The Enigmatic Demon in York Minster’s Saint William Window: Identifying the Text Behind the Image—By Candace A. Reilly

The St. William window in the York Minster, dated 1414, is a prominent topic of scholarly debate and analysis (Figure 1). Many panels are identified as scenes from the life of St. William and his miracles; however, panel 12a has been overlooked consistently because no one has found a direct liturgical or hagiographic source relating to St. William. Thomas French, Ben Nilson, and Fenna Visser have all stated that the panel is an image of a man or a scholar being seized by a devil.[1] They have not, however, questioned how the panel relates to the rest of the window and have not attached it to any hagiographic or liturgical texts related to St. William.[2] I propose that panel 12a is a representation of miracle sixteen from the Vita Sancti Willelmi, or possibly an unknown contemporary source closely related to the Vita, in which an Ethiopian tormenter and a demon are the same entity. In this analysis, I place panel 12a in the context of the surrounding panels that represent the posthumous miracles of St. William. In addition, I examine the tradition of depicting Ethiopians as demonic supernatural beings and vice versa in medieval art and texts.

Photograph of St. William Window, York Minster.

Figure 1. St. William Window, York Minster. Photograph © Candace A. Reilly.

The Context and Position of the St. William Window

The St. William window is in the center of the eastern arm of the north wall of the York Minster. The window has five lights divided by three transoms, which apportion the window into four sections. There are ninety-five narrative panels, above the donor panels, which are all organized in twenty-four rows, designed to be read from bottom to top and left to right. The window depicts, in extensive detail, the pictorial cycle of St. William from scenes of his life to the translation of his body in 1284 and many of his posthumous miracles. Many of the panels in the St. William window have been interpreted as primarily decorative, because the stonework between the transoms hinders visibility of the top rows of panels, especially above row ten. Panel 12a is concealed when standing at the base; it is, however, visible if one views the St. William window from the south side of the choir in the Lady Chapel (Figure 2). Therefore, medieval viewers would have been able to contemplate the meaning behind the demon chasing the man in the blue robes in their patron saint’s window during mass. Since the panel is positioned with other panels which depict posthumous miracles at the tomb of St. William, the viewer would have likely assumed that St. William somehow stopped the man from being chased and tortured by a demon. Most of the panels are connected to hagiographic and liturgical sources, which relate closely to the text.[3] The bottom row of panels is not part of the St. William narrative; rather, it exhibits the donors, the family of Ros of Helmsley, dressed in heraldic garb.[4] This window was a gift from the Dowager Lady Beatrice before the passing of her eldest son William in 1414; and the St.William window was completed by that time.[5] The St. William window was commissioned ten years after John Thornton and his workshop began working on the East Window, and no documentary evidence has survived of the commission related to the hired glaziers. Despite the lack of documents concerning the glazing of the St. William window,evidence based on the styling, technique, and cartoons from the East window suggests that John Thornton’s workshop was responsible for the glazing.[6]

Photograph showing view of the St. William widow from the south side of the choir in the eastern arm of the York Minster.

Figure 2. View of the St. William widow from the south side of the choir in the eastern arm of the York Minster. Photograph © Candace Reilly.

Panel 12a: The Demon-Ethiopian Panel

Panel 12a is the first panel in the third section above the second transom (Figure 3).[7]  My analysis examines the post-restoration panel, which markedly reduced the lead and enhanced the details of the figures.[8] The intention of the restoration was to re-make the glass closer to the original conception of 1414.

Panel 12a of St. William Window, Ethiopian/Demon chasing a man

Figure 3. Ethiopian/Demon chasing a man, panel 12a, St. William Window, York Minster, York. Image via BBC.


The panel depicts a demon chasing a bearded man, his right arm positioned just behind the man’s back. The hairy brown demon has an upturned nose, pig-like ears, curved horns, bat-like wings, a tail, hooves, and claws. The bearded man, who is dressed in blue robes lined with fur, has his right arm raised and his left arm in front of his body, emphasizing the motion of running. Both figures are set against a red background and are standing on a grassy hill, with a tree on the right side of the panel.

