Author Archives: James Alexander Cameron

About James Alexander Cameron

I am an art historian working primarily on medieval parish church architecture. I completed my doctorate on sedilia in medieval England in 2015 at The Courtauld Institute of Art.

The tragic tale of St Alban’s Abbey

St Alban’s Abbey, St Albans, is not your usual case of wonky arches. It doesn’t have much in the way of alarming settlement, poor setting out, or desperate solutions to prevent collapse. What it does have is the worst west front of any English Cathedral. This is the result of two disastrous architects they employed: the first a medieval cowboy builder; the second a bullying nobleman, who was endowed with a vast ineptitude for architectural design, and a huge fortune enabling him to inflict it upon this poor historic building.

P1900833

Aye, we’ve still got our original tower. Not too tall so we don’t lose too much heating up there. We ur on White Meter, ye ken!

The story of St Albans starts, as with basically all wonky arches, with the Normans. Despite not being a cathedral until 1877, it was one of the most important abbeys in England at the time of the Conquest and was rebuilt in the Romanesque style pretty sharpish: before some of the cathedrals. In fact, it’s one of the earliest bits of Romanesque architecture we have left in England, much of it not being replaced by Gothic rebuilds. It never suffered a central tower collapse, nor was any of it, quite surprisingly, demolished to make it more manageable as a parish church. Instead, it comes off a church that was rather parsimonious with its fabric, seemingly always waiting till the last minute to get the builders in, with disastrous results.

P1200007

Verulamium Park, St Albans, Roman wall, 3rd century Aye, why spend ye spondoolies on rocks when all these bricks sittin’ abit fur free!

To be fair, the monks of St Albans cultivated its ramshackle appearance in order to emphasise how old it was. Much of the Romanesque work is built out of bricks salvaged from the Roman town of Verulamium. You can see what’s left of it if you walk through the town’s park: great walls and gatehouses, all taken down to what would have been the ground level to make a great church from.

P1900645

Nave N arcade. Daein us weel since the 1090s.


Even by early Norman standards, the interior elevation is extraordinarily plain, almost brutally so. What it lacks in ornament it makes up for in size, with a nave at least nine bays, the longest church in the country after Winchester Cathedral. This length is what makes the late 12th-century extension of the church under Abbot John de Cella all the more perplexing. At this time, with the Gothic style coming in from France, great churches were demolishing their pokey apses and putting great stonking presbyteries on the east end. St Albans however, chose to leave its presbytery alone, and add another three bays on the west, and necessarily with it, a brand-new facade.

P1900805

Western extension of nave, 1190s, into early 13th century. We thooght abit a vault but ‘en we cooldnae be arsed.

west-porch-st.-albans-abbey-hertfordshire-antique-print-1870-283563-p[1]

The central porch of the W front in 1870, as executed by Hugh Goldcliff, 1195-1214.

This is where the first cowboy rides in. Famous resident and chronicler of the Abbey Matthew Paris tells us of Hugh de Goldcliff (even his name makes him sound dodgy), a builder who, like a good conman, managed to convince John de Cella what he wanted was a big fancy west front with two massive flanking towers and lots of bits of fiddly ornament that would conveniently keep him and his hand-picked team of masons busy for many seasons, even though the abbey couldn’t afford it. It was so badly built the west front fell down, and people came from miles around to come to point and laugh at it. Paris described him as “vir quidem fallax et falsidicus, sed artifex praeelectus“. He was dismissed without pay, so at least the monks would have been pleased about saving a wee bit of money there.

P1900767

South elevation of presbytery. Note how the clerestory is still in Verulamium brick despite the late 13th-century fenestration. Dinnae wanna tae waste those bricks, they’re only a thoosain years auld!

P1900751

Presbytery, W bays, S elevation, last quarter of 13th century. Looks new, but we didne spend a lot ay bunsens oan it.

Another mason called Hugh, much more promisingly-surnamed Eversholt, was called in to complete a scaled-back version of the new Gothic west front and complete the new west bays of the nave. In 1257, probably because the groin vault was cracking, the monks finally bothered to replace the east end. However, the new work is really just a recasing of the Romanesque end with the apse lopped off, as you can still see the brickwork outside (which would have originally have been rendered as to be invisible). The first three arcade bays are filled in, presumably because they were desperate not to risk any money on the tower falling down.

