of 25, was an official adviser to no less than nine popes, and eventually ruled over 200 monasteries.

You’ll meet Saint Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great and who claimed to have discovered the True Cross (a piece of which eventually made its way to Bromholm Priory near Cromer in 1113) - and St Giles, who lived a life of solitude in a forest in France for many years with only a deer for company, and was injured when an arrow from one of the king’s hunters missed the deer and hit Giles instead. He’s now patron saint of the physically disabled.

And you’ll be introduced to Saint Isidore, who was made patron saint of the internet in 1997 thanks to his 20-book work Etymolgiae, which was planned to contain absolutely everything that was known at the time it was published around 636 - and would be the world’s equivalent of Wikipedia for the next 1,000 years.

Opening a window into the lives of a host of Christianity’s founding figures, Ian and Ed’s wonderful book is a joy to read - especially on site in the church itself. And the fact it’s helping preserve this unique record in glass makes it even more valuable.

The Saints of Magdalene Church by Ian Stuart and Ed Fisher is available for a £10 donation to the church’s restoration fund. To order yours, please contact Ian on 01553 813730 or e-mail ianrachel4@aol.com

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