The conclusion of this dramatic panel is not expressed in the window. However, I believe that the visual evidence allows us to conclude that this panel depicts one specific miracle from the Vita, the main account of St. William interacting, albeit post-mortem, with a demon. This would fit better with the depiction of other posthumous miracles represented in the panels than an odd, unknown story of a demon chasing a man.

The Textual Source: The Vita of St. William

The Vita of St. William only survives in one manuscript, London, British Library MS Harley 2.[9] The manuscript is dated to the first half of the thirteenth century, around the time St. William was canonized, on 18 March 1226.[10] Miracle sixteen occurs in the second half of the Vita, which focuses solely on the saint’s posthumous miracles. Christopher Norton notes that the Vita has some “novel elements”, components of wonder, such as miracle sixteen, which he describes as an event of demonic possession in which there is a vision of an Ethiopian, which can be considered a type of demon.[11] The miracle is certainly distinctive, and no similar miracle or story relating to St. William survives in a liturgical or hagiographic context.[12] The Miracula, which details St. William’s miracles up to 1177, makes no mention of a demon chasing a man, which suggests that this miracle occurred after the Miracula was written.[13]

The Vita: Miracle 16 reads:

Also these things of wonder should be inserted in the page.[14] While a fuller was reclining in bed in silence in the dead of night, and was going through domestic activities in his mind, behold! An Ethiopian appeared to him, of giant stature, miserable in his thinness, full of all deformity, with fiery eyes, gnashing wolfish ravenous teeth, and with hands like the claws of an eagle. The wretched man hid under the bed, since no escape was available, he was seized by claw like hook hands of the Ethiopian who whirled him round so that the vertigo of the height would take away his strengths, one moment he crushed him against a wall and he provoked him to tears, another moment he tickled and drew out laughter unwillingly. In this way he spent a frightful night, and, while the family was buried in sleep, he alone was scourged and weeping and shaking. At daybreak, the tortuous torturer disappears. At the sight of his wife, the wretched man with his mouth gaping open; bloody drops pouring out, hurried with a fast run to the precipice.[15] But the wife, whom emboldened by her husband’s plight, forgets feminine weakness, she restricted the enraged madman, and she commanded the household near to restrain him. When the members of the household arrived, they restrained his demonic violence with iron gauntlets and knots. With his eyes inflamed, his limbs trembling with insanity, his teeth grinding, his spirit rebelling, he is dragged unwillingly for his life and left with the relics of the saint, having lost his senses. Then like someone ‘wrapped up’ he writhes on the floor, now lying on his back, now rending the air with his hair, his hands and shoulders. Finally God having compassion for the suffering woman, who was sending her tears to heaven, liberates the husband from the teeth of the demon and the wife from such great sorrow. Thus the demon being expelled, the people who were gathered around show their astonishment, and give great praise to God the giver of such a miraculous recovery saying that; the grace of the Holy Father William is more powerful than all the medicine of the most attentive doctors.[16]

The text describes a fuller, or wool cleaner, who, reclining in his bed at night, is suddenly attacked and tormented by a monstrous Ethiopian. After an entire night of odd tortures including tickling and thrashing the man’s body against walls, the Ethiopian disappears but the man remains demonically possessed. Seeing this, the household restrains him and brings him to the tomb of St. William. There, with the grace of St. William, God releases the man from his demonic possession.  The text describes the creature that attacks the man as an Ethiopian who is “of giant stature, miserable in his thinness, full of all deformity, with fiery eyes, gnashing wolfish ravenous teeth, and with hands like the claws of an eagle.”[17] In the later part of the miracle, the text refers to the same creature as a demon. Therefore, the Vita presents the creature as a deformed Ethiopian who is actually a demon.

The Panel as a Representation of Miracle Sixteen

The other panels in the window emphasize the healing powers of the relics of St. William. In the story from the Vita, the possessed man is forced to the tomb for healing. At the tomb he is healed mentally, physically, and spiritually from the possession. While the other posthumous miracle panels in the window focus on healings of injury and sickness, this panel does not display the moment of healing, the tomb, or the allusion to healing by St. William. Instead, it shows the reason why the healing must transpire. Including this panel in the St. William window gives greater healing efficacy to St. William and the York Minster: not only was St. William able to cure people from injuries and save lives, but he also exorcised demons. So, while this panel belongs to the window’s themes, it is unusual as a representation of the hagiographic text.

