I am a sucker for stained glass; I consider them comic books from another era. They taught stories about religion to those who couldn’t read and as such I find them fascinating. Occasionally they resemble medieval cartoons.

Now Freiburg Cathedral has one of the best stained glass window collections in Europe. The bishop of the city hid the glass away at the start of the World War II; a decision which has preserved the windows for posterity.
Look at this panel for instance. This is a scene of the nativity.

Medieval Nativity Cartoon
But if you watch more carefully, you’ll see that the cow is munching the baby Jesus’ swathes and that Joseph, Mary’s husband, is hitting it with a stick to let go. (Click to enlarge).

Irreverence? Humour? Whatever, surely it’s a cartoon!

Stained glass windows were also advertisements. Cathedral decorations in Strasbourg or Bern were famously sponsored by guilds or noble families showing off their  heraldic insignia.

Check out this panel sponsored by the Freiburg tailors (their coat of arms being the open shears). They clearly wanted the ladies to appear well-dressed and the window makers obliged. In particular, St Catherine on the right looks more like a supermodel than a worn-out martyr. (Click to enlarge).

Tailors window in Freiburg Cathedral

And while on the subject of St Catherine let’s check out a stained glass window that tells her tale.

In the first, the lower section, describes how Emperor Maxentius meets the 18-year old Catherine who tries to convert him. Appalled, he brings in fifty wise men to change her mind, but in the middle panel she turns them into Christians. In the final panel, Maxentius have them jailed which is then set alight to burn them alive.

St Catherine window lower panel

In the middle section of the window, Maxentius subjects Catherine to some mild flogging;  in the next panel he sends two court women to convince her to marry him. They fail. Catherine again turns them into Christians and they get beheaded.

St Catherine window middle panel

In the upper section, Catherine is broken on the wheel; she is then put to the sword  but then, as Catherine lies in the grave, people collect her fluids as she decomposes to use them as medicine. And it is that final glimpse of medieval thinking that I find intriguing.

St Catherine window uper panel

So if this all isn’t an illustrated comic book for people who can’t read, then how else do you describe it?