About the only solecism that the decidedly Ready-Salted architecture of the presbytery allows is when they get to the corners and there’s no plain spandrel space for the vault corbel to go in, so they decide to bend out the arch mouldings to catch it. It looks kinda gross.

Presentation1

E bay of presbytery arcade, N side, detail of junction. (The wooden construction is the watching loft to check no cheeky wee bairns nick anythin’ at the shrine)

P1900854

Lady Chapel, 1310s, restored by George Gilbert Scott. Braw.

The glorious exception at St Albans is the Lady Chapel, which was added on to the completed presbytery ambulatory shortly after it was completed, probably in the 1310s. It is the most sumptuous space, even though it was used as a school after the Reformation, still retaining a multitude of saints under nodding-ogee canopies in the window jambs. A lot of it seems quite precocious for its date: it’s actually pretty special. But for the most part, the monks of St Albans liked to play up their antiquity. It’s like your neighbour who won’t replace his rotting garden fence even though you know he’s loaded because the flash git has a fancy car in the drive. A Ford Fiesta or something.

P1900828

Nave, middle bays of S arcade, late 1320s. Hud tae be dain.

Possibly because of something a pissed-off Goldcliff had done to the new south arcade, the Abbey had its second disaster in 1323 when, quite exceptionally, in the eastern part of the nave, part of the Romanesque south arcade simply flat-out collapsed. This leaves St Albans nave in the bizarre position of having three different elevations: 11th century on the north, 14th on the south, and the late 12th/early 13th at the west end. And except for new fittings, such as the late 14th-century rood screen and gigantic reredos of around 1480, that was basically it for the medieval architecture of the church.


P1900859

Purbeck marble shrine base of St Alban, 1308. All the auld bits meticulously sorted and put back together, good as new, by Gilbert Scott. Bit he wears naethin’ under his kilt.

The picture so far is that St Albans is interesting yet unremarkable. However, in the 19th century, a ne’erdowell would descend on the building that made Hugh de Goldcliff look reputable. This menace was Edmund Beckett, better known as the first Baron Grimthorpe. Lord Grimthorpe might sound like a Saturday-morning-cartoon villain, and indeed his megalomania wasn’t far displaced from one. Although he was known for creating the clock mechanism of Big Ben’s tower, he will above all be remembered for absolutely ruining St Alban’s Abbey. Sir George Gilbert Scott clearly had a soft spot for St Albans, allegedly saying that it was his favourite building. He carefully restored the Lady Chapel in the early 1870s from its interim use as a school, saved the tower, and prevented the nave S wall from collapsing (again!). His reconstruction of Purbeck marble shrine base of St Alban from fragments found in the dividing wall between the Abbey and the Lady Chapel he thought to be one of his proudest achievements, and indeed it is an absolutely stunning object. Perhaps saving the best till last, he died in 1878 having never done a full restoration of the building’s fabric.

P1900763

South elevation of the nave, which would have originally interfaced with the monastic areas. You can see the three stages of medieval work in the clerestory – 1190s / 1320s / 1080s – but note how Grimthorpe has just slapped buttresses through the fancy remains of the cloister as if they arenae theaur! Whit a bawbag.

Scott having done all the difficult and important stuff, Lord Grimthorpe offered to pay for the whole restoration under the stipulation he could do whatever he wanted. The St Paul’s Ecclesiological Society made a visit in 1889 while he was still wreaking havoc on the building. They note that he’d ruined the south side of the nave by whacking windows in it and sticking buttresses through the arcading. The nave ceiling had be broken up and was used as construction hoardings.

p1200008.jpg

SW prospect of the Abbey from Verulamium Park. Note Grimthorpe’s five lancets in the S transept. Inside there is a flat ceiling at the height of the outer pair that cuts off the tops of the middle three. Bastart’s aff his heid!

Often our view of great cathedrals misses out that many of them had their fenestration modernised in the late Middle Ages with Perpendicular-style windows. Like pretty much anyone, Grimthorpe hated Perp for its rigidity and tedium, but unlike most restorers, he just stuck in whatever he fancied, rather than something he had evidence for, or even something that feasibly might have been there. The south transept he smacked a poor copy of the “Five Sisters” at York Minster, without the slightest bit of understanding of the proportion and elegance that actually makes those good architecture. On the outside, Grimthorpe’s lancets ascend in height to go right up into the gable, but on the inside (where the gable is cut off by the ceiling), they’re all the same height. This mismatch between interior and exterior is deeply dishonest.

