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The Penitencer’s Window

Like windows n25 and n26, this is a band window, with three registers of pale grisaille glass separating two full-colour bands. The upper colour band features two scenes of martyrdom (of St Paul and St Peter). The tracery was replaced in 1779 by the York glass-painter William Peckitt (1731–1795).

During the thirteenth century, it became compulsory to attend confession (the sacrament of penance) at least once a year, in Lent. After confession, one’s sins were absolved and and a penance was determined by the priest; this could include punishment (or ‘mortification’) of the flesh, which was intended to allow an individual’s spiritual side to flourish. Confessions were made in public to a parish priest, but clergy, high-status individuals, and those whose sins were extremely serious could confess to a penitencer appointed by the archbishop (a list of serious sins drawn up in 1367 by Archbishop Thoresby includes murder and sacrilege). It is for the three penitencer scenes in the lower colour band that this window is named. In the first a penitencer on a seat, a reminder of the authority vested in him by the archbishop, administers a scourging to a lay figure with a sword and mace. The second and third scenes show a standing penitencer brandishing a scourge. The penitencer theme continues in the borders of the main lights, where we find tonsured penitencers, most in blue hooded gowns, seated on white architectural thrones beneath crocketed yellow gables. In the early 14th century, there were two penitencers at York Minster, and in 1308 one of them was William de Langtoft, who is named in the first of the penitencer panels here and is considered the window’s donor. From 1312 until at least 1317, Langtoft was also keeper of the fabric, the cleric who supervised all the building work at York Minster, which at this time included the construction and decoration of the nave.

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