Recognized for its grandeur, its magnificent architecture, its religious significance, Canterbury Cathedral and its splendor can sometimes dwarf the small details that can lead to remarkable discoveries.

Calvin alumna Rachel Koopmans ’91 is exploring some of those small but beautiful details found in the panels of the stained-glass windows that adorn the famous cathedral.

Home to one of England’s largest collections of medieval stained glass, Canterbury Cathedral and its breathtaking windows have been oft studied and interpreted, but Koopmans spent the past summer taking a closer look.

Rachel Koopmans
Rachel Koopmans

An English and history major at Calvin, Koopmans pursued a PhD in medieval studies at the University of Notre Dame, where she delved into the medieval miracle stories, particularly those of Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury. Many of the miracles of Becket are depicted in stained glass at the cathedral. “What I discovered [later] was that a number of the stories [in the stained glass] were connected to the wrong text.

“People that were studying stained glass didn’t know the text, but I knew the text,” she said. “If you’re seeing the wrong story, you’re missing the point from the text.”

As she dug deeper, Koopmans—now associate professor of history at York University in Toronto—realized she needed to learn more about stained glass.

“I got to know the people at Canterbury really well,” she said. “I had determined that archival evidence had been misinterpreted, and I was trying to get them to take the step of taking a look at this glass up close.”

What she and a team of Canterbury conservators, led by Leonie Seliger, uncovered was more than they had hoped for. Two of the glass panels that were previously thought to be Victorian restorations were actually medieval glassworks, dating back more than 800 years. What they had discovered was the first-ever artwork depicting pilgrims coming to the cathedral: a “snapshot” from circa 1180.

Beyond this discovery, details in the glass were revealed, including a previously unseen inscription in the road the pilgrims were walking and details that confirmed that the medieval pilgrims came from every social status. “We know that hundreds of thousands of people made pilgrimages, and this is our one image from this time,” she said. “The discovery is unparalleled.”

While Koopmans has been studying the stained glass from afar for more than 15 years, seeing them up close was incredible, she said.

“I did not expect to be bowled over by these works of art,” she said. “These glaziers were the best artists of their time; the power of these images is breathtaking.”

Her recent research is inspiring her classroom teaching, just as she was inspired by Calvin professors, she said. “I cannot say enough good things about the professors I had at Calvin in both English and history. They were such great examples of how to do scholarly research and then bring it into the classroom.”

Koopmans’ plans include future trips to Canterbury to examine the remaining seven windows in the panel. “This pilot project was really just the beginning,” she said.

She hopes that her discovery will fuel future interest in the glass, particularly among potential visitors to the cathedral.

“I would like others to see how interesting medieval stained glass is,” she said. “It’s not as esoteric as it might sound. It’s a neglected subject that has so much to offer. I would love to think that people might say, ‘Let’s take a trip to Europe to see the stained glass.’”