Looking through the ‘Coifi’ Window

In this blog post Open Treasure Gallery Attendant, Kendra Johnson, shines a spotlight one one of the cathedral’s most fascinating stained glass windows, and asks where did King Edwin of Northumbria disappear to?

When you walk into the cathedral through the north door, you might have noticed a beautiful stained glass window that sits directly above the cathedral’s south door. This is the window informally known as the Coifi Window. Its formal title is “King Edwin of Northumbria, and Coifi casting a spear at the Altar in the Temple of Woden at Goodmanham”. I find the latter curious because, as can be seen below, King Edwin does not appear in this window at all!

The text beneath the two images reads ‘Coifi the High Priest’ (top) and ‘Coifi profanes the heathen temple’ (bottom).

There is an explanation for this, albeit one that is incomplete. Indeed, for anyone that had chance to visit the exhibition, Restoration, Redesign, Renovation in Open Treasure before the museum temporarily closed because of coronavirus, they will have seen the draft design for the Coifi Window. Before we look at the draft design, let us first consider who Coifi and Edwin were.

Edwin was the King of Northumbria between 616 and 633 AD and Bede informs us that he ruled over almost all of Britain. We also learn from Bede that Coifi was King Edwin’s chief priest. At the start of Book II, Chapter XIII of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People we discover that Edwin has recently been told about the Christian faith by Paulinus, an Italian missionary sent by Pope Gregory. The scene unfolds as Edwin asks his court what they think about this new religion. Coifi is the first person to respond.

Coifi (who, like those around him, had thus far been following a pagan religion) stated in no uncertain terms that he thought that worshipping their pagan gods had been futile and that the new religion should therefore be given serious consideration. Coifi’s startlingly direct reply (Bede seems to be emphasising the point here) was as follows:

“… the religion which we have hitherto professed has no virtue in it and no profit. For none of your people has applied himself more diligently to the worship of our gods than I; and yet there are many who receive greater favours from you, and are more preferred than I, and are more prosperous in all that they undertake to do or to get. Now if the gods were good for anything, they would rather forward me, who have been careful to serve them with greater zeal. If upon examination you find those new doctrines, which are now preached to us, better and more efficacious, we hasten to receive them without delay.”

Coifi subsequently advised Edwin to ban and destroy the pagan temples. Indeed, when attention was turned to who should destroy the temples, Coifi immediately volunteered and went to considerable lengths to act in direct opposition to the dictates of his previous religion.

Regarding the latter, Bede tells us that “it was not lawful… for the high priest either to carry arms or to ride on anything but a mare”. Clearly wanting make the strongest possible statement, Coifi borrowed a sword, spear and stallion and rode to the pagan temple at Goodmanham 18 miles east of York. On arrival he cast the spear into the temple and commanded that the building should be pulled down and set alight. If we look back at the lower section of the Coifi Window (below), we see the moment before this destruction begins: Coifi is poised, spear held aloft, ready to hurl the weapon into the temple.

Now we are familiar with the story, let us return to our unanswered question: why does Edwin not feature in this window given that its formal title includes his name? When the draft design for the window is viewed alongside the completed window the situation becomes even more intriguing:

Draft design of window
Completed window in situ

Look at the upper section of the draft design on the left. Here we can see that Edwin (depicted on a throne, wearing a crown, and holding an orb and sceptre) did originally feature in the window. However, at some stage between the creation of the draft design and the installation of the window in the cathedral, it is clear that the image of Edwin was replaced by an image of Coifi, who is seated in the upper section of the finished window on the right.

The reason for the replacement of the image of Edwin is a mystery. Although the cathedral’s archives contain the minutes of the meetings of the Dean and Chapter from the time, these include “only occasional hints of discussions regarding the iconography of the windows and the critique of sketch designs” (Rush in Brown, 2014, pp211-212). Consequently, whilst the draft design does at least explain the formal title of the window, it arguably raises more questions than it answers.

Make sure to take in the wonder of the Coifi Window for yourself once the cathedral reopens, but for now stay home, stay safe and enjoy these digital highlights.

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