Grantham Civic Society Column: A window on the beauty of church styling

A variety of styles of tracery at St Wulfram's Church, Grantham.
A variety of styles of tracery at St Wulfram's Church, Grantham.
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The phrase ‘church windows’ inevitably conjures up coloured glass with pictures of saints and biblical scenes.

This, of course, is likely to attract attention when inside many a church. But from outside it is the shape of the window itself and the pattern of stonework which is striking.

At St Wulfram’s Church all the windows, which were constructed in the 13th to 15th centuries, have the pointed ‘gothic’ outline. The lower, straight-sided part of a window is divided by a number of vertical stone columns (the mullions) into separate compartments (called ‘lights’). Many of the windows here have three mullions and so four lights. Each light is closed at the top with a mini-arch. The pattern of stonework in the upper part of the window is the tracery.

The style of tracery changed over the centuries and the earliest type is called ‘Geometrical’ as it is constructed using only circles or part-circle shapes. Typical are the six identical windows on the north side which include two smaller circles and one larger. Each circle has petal-like decorations called ‘foils’. These windows from the mid-13th century are similar to larger ones at Lincoln Cathedral, possibly constructed by the same team of stonemasons.

Another common Geometrical design, called ‘Intersecting’, consists of curving arcs crossing one another to form diamond-shaped openings in the tracery. This is the very simplest type of tracery and there are three such windows on the south side and one above the main west entrance.

In the middle of the 14th century tracery designs became more fluid, no longer confined to shapes based on the circle. In terms of windows, the Glory of Grantham must be the trio on the south side which happens to form the (probably unappreciated!) backdrop to the National School playground. This style of tracery called ‘curvilinear’ or ‘flowing’ belongs to the Decorated period of English architecture. The freer shapes often suggest leaves on a giant plant and one can even imagine a butterfly in the tracery of one window.

Later in the 14th century these exotic forms were abandoned and the Perpendicular, that peculiarly English style of architecture, was born. At St Wulfram’s there are five Perpendicular windows. As the name Perpendicular suggests, there are strong verticals, for example where the mullions are continued upwards almost to the top of the window arch. But there are also horizontal bars called transoms which can produce an overall grid-like effect.

Some striking local examples of English tracery from the Geometrical, Decorated and Perpendicular periods can be seen respectively at the Angel Choir of Lincoln Cathedral; the churches in Sleaford and Heckington; and St Mary, Nottingham. But why go further than Grantham where there are fine examples of all three styles in a single church?