Video: Steeples size comparison

This has been a long time in development, but finally, despite ending up with a nearly unmanageable project file (1.3 gigabytes, excluding textures!), here it is, just in time for 2022!

So, here’s some director’s commentary, as it were.

I realised that a height comparison makes no sense without a ground, so after flirting with the idea of putting them on top of a super star destroyer, decided to leave outer space for the apt location of Monument Valley in Arizona. The landscape is actually to scale with the buildings (although of course, the ground there isn’t flat, so they are obviously on a platform just above it). Grounding the structures led me to decided to keep the environs rather than divorcing each building from its setting as I have always done previously.

Firstly I want to say, re: the disclaimer, this is far from accurate, and for entertainment purposes only. I intentionally avoided giving absolute heights for all the structures, instead using an ascending counter. I have used a combination of reliable surveys (especially the measured drawings in Fifty English Steeples: The Finest Medieval Parish Church Towers and Spires in England by Julian Flannery, Thames and Hudson, 2015, which, while I have many issues with the text, the surveys are superb), and comparing the heights of the imported models from Google Earth, which I scaled accurately from the length of the whole church building.

St Mary Abbots, Kensington, current Google model, the whole top of the spire hasn’t been captured properly.

The problem is that heights on the internet and even in architectural history books, while not necessarily wrong, is that you don’t know precisely what they’re including in the measurement, for instance flag poles and pinnacles. Generally when you measure a masonry spire, only the stone elements should count toward the height (framed spires – timber, metal and reinforced concrete – which appear occasionally here, complicate this rule a bit). A second problem is with the Google Earth rips: some of the spires (most notably here, St Mary Abbots, Kensington) get truncated slightly in the photogram process. The shorter buildings at the beginning were the most difficult, particularly matching the ground levels so it is accurate to the actual height of the structure but also looks aesthetically pleasing.

Church of Our Lady, Antwerp (cathedral from 1559). The scaffolding of the N tower, photogram made probably early 2020. You can see why I didn’t bother with it, although the whole thing is scaffolded down to the ground now.

My selection of buildings is of course, largely governed by what areas are covered by Google photogrammetry, but also my own whims. Hence the lower end is mostly English medieval parish church spires, with a few of the most spectacular Victorian spires thrown in for comparison. The upper end are dominated by the tallest church spires in the world. Antwerp was a lamentable omission because although it is in Google Earth 3D, the whole tower is covered in scaffolding in the current capture so completely useless. Rouen also currently has major scaffolding on its spire in Google at the moment, but I used a composite with an earlier capture I’d made to create a completely clean version.

The centrepiece to this video, of course, is Lincoln. Famously, the timber and lead spire for this, which failed in 1548 was taller than the Pyramid of Giza, the only surviving Wonder of the World, constructed c.2600 BC as a mausoleum for the pharaoh Khufu. Or was it?

My meme showing Lincoln’s possible spire heights with the Great Pyramid of Giza. Most of the base would be buried under sand in the Middle Ages anyway, which raises the question how much a foundation counts as the height of a building.
The Great Pyramid of Giza, now on the outskirts of Cairo, in case you forgot what it looked like.

There is, as far as I’m aware, no good evidence how tall the Lincoln spire was. It is traditionally considered higher than the spire of Old St Paul’s Cathedral, London, which was destroyed in 1561 (Christopher Wren in 1669 estimated it as 460 feet/149 metres, but of course by then the whole cathedral was totally burnt out and partially collapsed by the Great Fire of 1666).

I’ve discussed the Lincoln spire with people who know far more about Lincoln Cathedral than I do and they are not sure about it either. My reconstruction uses a generous 5:4 ratio that makes it basically the same height as the Great Pyramid before it lost its pyramidion (capstone) which would’ve just made it the tallest structure in the world. Although not in masonry.

… at least until the construction of the west tower of St Mary, Stralsund 1478 in brick with a copper-coved spire at, allegedly, 151 metres (I have been, but it’s not in 3D, so didn’t consider including it), collapsed 1647 and replaced with a Baroque dome. And of course the crossing tower of the oft ill-fated Beauvais Cathedral, allegedly reaching 153 metres, perhaps all in stone masonry, which collapsed shortly after its completion in 1573.

Engraving of the crossing tower at Beauvais as stood 1569-73, printed by Louis Perrin of Lyon (1795-1865). As far as I understand, its details are entirely invented, including whether it was all masonry.
Interior of the W block of the parish church of St Mary, Stralsund (Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany), which possibly held the tallest spire in the world from 1478 to 1647, excepting the brief reign of Beauvais

Again all these historic “world records” remain to receive proper scrutiny as to their precise height. But, in my opinion, there is no way Lincoln was nearly 160 metres tall with its timber spire. It’s ridiculous that the spire would be taller than the whole tower and also it would have looked a bit ridiculous. Good proportions were probably more valued than sheer height: the fact that we don’t have documented heights goes towards proving that.

A hi-res render all the structures in this video, including all the captions with titles, dates and materials, is available for a donation on my Ko-Fi page.