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The Icelandic Saga and the Coventry Glass, by Kenyon Wright

Early in 2008, soon after our return to the Midlands from Scotland, I was rung out of the blue by Karl Smari Hreinsson from Iceland, whom I subsequently met in Coventry in March 2008. He was researching for a documentary film for Icelandic Television tracing the story of the stained glass windows in Iceland which they believe to be from the old Coventry Cathedral. Later, on 24 April I again met Karl, along with the film maker, who recorded a number of interviews with different people at the Cathedral. It seems the film will be 40 minutes in length, and is reported to be ready before Christmas 2009. Copies will be made both in Icelandic and English, and they obviously hope it will be of interest to one of the British TV companies.

Largely owing to this research, we can now summarise coherently as much of the complex and detailed story as possible, though some elements are never likely to be discovered - principally the mystery of how this glass came to be acquired and transported to Iceland, apparently from an antique dealer in London who cannot now be traced. Much has now been painstakingly researched and I believe the Cathedral has taken this opportunity to act in a way that will cement a strong Christian relationship with the Churches in Iceland, and ensure reconciliation.

This is presented in 3 sections

  1. The facts on the movement of the glass as far as can be known
  2. The nature of the Cathedral's links to date with Iceland
  3. A report on the visit to Iceland in May 2009 by Canon David Porter and Canon Kenyon Wright

1. The facts

In 1942, Icelandic brothers called Helgi and Kristjan Zoega, whose father's shipping company dealt with British companies and with the Government, and had brought a ship loaded with fish to England, bought from an antique dealer in London, panels of stained glass which the dealer said came from Coventry Cathedral. Helgi lived in Fleetwood and was an agent for his shipbroker father Geir Zoega,, while Kristjan had an antique business in Reykjavik. Nearly 40 years later Helgi Zoega in Fleetwood said he was "asked if I was interested in buying glass he had just got from somewhere". He did not know where "somewhere" was, or even who the dealer was, except that he was in the centre of London and seemed "anxious" to sell the glass. The Zoega brothers took the glass from London to Fleetwood, and thence back to Iceland in crates in the hold of their ship, to their antique business in Reykjavik.

It seems now quite impossible to trace how stained glass from the Cathedral destroyed in November 1940, apparently came into the hands of a dealer in London in 1942, and thence to the brothers from Iceland. It seems best to draw a discreet veil over this part of the story - part of the confusion and chaos of war. Some glass from the old Cathedral was removed in 1939/40 for safe keeping, and, according to the three workmen who removed it and were interviewed in the Coventry Evening Telegraph (CET) on 28 May 1981, taken to Hampton Lucy or Charlecote. This seems to have been the mediaeval glass. The fate of any other glass that survived the bombing, is unknown. Churches in the USA, Canada, and South Africa claim to have such glass, but these seem to have been fragments, rather than the complete windows in Iceland.

From this point on, things become clearer. From its arrival in Iceland in 1942, the complex history has now been largely traced, thanks mainly to the detailed research done there in preparation for the Icelandic TV film. In 1942 or 43, a leading businessman and prominent citizen of Akureyri, Mr Jacob Frimansson, who was secretary of the Church committee, bought a single panel from Kristjan Zoega and donated it to the new Church, where it was installed in 1943. It was found to fit the window space perfectly (which had previously contained just plain glass), and forms the central panel of five in the apse.

It depicts the Presentation in the Temple, with the infant Jesus in the arms of Simeon, the virgin Mary with a dove symbolising purification, alongside Joseph and the prophetess Anna.

The other four windows depicting other scenes from the life of Jesus, were fashioned by Wippel & Co in Exeter, created in similar style by Fredric Cole, who, with the help of an Icelandic artist, Guomundur fra Miodal, designed the other 4 around the theme of the Coventry window, so that these five depict in chronological order, the early life of Jesus. The Coventry window was actually sent back to England for a time in 1960 so that the other four could be made closely in the same style.

As seen, from left to right, the 5 windows depict....

  1. The Annunciation (The archangel coming to Mary)
  2. The birth of Jesus
  3. THE COVENTRY WINDOW described above
  4. The boy Jesus in the temple
  5. The baptism of Jesus

Both the Church and the tourist literature there, proudly claim that this central panel is from the old Coventry Cathedral.

(There is a claim, largely anecdotal, that a second window from Coventry also came to Akureyri, and forms the bottom part of the central Coventry window).
Interestingly, this depicts a paschal lamb holding a banner with a St Georges Cross.

The Akureyri Church was actually consecrated three years earlier, on 17 November 1940, just 3 days after the bombing of Coventry, when the news of the Cathedral's destruction must have been widespread. Even here is interesting symbolism - destruction and three days later new life!

It seems Mr Oli Isaksson, a merchant, leading business man, and antique collector, bought all the remaining glass from the Zoegas and kept it all in his house in Reykjavik. He mounted one panel in his own house there, which we were able to visit and see in May.
This is a lovely depiction of Mary standing with the Christ child.

