As an Arabist and Middle East cultural expert for the last 30 years, my work has taken me to most corners of the eastern Mediterranean and, as a child, I travelled extensively across Europe with my family, visiting Gothic cathedrals galore. What a surprise, therefore, in the course of research for my book on the backstory of Gothic architecture, Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe, to discover a connection much closer to home.
Tucked away in Brabourne, a tiny Kent village on the pilgrimage route to Canterbury that boasts one church, one pub and no shops, is an astonishingly rare fragment of history – the oldest Norman stained glass window in England, still intact and in situ. Canterbury Cathedral also boasts 12th century stained glass in its windows, but none remains in its original settings, having been chopped and changed over the centuries by early restorers, as if fiddling with a giant jigsaw.
Stained Glass at Brabourne came from Syria
My studies showed that the raw materials for this medieval glass were shipped out of Syria via the Latin Principality of Antioch, a Crusader kingdom set up by Norman knights of the First Crusade. Back then, during the Abbasid Caliphate, Syria was the world leader in glass manufacture, and its artisans had also perfected the alchemy that produced highly prized palettes of colour like rich reds and deep cobalt blues.
Europe at the time had nothing to rival such glass. Not until Tamerlane sacked the Syrian capital Damascus in 1401, abducting all its skilled craftsmen to Samarkand, did Syria lose its pre-eminence to Venice. This kept the recipes secret but still referred to ‘the cinders of Syria’ as the best quality due to its unique organic ingredients, especially the plant known as ushnaan, still used in the Syrian soap industry today.
Several famous Medieval Cathedrals have stained glass of this “Islamic composition”
Modern analysis of 12th century stained glass windows has proved that the cathedrals at Saint-Denis, Notre-Dame, Chartres, Canterbury and York, among others, all have this ‘Islamic composition’ as it is known. Its thickness and integral bubbles give a special magical light and may help explain the miracle of why the window has survived intact for eight centuries, and maybe even why Notre-Dame’s 3,000 square metres of stained glass survived the April 2019 inferno.
The Brabourne window’s distinctive geometric pattern is almost identical to a glazed screen in the late 11th century Benedictine abbey church of San Benedetto in Capua, while its colours are near identical to those in the Benedictine abbey church of Santissima Trinita in Mileto, Calabria. The same colours and geometric design based on interlocking circles can also be seen in a window of the eastern wall of the Hanbali Mosque in Damascus, one of the oldest surviving mosques in the city.
Lockdown has so far thwarted my attempts, along with a Syrian glass specialist colleague, to conduct an elemental analysis on the Brabourne window, using a non-destructive portable XRF analyzer loaned from University College London’s laboratories, but with the summer’s easing of restrictions we soon hope to prove that ancient glass from Syria does indeed survive in a Norman church in Kent.
Could a Syrian migrant have designed the glass for a church in Kent?
Was this wonderful glass war-booty from the Crusades? Or would the craftsmen have come to England?
In fact, many Norman Crusader knights were known to have brought skilled craftsmen with them as prisoners. For example, a man named Lalys, who was from the land of Canaan, is credited with building Neath Abbey 1129, and is described as being, “well-versed in the science of architecture, who erected monasteries, castles and churches”.