Panel 12a could be a direct depiction of miracle sixteen from the Vita; or it could be based on a contemporary source, now lost, that told the same story. In panel 12a, the demon is presented as a typical demon chasing a man outside; however, in the Vita, neither the demon nor the man ever leave his bedchamber. The sentence, “At the sight of his wife, the wretched man with his mouth gaping open; bloody drops pouring out, hurried with a fast run to the precipice,”[18] explains that the man is driven mad and runs to throw himself off a high structure, which could be a balcony in his bedroom. If one translates “praecipitum” as “cliff,” however, then the panel can be interpreted as combining two moments of heightened drama in miracle sixteen: the demonic tortures inside the bedchamber and the man’s attempt to run off a cliff.[19] This coalesces the two main parts of the miracle, which allows the dramatic story to be told using only one panel in the window.

Another possibility is that the panel is based on a contemporary hagiographic text, now lost, that used content of miracle sixteen while changing the tale to show the demon tormenting the man outside his house. That text may have been orally transmitted and may have been more familiar. Either way, miracle sixteen from the Vita and the panel are still intertwined with the image as an understanding of the text. The connection to miracle sixteen is further acknowledged, when regarding the long history of showing Ethiopians and demons in this fashion.

Medieval Demon Imagery

The demon in panel 12a is an archetypal representation of chaotic demon iconography of the high and late Middle Ages, rather than a representation of a human Ethiopian attacker. Demons are typically represented with dark skin/hair/fur, wings, a tail, hooves, horns, a long hooked nose, and claws.[20] They are an amalgamation of animal characteristics that form a misshapen, terrifying being. Demons are usually represented with tools for torturing their victims, often common instruments used in agriculture or cooking, like pitchforks, flesh-hooks, tridents, and spears. Such a tool was likely held by the demon in panel 12a originally. The demon’s claw is clenched as if he should be holding something, and two lead lines descend from his claw to the bottom of the panel (Figure 4). I suggest that the lead lines are the remnants of the glazier’s design of the demon holding some sort of torture device such as a spear or hook. A similar image is found in London, British Library, Cotton MS Nero C.IV, fol. 39r (Figure 5).

Detail, panel 12a.

Figure 4. (Detail) Ethiopian/Demon chasing a man, panel 12a, St. William Window, York Minster, York. Image via BBC.


Figure 5. The Mouth of Hell, Winchester Psalter, The British Library Board, London, British Library Cotton MS Nero C.IV, fol. 39r.

Since this panel, like the East Window, was created by John Thornton’s workshop, we can compare the demons in the East window with the demon in panel 12a:  the artists have made the demon in Panel 12a unique, giving it features that relate it more closely to the specific story.

First, it is important to notice the differences and similarities in iconography between the St. William window as a whole and the East window, as Thomas French has analyzed, because the iconography is very different, in regards to the demons, even though they were made by the same workshop of glaziers and the windows share similarities in organization and style.[21] Like the East window, many scenes are detailed representations of hagiographic and biblical texts. Additionally, the St. William window also follows the East window in representing one story over many continuous panels such as the miracle of the Ouse Bridge and the story of Ralph and Besing. The heads of figures demonstrate similarities in style; for example, one of the four glaziers working on the St. William window gives figures a round head and bulbous tipped nose, a type that appears in the East window in panel 2h of the New Jerusalem.[22]

However, it seems that Thornton’s workshop designed the demon in panel 12a to be strikingly different from the demons in the East window. In comparison to the demons in the East window panel 2e, the demon in panel 12a is more detailed and is a unique amalgamation of many different creatures. The demons in the East window appear impish rather than malevolent and are not the focus in the panels where they appear. Greater attention was given to the design of the demon in panel 12a, which suggests that the glazier intended the figure to be noticed particularly, and to distinguish this demon from the typical creatures of hell. This demon is possibly distinctive to alert the medieval viewer of the importance of this panel representing St. William’s power of exorcising demons post-mortem.

