Some churches have one great treasure that, however unfairly, reduces their other potentially interesting features to the status of also-rans. Clothall would be worth a visit even without its east window, but everything else is outshone by this, an utterly beguiling translucent aviary, a dawn chorus set singing with every sunrise.
|The two birds on the right have clearly been drawn from the same stencil but reversed, and painted differently|
|The birds on the left and right have clearly been drawn from the same stencil, and painted slightly differently|
These date from the late 14th century, though they're evidently much restored (Bettley/Pevsner say simply that they 'incorporat[e] late 14th cen pieces'). The Victorian restoration has been well done, avoiding the sentimentality that so often infects glass of this period. Christ, Luke and Matthew look almost entirely renewed, while Mary perhaps contains the most original material.
That's not the only reason why she is the most interesting of the six. It's natural to assume that she is the Virgin Mary: the church is dedicated to St Mary, the windows have borders of the letter 'M' (which almost always means the Virgin), and she is the obvious companion to Christ and the Evangelists. Most of the authorities (including Bettley/Pevsner) go along with this assumption (though the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments hedges its bets and calls her 'a female saint'). However, it's not that simple.
In the early 13th century the leper hospital of St Mary Magdalene, serving Baldock but in the nearby parish of Clothall, was founded. (During the Middle Ages Mary Magdalene was, with little or no Biblical authority, frequently associated with people marginalised by society, especially if they were suffering from leprosy (now known as Hansen's Disease), and leper hospitals were usually dedicated to her.) This institution survived until the reign of Edward VI in the mid 16th century, but seems to have become a chantry rather than a hospital by then. Nevertheless, it's plausible that its chapel would have contained a stained glass depiction of Mary Magdalene, and that when it finally closed that glass would have been reused in the parish church. (Unfortunately this meant that some of the birds were cut in half, and some perhaps lost altogether.)
If the east window medallion depicts Mary Magdalene rather than the Virgin Mary, this would explain the curiously lopsided nature of her face. It would be easy to dismiss this by saying that medieval artists weren't interested in being strictly representational and that they often used what now looks to us to be distortion; but that doesn't take into account the fact that the other portraits - including that of Mark and John, which look mostly original - aren't distorted. One academic article* found online claims that what we are looking at is 'the oldest visual art depiction' of 'left sided facial palsy'; fascinating if true, and I see no reason why it shouldn't be.
Two more details support the attribution. Firstly, the prominence given to her hair, with which she dried Christ's feet after washing them (again, in post-Biblical legend), and, secondly, the strange pose of her hands. Is she wringing them penitentially? She was thought of as a reformed sinner, so this would fit. Altogether, the evidence is good enough for me to accept that this is a portrait of Mary Magdalene, probably originally in the leper hospital, her face twisted by illness so the patients could relate to her more closely, a moving and humbling detail.
Each window has a canopy, probably 15th century, though much restored, as are the borders of crowned letters, Ms for Mary in the central light and Is and Xs for Jesus Christ (the sound now represented by J was represented by I until the Renaissance, and the X as in Xmas) in the other two.
Clothall is pronounced 'clot-hall' rather than 'cloth-all', and charmingly means 'nook of land (healh) where burdock (clate) grows'; nothing at all to do with a hall. The church has alighted on the top of a little round hill overlooking the Baldock-Buntingford road. It's essentially later 14th century (though perhaps has earlier origins), and comprises an aisleless nave and chancel, a south chapel, and a south porch which forms the lower stage of a slightly stumpy tower with a pyramidal cap. The ground floor of the porch doubles as the ringing chamber, a rather unusual arrangement.
Entry to the atmospheric whitewashed interior is through the original door, and it's well worth stopping to have a look at both sides of it. The exterior is pincushioned with a thousand little holes, the remnants of numerous parish notices displayed there over the centuries.
The iron hinges have what look like the necks and heads of herons on the right, and terminate on the left in shapes like ploughshares.
Thomas Dalyson (d.1541), would perhaps have had a difficult last few years, trying to navigate himself and his parishioners through the religious changes of the latter stages of Henry VIII's reign. The sacred monogram IHS has been scratched out on his clothing, but otherwise he's escaped the attention of vandals. I hope his life was similarly only marginally affected. An inscription elsewhere in the church tells us that as well as being the rector he was the 'master of the free Chappell of or Hospitall of Saint Mary Magdalene', the institution mentioned above.