P1900781

N transept, N elevaaaaaaaaaahhhghzf..

The north transept is even worse. The Eccles Soc, in the best sarcasm they could muster, said that the “design appeared to have been evolved by laying on a sheet of paper a Jubilee sovereign, and surrounding it by a row of three-penny pieces, with outer rows of shillings and sixpences of the same class”. It’s a trypophobic’s nightmare.

All this really climaxes in the ineptitude that is the west front. As you may remember, the original west front from the turn of the thirteenth century had been a medieval bit of jerry-building and had originally partially collapsed and vastly scaled back from its initial ambition. As it was, it had come down to the Victorians essentially as a late medieval encasing of John de Cella’s folly, with only the interior of the porches hinting at the planned splendour of the original design. Preliminary investigations by Scott revealed the mark of one of the original gables over the porches, clearly visible on the south side:

St-albans-alpha-0002-abbey-west-end-old[1]

The west front shortly before restoration in the early 1870s, Victorian autochrome photograph. Looks braw tae me.

All that the current west front owes to the original design, as conceived by Goldcliff, are the proportions of the gables of the three porches. About everything else is a barely-competent Gothick pastiche. It’s very shallow, which gives it a cardboard feel like a cheap street facade of an urban non-conformist church. The medieval front was originally designed to have two full-sized flanking towers, and in this sense it would have been a true west front – a separate block on the end of the building, not just a representation of the building behind. Grimthorpe’s front links together two turrets that just seem inconsequentially silly, with the two bands of bland [sic] arcading wrapping around. It has neither noble simplicity nor decorative invention. It makes you realise that designs of the Middle Ages aren’t celebrated just because they’re old, but because they’re good.

P1900641

St Albans Abbey, west front from the SE, 2015. Crivvens.

In sum, Grimthorpe’s work managed to ruin almost every single vista of the historic building. The only positive outcome of this is to make you realise how sensitive to the historic fabric often unfairly maligned Victorians like Scott were. If Matthew Paris found the aborted west front of 1214 embarrassing, he’d be mortified to see what was wreaked on his edifice in the 19th century. If you visit the cathedral, the interiors of the porches are still indicative of the craziness of the original medieval vision for St Albans, although the central porch has had its design altered the most with an extra-superarch on the side arcades. Grimthorpe even had the temerity to add a portrait of himself as Matthew in the Evangelist cycle he added here. It would have been more appropriate if he’d posed for Luke. And not the head, either.

Advertisements

What is this medieval saint doing raising the heavy metal horns?

There’s a curious painting in Christ Church Picture Gallery in Oxford, St John the Baptist Enthroned. It depicts the precursor of Christ, J the B, in his trademark camel skin cloak, but rather than chilling in the desert, he sits on a magnificent marble throne with delicate Gothic canopies with finials and pinnacles with a luscious red robe draped over him. In his left hand, he holds his usual staff and a scroll which reads “Ecce Agnus Dei, ecce qui tollit peccata mundi”, essentially the saint’s catchphrase: “Behold the Lamb of God, behold He that takes away the sins of the world”. But his other hand, instead of pointing to the Saviour of mankind, is held in a very unexpected gesture. Perhaps appropriate for his rather bushy light-brunette mullet, he extends his first and little finger upwards, his second and third fingers curled into his palm with his thumb hidden behind.

01stjohn[1]

Close Follower of the Master of Saint Cecilia – John the Baptist Enthroned, first or second decade of the fourteenth century, 101 x 59.5 cm (Christ Church Picture Gallery, Oxford)

Someone who has grown up in the pop culture of the last thirty years can only read this gesture as one thing. ROCK.

The picture was of course painted long before Blue Cheer even turned up the gain on “Summertime Blues”. It was painted in Italy, in the early 14th century: what art historians call the Trecento. It is characteristic of how artists of the time experimented with space and volume, away from the flat character of Byzantine icons. John is impressively bulkly and architectonic, something emphasised by the canting sides of his throne with foreshortened Gothic trefoil arches. The painting is first documented in the sacristy (a common dumping ground in Italian churches for old medieval paintings) of the church of Santa Maria degli Ughi in Florence. Around 1834 it was given to the library at Christ Church College Oxford: an unusually early interest in such a “primitive” painting. In 1857 it was exhibited at the great Manchester Art Treasures exhibition under the name Buffalmacco, a 14th-century painter famous from Georgio Vasari’s 16th-century Lives of the Artists as a great prankster, although he has no surviving signed works. Richard Offner’s Corpus of Florentine Painting now gives the artist as “Close Following of the Saint Cecilia Master”. Essentially, the painting looks very close to 1300, when the great Giotto was making a name for himself in Rome and Padua with the revolutionary plastic style of the Florentine School.

