Piety and charity in the painted glass of late medieval York.
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What messages can the images in medieval churches give us about the motivations of their donors? When a wealthy medieval man or woman donated a statue or painted glass window or altar hanging to their parish church, such a gift would have been prompted by a mixture of motives, including a desire to remind passers-by to pray for their souls and probably a fair amount of self-advertisement. However, it is the contention of this paper that, frequently, the choice of a particular image used in the donation would be selected with careful thought and have its roots in the donor’s particular personal piety. The messages they were thus sending about their personal beliefs may have been instantly readable to their fellow parishioners, but these days require some translation before they can be fully grasped. This paper investigates the spiritual and secular motivations of a family of donors of some unique painted glass windows at All Saints, North Street parish church in York. The windows of the church offer a wealth of unusual later medieval glass, including a depiction of six of the Corporal Acts of Mercy; St Anne teaching the Virgin to read and the northern poem ‘The Prick of Conscience’. This paper will concentrate on exploring one family’s donations to the church. It argues that their choice of iconographic material and the act of donating the windows were part of the donors’ larger concern for maintaining the social fabric. The same concerns were expressed both in charitable acts during their lives and in their last will and testaments. It is suggested that such donations form part of a new and internalised piety and thoughtful charity inspired by more than the customs of the day.