Ethiopians as Demons in Art

The text shows that the demon and the Ethiopian in the Vita are the same entity, but the glaziers seem to have only depicted a demon and left all the characteristics of an Ethiopian out of panel 12a. However, archetypal images of Ethiopians associated them with demons. This association suggests that the panel represents the demon without the disguise in which he first appears to the man. Debra Strickland’s in-depth analysis in ‪Saracens, Demons, & Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art details the derogatory representations of Ethiopians in the Middle Ages.[23] The ancient Greeks and Romans categorized all people with dark skin under the classification of Ethiopians, and with the combination of the continued influence of Classical mythology and the study of physiognomy, this stereotype continued into the Middle Ages.[24] Ethiopians in medieval art are classified in three different categories:black imps, derogatory black men with deformed features, and demons. Images of Ethiopians as stereotypical black humans often appear in manuscripts where they are portrayed with an indirect connection to the devil and demons; for example, by placing them near hellmouth imagery.[25] The typical features of a non-demonic Ethiopian in medieval art are large lips, tightly coiled thick hair, very dark skin, large eyes, and a flat/wide nose. Emblematic images of Ethiopians are found in manuscripts such as the Luttrell Psalter (London, British Library, Luttrell Psalter, MS 42130, fol.157, c.1325-35, Figure 6), in which the Ethiopians are human and are presented in a derogatory fashion. They are juxtaposed with demons and depictions of hell yet they are not illustrated as actual demons.[26] There are also direct depictions of Ethiopians as demons who are the disciples of Satan, which is seen in the following texts. In addition to the demon in the Vita, Jacobus de Voragine incorporates tales into The Golden Legend in which saints are attacked by demons that have shaped themselves to look like Ethiopians.[27] The dichotomy of Ethiopians being both earthly and supernatural illustrates the array of options that medieval artists could have used to depict this race of man while maintaining associations with demons.

Figure 6. Detail, Luttrell Psalter, The British Library Board, London, British Library, Luttrell Psalter, MS 42130, fol.157, c.1325-35.

Figure 6. Detail, Luttrell Psalter, The British Library Board, London, British Library, Luttrell Psalter, MS 42130, fol.157, c.1325-35.

Ethiopians were associated with demons in art, but also in texts, which suggests that this comparison was prominent in text and imagery traditions. I will give examples of three texts that precede the Vita that also present Ethiopians as demons; Liber de Miraculis and two accounts from The Dialogue of Miracles, Book V: Of Demons by Caesarius of Heisterbach. Liber de Miraculis, written by Johannes Monachus in the eleventh century, is a collection of miracles and tales. In one miracle, a magician named Mesita and his devout Christian notary come upon a kingdom where a dark Ethiopian sits on the throne. Many other Ethiopians are by his side. When the enthroned Ethiopian, described as an abominable creature, asks the notary if he is his master, the notary replies that he is the servant of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. In hearing the words spoken, the enthroned Ethiopian collapses and the others in the throne room flee howling. Everything and everyone in the throne room disappears except for the notary. In this account, the Ethiopians are described as looking like earthly Ethiopians; however, they also possess demonic traits. Like the demon in the Vita, the Ethiopians are actually demons and are only wearing the guise of Ethiopians.[28]

Caesarius of Heisterbach, a German monk writing in the early thirteenth century, wrote an array of demon accounts in The Dialogue of Miracles, Book V: Of Demons. These focus on active demons, demons who cause harm and mischief. One account in chapter five mentions the abbot of Marienstatt, who was walking around the church late at night when before him appeared “a demon like an Ethiopian, of huge size, and as black as if he had that moment been drawn of out of hell fire.”[29] The demon disappeared soon after passing by him. Another account of a demon Ethiopian appears in chapter seven, where demons “black as Ethiopians” torment a woman attending church because she is dressed haughtily.[30] This small sample of texts shows that the construct of demons as Ethiopians was common in texts concerning demons and possession. On occasion, demons would choose to disguise themselves as Ethiopians when tormenting and teasing humans. In the Vita this common paradigm is depicted of the demon tormenting the man in his bedchamber at night in miracle sixteen; however, it was not translated into panel 12a, where the emphasis is only of the demonic qualities. However, knowledge of the miracle in the Vita and the common fusing of demons and Ethiopians would have made it possible for viewers to identify the figures from St. William’s miracle.

