The small village of Doddiscombsleigh lies about five miles southwest of Exeter. The village is locally notorious for being difficult to find, despite its proximity to the city. It's surrounded by twisting narrow lanes and deep valleys with the foothills of Dartmoor stretching away to the horizon.
Remarkably, apart from that in the Great East Window of Exeter Cathedral, the parish church at Doddiscombsleigh contains the greatest collection of medieval stained glass to be found in situ anywhere in Devon.
Of particular interest is the fact that the Doddiscombsleigh panels and some of the glass at Exeter Cathedral were produced in the 15th century by the same glazing workshop.
The Doddiscombsleigh panels were installed c1480 and consist of five windows in the north aisle of the church of St Michael. This aisle was the original site of the 10th or 11th century church. (Part of the Saxon long-and-short work is still visible in the exterior of the north wall. This makes St Michael's one of the handful of extant buildings in Devon where Saxon masonry can still be seen.) The four windows in the north wall consist of groups of standing figures under which are heraldic shields. The window in the east wall of the aisle contains a single window depicting the Seven Sacraments, described in the church's guide book as St Michael's "crowning glory".
Although the workshop that produced the glass is now often referred to as the 'Doddiscombsleigh artelier' or 'Doddiscombsleigh school', the panels weren't made in the village. The village just happens to possess the best surviving examples of the workshop's output. In fact the workshop was almost certainly based in Exeter and comprised a number of people working on many different commissions. Although the glass produced by the workshop exhibits a general similarity in style, experts in medieval glass have been able to distinguish the hand of individual artists.
The workshop executed panels for churches all across the southwest of England. Fragmentary examples still exist at Bratton Clovelly, Dunsford, Manaton and Cadbury, all in Devon, as well as Melbury Bubb in Dorset and Winscombe, Pitcombe and Langport in Somerset. The workshop also received an important commission from the Dean and Chapter of Exeter Cathedral in the late 15th century for a glazing scheme for the cathedral's chapter house (these very beautiful panels were transferred to the Great East Window in the 19th century where they can be seen today).
The windows at Doddiscombsleigh have been restored at least twice since the 15th century. Once in 1762 by Peter Coles, who also restored some of the glass in Exeter Cathedral, and again in 1877 by a firm called Clayton & Bell when anything between 15% and 20% of the panels were replaced with newly-painted glass and the four windows on the north wall underwent some rearrangement of the figures.
So not all of the panels have survived intact, but given the destruction of the Reformation, the English Civil War, the Puritans, general neglect and five centuries of wind, rain, frost and sun, not to mention the scarcity of existing medieval glass in Devon generally, and it's almost miraculous that any of the glass has survived at all!
According to Vidimus, the online magazine dedicated to medieval stained glass, tracings were made of the windows by an antiquarian in 1847, prior to the restoration of the 1870s. From these tracings it's possible to reconstruct something of the original scheme before some of the panels were rearranged and new figures inserted. The panels featuring St John the Evangelist, St Patrick and St Edward the Confessor are entirely the work of Clayton & Bell. The head of the Christ child being carried by St Christopher is also a Victorian addition, as is the head of St Paul.
The 19th century figure of St Edward the Confessor is particularly impressive, the head right being slightly reminscent of Robert Lyen's work on the East Window at Exeter Cathedral at the end of the 14th century.
Although it doesn't quite capture the stylistic quality of the genuine 15th century panels at Doddiscombsleigh, the figure demonstrates how successfully Victorian craftsmanship could mimic medieval stained glass. The glass was artificially aged using various techniques so that it blended more convincingly with the medieval survivals.
Of the eleven saints depicted in the four windows of the north wall, eight are composed almost entirely of panels made c1480 by the Doddiscombsleigh workshop. These include the figures of St Christopher, St Michael weighing the souls of the dead, St Peter, the Virgin Mary, St Paul (with a Victorian head), St George killing a dragon (shown above, second from top), St Andrew and St James the Great, his cloak ornamented with sea shells. (This page at the Vidimus website has more detailed information on the reshuffling of the panels and their restoration.)
The fifth window left is the finest of all and is of national importance. It depicts the Seven Sacraments of the Church, seven separate panels depicting one sacrament each. In the centre of the scheme was originally a figure of Christ from which emanated lines of red glass, symbolising blood streaming from wounds of Christ and connecting each of the sacraments to God.
Unfortunately the central Christ figure had been removed at least by the end of the 18th century and replaced with clear glass. This was allegedly done at the behest of a local farmer who had a pew under the window. He complained that the large figure obscured the light so much that it prevented him from reading his Bible. The space occupied by Christ remained empty until the current figure was installed by Clayton & Bell in the 1870s. Comparison with a tiny fragment of a similar Seven Sacraments scheme from the same workshop that once existed at St Michael's at Cadbury near Exeter has shown that Clayton & Bell were probably incorrect in representing Christ as sitting, facing towards the viewer. The original panel probably showed Christ standing, facing slightly to the left. Despite this Victorian addition, the panels depicting the Seven Sacraments themselves have remain largely unaltered since the end of the 15th century.
The order of the Seven Sacraments in the window is as follows, starting in the top left and going anti-clockwise: The Eucharist shows a priest holding aloft the Eucharistic bread. The congregation crowd behind as he kneels before an altar draped in white and gold cloth upon which are placed a chalice and a statue of the Madonna.
Below this is the Sacrament of Marriage depicting a couple being married by a priest at the moment when the ring is placed on the bride's finger. To the bottom right is the Sacrament of Confirmation, the red-robed bishop wearing a mitre (a detail from this panel is shown above, the third photo from the top).
The central panel at the bottom of the window depicts the Sacrament of Absolution and shows a priest sitting on a wooden bench, dressed in a red cowl and hearing the confessions of a sinner, his hand placed on the sinner's head in an act of absolution. The top right panel is the Sacrament of Ordination with a bishop carrying a crozier seated before three newly-ordained priests as three others watch on in the background (this panel is shown at the top of this post). Beneath is the Sacrament of Baptism, the infant being held over a Gothic font and surrounded by a priest and four adults, probably the parents and godparents, above right.
The seventh panel shows the Sacrament of Extreme Unction left, a dying man propped up in bed as he receives sacramental bread from a priest, his wife in the background, a chair standing near the bed on a floor of black and white tiles. The four small figures at the top of the window, above the main lights, depict St Stephen, St Lawrence and St Blaise. The forth is believed to be either St Heydrop or St Nicholas.
When Clayton & Bell restored the window in 1877 they believed "the scheme of the window to be entirely unique, never having seen anything like it in England or abroad". In fact the remains of several other Seven Sacrament windows do still exist. As mentioned above, there was a very similar scheme at Cadbury and fragments of others can be seen at St Trynog's in Llandyrnog in Wales, Cartmel Fell in Cumbria and Melbury Bubb in Somerset. But the Vidimus website states that the window at Doddiscombsleigh is "the most complete in situ composition of the Seven Sacraments in any English church". Full images of the other four windows containing medieval panels are shown below.
These panels left Exeter over five hundred years ago, around the time of the Wars of the Roses, transported out of the city during the Late Middle Ages on a cart and hauled up and down the precipitous hills of West Devon before being installed in the church for which they were made. And they remain there today, rare survivals of perhaps the most fragile of medieval art forms.