Isaksson seems to have kept the rest of the glass for some 40 years. When his wife Unnur Olafsdottir died around 1984, he donated all his remaining glass to a new Church recently built just beside his house, the Askirkja, which has 5 mounted panels and 2 free-standing in storage

We can now identify the glass in the Askirkja in Reykjavik as follows:

Mounted between the Lobby and Church:

Narrow window depicting St Peter
Narrow window depicting St Paul
Wider window depicting St Peter and St Paul
Wider window depicting St Jude and St Thomas

Mounted in a Chapel

Wider window depicting Christ surrounded by people in need (this may include the raising of Jairus' daughter).

Text reads "Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest".

Freestanding and stored:

Wider window depicting the Virgin Mary Standing
Wider window depicting female grasping large Cross

With text "Simply to Thy Cross I cling".

To summarise, glass believed to be from the Cathedral, seems to be in 3 places:

  • Akureyri church, consecrated 1940, glass installed 1943 - 1 window (2?)
  • in the Askirkja Church in Reykjavik, built early 80s - 5 windows +2 stored
  • in Isaksson's house just next to the latter, - 1 window

If this is accurate, it indicates that the Zoega brothers must have transported a very considerable quantity of glass to Iceland. Indeed Karl Hreinsson says "nine large boxes" were transported.

This saga came to public attention in May 1981 though articles in the CET and the Guardian, responding to questions raised by visitors to Iceland about Akureyri's claim to have Coventry glass. The complex details above have come to light through the proposed film now being made, and the research done by Karl Smari Hreinsson.

2. The Cathedral's Links

Alerted by the CET article in May 1981, I wrote in one of my last acts as Director of the International Ministry and the Centre for International Reconciliation, with the approval of Provost Williams, on 3rd June 1981 to the Minister of Akureyri Church. Both the original of this letter and any copies here seem to have been lost, but there is a reference to it in the minutes of the Akureyri Church meeting which records that the Bishop read a letter "sent by Kenyon Wright in which he proposed to create a friendship between the two churches, in Coventry and Akureyri". This letter is also mentioned in the history of the Church ("Saga Akureyrikirkju" in Icelandic) published in 1990.

I left the Cathedral staff in summer 1981, and unfortunately. as far as I know, no reply was received nor was it followed up in any way at that time. The only further record in the archives is an email sent to Canon Margaret Sedgewick in July 2005 in response to hers, in which the Rector of Akureyri Church gives their record of the glass, and hopes for "establishing some sort of communication between our Church and Coventry Cathedral" He says that their staff and leaders want to do so, "and learn more about the work in Coventry" I could find no record of any further contact in the Cathedral archives.

Karl Smari Hreinsson suggest that, while my letter was entirely positive and friendly, and made clear that there was no question of wanting the glass back, there may still have been some apprehension about our approach. Iceland has strict laws about the return of stolen or misappropriated property, and there is certainly some doubt as to the provenance of the glass. This may have been fuelled by some insensitive remarks attributed to Provost Williams in the CET on 16 May 1981. He said that he was not asking for the return of the glass, and would not support any movement to get it back "But if Iceland wanted to salve its conscience by sending it back, I would not refuse it" This was said in response to the CET inviting its readers "Should the glass be returned? Tell the Evening telegraph your views".

It seems that this unfortunate speculation may well have alarmed some of our Christian brothers and sisters in Iceland - and I believe it is right that we have now through the visit to Iceland, positively healed any wound that remained, and brought this whole saga to a happy conclusion, and a new start!

3. The Visit to Iceland, May 2009

In February 2009, the Bishop of Iceland invited Canon David Porter and me to attend a major Arts Festival in Akureyri, and to visit Reykjavik also.

Akureyri, in the north of Iceland, is a lovely modern town on a hillside next to a fjord, and surrounded by snow capped mountains. During the course of three sunny days, we were welcomed with great warmth by the pastors and people of the Church, led a seminar on the Coventry story, and even had time for a 200 mile journey into the grandeur of the volcanic landscape, with its waterfalls, lakes and hot springs bursting from the lava.

On Sunday 10 May David Porter preached eloquently in the main Church service, and presented to the Church a replica of the statue on "Reconciliation" in the ruins of the Cathedral.

I also read out a letter of greetings and friendship from the First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, whom I had told of our invitation, and who sent me his best wishes to the Bishop and people. Scotland has close social and economic links with Iceland.

David and I then returned to Reykjavik, where we were able to meet the Bishop, to visit the Askirkja to see the glass there, and were allowed into the lovely house nearby that had belonged to Mr Isaksson, to see the panel mounted there.

Our visit, both in Akureyri and Reykjavik, was extensively covered by the team making the film already referred to, for Icelandic TV. This will trace the long history given above, and find its climax in our visit. I am told it should be ready before Christmas 2009, and we hope, available in English.

Many people who visit Iceland ask why Coventry glass is there. We can now at last tell them the story, and give a positive Christian answer, to the effect that, while the entire history may never be totally known, the glass is there now with the full blessing of the Cathedral and Diocese of Coventry, is recognised as now the property of the Church in Iceland and is a means of grace to many, a mark of our friendship in Christ, and the basis of a new relationship with Akureyri and the Church in Iceland.

Kenyon Wright
August 2009

NOTE

The Church in Iceland has since sent us some pictures and videos from the visit.

The pictures can be found on

http://www.flickr.com/photos/kirkjan/sets/72157617941123961/

The Videos can be found on

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RJfqDjX6U6Y

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IzFpSDZaCzg

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LV7u-zmNUsI


 
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