In this paper, I have argued that miracle sixteen from the Vita, in particular, and possibly an unknown contemporary source were the texts used to construct panel 12a in the St. William window. I believe this miracle has not been connected to panel 12a because it was not understood that the Ethiopian in miracle sixteen is fully a demon disguised as an Ethiopian with monstrous attributes, including “fiery eyes, gnashing wolfish ravenous teeth, and with hands like the claws of an eagle.”[31] This demonic trickery was popular in other texts concerning demons and demonic possessions. Since Ethiopians were often described as disguised demons, and demons described as having “Ethiopian” characteristics, a depiction of either could represent a demon, as seen in the Vita. Therefore, panel 12a is a representation of a demon chasing a man based upon miracle sixteen from the Vita; however, the overt monstrous Ethiopian depiction was not translated into the image. Yet, in knowing that Ethiopians and demons are interchangeable in art and in text, one can then additionally interpret that the demon in panel 12a is also a derogatory depiction of an Ethiopian.

Candace A. Reilly

Candace A. Reilly is currently completing her MA in Medieval Studies at the University of York at the Centre of Medieval Studies. As a continuation of her previous research on death, dying, and monsters in the High Middle Ages, her MA dissertation is an interdisciplinary study about revenants in texts and the void of malign undead imagery in England in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. 

Appendix: Miracle 16 from De paralyticis curatis from the Vita:

Istud etiam stuporis inseratur in pagina. Dum fullo quidam intempestae noctis silentio in lecto recubans vigilanti studio domestica negotia mentaliter pertractasset, ecce! Quidam AEthyopis praesentans imaginem, statura gigas, macie squalens, et omni deformitate plenus, oculos igneos, dentes voracitate lupina stridentes, manus habens ut ungues aquilarum, miserum sub lectica latitantem, cui fuga non subfuit, uncinis manibus, apprehendit; quem nunc rotat in gyrum ut vires verticis auferat vertigo, nunc allisum muro provocat ad lacrymas, nunc titillationibus tangit et risum elicit ab invito. Sic inter manus horridissimi noctis pernoctat, et, familia in somnis sepulta, flagellis et fletibus solus agitatur. Die autem data, disparuit tortor tortuosus. Sed miser arrepticius uxore visa, faucibus inhians apertis, guttis infusus sanguineis, rapidissimo cursu ad praecipitium festinavit. Sed mulier, quam vir suus faciebat audacem, debilitatem obliviscens muliebrem, retinuit furia debacchantem, et famulos ad retentionem excitavit. Accitis igitur familiaribus violentiam daemonis passo manicae ferreae et nodosi nexus adnectuntur. Oculis itaque accensis, artubus insania trementibus, dentibus stridore quassatis, hostili spiritu rebellante, trahitur invitus ad vitam et sanctis relinquitur reliquiis, a sensibus relictus universis. Ad modum igitur cujusdam involuti se volvit in pavimento, nunc resupinus, nunc aera lanians crinibus, manibus et lacertis. Miseratus tandem Deus miseriam mulieris, lacrymas in caelum mittentis, maritum a daemonis dentibus, et illam liberat a moerore. Expulso itaque daemone, stupore redduntur attoniti circumstantes, et tantarum sanitatum largitori laudes referunt immensas; dicentes sancti patris Willelmi gratiam omnem officiosissimorum medicorum superare medicinam

[1] Benjamin John Nilson, “A Reinterpretation of the St. William Window in York Minster”, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 68 (1996).

[2] Ibid, 74-77. In Visser’s article, “The Commemoration of Saints at Late Medieval York Minster”, she lists all the panels in the St. William window and created a table outlining the theories of the panels’ connections to the Miracula and the Vita based upon Thomas French and Ben Nilson’s research. She determined that there is no connection between this panel and any surviving text relating to St. William.

[3] Ibid, 70-71. Fenna Visser has suggested that the panels not yet identified could be from an unknown contemporary source. Additionally, she suggests that all the panels in the St. William window are representations of many different texts, Fenna Visser, “The Commemoration of Saints at Late Medieval York Minster” (Universiteit Utrecht, 2008)72-73.

[4] Sarah Brown, Stained Glass at York Minster (London: Scala Publishing Ltd, 1999), 74.

[5] Thomas French, York Minster: The St. William Window (Oxford: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 1999), 17-19. I also agree with French’s dating of the window.

[6] Ibid, 13. For further reading on the glazing of the St. William window, see A History of York Minster edited by G.E. Aylmer and Reginald Cant (376-377) and Sarah Brown’s book entitled Stained Glass at York Minster (70).

[7] Ibid. Thomas French refers to panel 12a as panel 15a, because the book was written before the window’s restoration.

[8] The conservation of the St. William window was completed in 2008.

[9] Christopher Norton, St. William of York (York: York Medieval Press, 2006), 181. Additionally, James Raine, The Historians of the Church of York and its Archbishops: Volume II (London: Longman & Co., 1886).

[10] N.R. Ker, Medieval Libraries of Great Britain-A List of Surviving Books, 2nd edition (London: 1964), 189.

[11] Christopher Norton, St. William of York, 180.

[12] Miracle seventeen in the Vita also involves demonic possession, however it is a short and general description, which I believe has no connection to panel 12a. If miracle 16 from the Vita was not the exact text used by the glaziers, then I believe a similar contemporary text related to the Vita was used.

[13] Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Dodsworth cxxv., ff.132-42.

[14] I would like to express my deepest gratitude to Professor Christopher Norton, Professor Michele Campopiano, and my peer Joseph Shack of the University of York for their detailed help and training through the process of translating this text from medieval Latin to English. James Raine, The Historians of the Church of York and its Archbishops: Volume II (London: Longman & Co., 1886), 285-286.

[15] Could be translated as a steep cliff, or high up structure. The fuller could be running towards a window, balcony, or off a cliff.

[16] James Raine, The Historians of the Church of York and its Archbishops: Volume II (London: Longman & Co., 1886), 285-286. This is my translation of the text and the original Latin text is at the conclusion of my paper.

[17] James Raine, The Historians of the Church of York and its Archbishops, 285-286. My translation.

[18] Sed miser arrepticius uxore visa, faucibus inhians apertis, guttis infusus sanguineis, rapidissimo cursu ad praecipitium festinavit.

[19] Fenna Visser, “The Commemoration of Saints at Late Medieval York Minster” (Universiteit Utrecht, 2008), 61. Visser translated the meaning of praecipitium as “cliff”.

[20] Debra Higgs Strickland, Saracens, Demons, & Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 61-61. Additionally, Jeffrey Burton Russell, Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press: 1986), 211-212. Regard London, BL, Cotton MS Nero C.IV, fol. 39r hellmouth demons, 13th century for demon iconography and demon tool imagery.

[21] Thomas French, York Minster: The St. William Window (Oxford: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 1999).

[22] Ibid, 12.

[23] Debra Higgs Strickland, Saracens, Demons, & Jews,. In addition to these derogatory representations, there were also positive imagery of Ethiopians such as the Queen of Sheba and Saint Maurice, which Strickland touches on briefly.

[24] Ibid, 79.

[25] Ibid, 80-81.

[26] Ibid, 80-81. London, British Library, Luttrell Psalter, MS 42130, fol. 157. c. 1325-35.

[27] Ibid, 80.

[28] Harry E. Wedeck, A Treasury of Witchcraft (New York: Gramercy, 1994), 100-101.

[29] G.C. Coulton and Eileen Power, ed. The Dialogue on Miracles (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company), 1929.

[30] Ibid, 327.

[31] James Raine, The Historians of the Church of York and its Archbishops: Volume II (London: Longman & Co., 1886), 285-286.


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