So why did the anonymous artist of this panel paint the Baptist seemingly showing us how metal he was? The connection to the modern meaning is actually closer than you might think.

600px-1484_secondo_semestre,_fiorino_d'oro_XXIX_serie[1]

fiorino d’oro coin, 1484 (wikimedia commons, (cc) sailko)

John the Baptist was especially important in Florence: he was the patron saint of the city. The art historian Robin Simon, who wrote his MA dissertation at The Courtauld Institute on this panel, noted that the gesture first appeared on the florin financed by the Arte di Calimala, the Florentine guild of clothmakers, in 1252. The fiorino d’oro stayed essentially the same in metal and design, with fleur-de-lys on the obverse and the city’s patron on the reverse until the end of the republic of Florence in 1533. While some mintings are too indistinct to see what John is doing with his right hand, and others do have him doing the usual finger-pointing-at-unseen-Saviour thing, many, like this fifteenth-century example clearly show him extending first and fourth finger like a laidback metalhead.

Ken Kelly – cover art for Love Gun LP (1977)

Gestures are extremely important in medieval art and visual culture. They can also vary in cultural meaning, and the so-called “mano cornuto” is no exception. You can look at the Wikipedia page yourself, I’m sure, to see how it can be used to taunt a cuckold or support the University of Texas longhorns. But if the symbol fluctuates, the sign is rigid: horns. To understand why this saint is raising something so aggressive, it may help to look at the history of its current preeminent meaning in Western culture. A number of rock musicians used the sign of the horns in the early 1970s as a devilish symbol that resonated with heavy music’s use of the occult for counter-cultural shock value. For example, on the cover of the KISS album Love Gun, entrepreneur and sometimes-bass guitarist Gene Simmons, in his trademark make-up as the character “The Demon”,  emphasises his devilish nature with a horned fist. But the gesture became solidified in music culture by that much-missed and truly iconic vocalist of heavy metal music, the great Ronnie James Dio.

1024x1024[1]

Dio and fans showing the “metal horns”, at Black Sabbath show supporting the Mob Rules album, HemisFair Arena, San Antonio, TX, 13 May 1982 (Photo: Fin Costello/Redferns)

Ronald James Padavona (1942 – 2010) had an extraordinary musical career beginning in New York state during the late 1950s, but coming to international prominence in 1975 when he and his band Elf were taken over by all-round British sociopath and Deep Purple’s guitar genius Ritchie Blackmore to be in his new band Rainbow. After he inevitably fell out with Blackmore, Dio joined Birmingham’s heavy-metal pioneers Black Sabbath in 1979 to write and record the Heaven and Hell album, the subsequent tour of which he popularised the sign of the horns during concerts. This was the first time a musician had really pulled the horns in a manner to encourage imitation in the audience (see the brilliant archive photo above). It came at just the right time: when Dio formed his own eponymous band in 1982, heavy metal was consolidating as a distinct genre rather than just a derogatory label for particularly heavy rock music. This gesture was just the sort of thing the burgeoning sub-culture required. However, the traditional roots of Dio’s use of the gesture are subtly different from the way someone like Gene Simmons had used it as an attribute of mock-Satanism.

RR8[1]

Ronnie James Dio, c. 2004

Dio often told the story of his adoption of the horns, which takes us back to the part of the world this medieval painting came from. His parents were Italian immigrants who came to New York probably some time in the 1920s (it is hard to research because Ronnie was a very private person, allowing the notion to circulate that he was a decade younger than he actually was). He recounts how his Italian-born grandmother taught him the gesture to ward off someone giving you the “evil eye” (malocchio). In this sense the gesture is apotropaic: an image or symbol that has the power to ward off evil. And that’s what our 14th-century Florentine John the Baptist is doing. On the coins and the Oxford painting, he’s fulfilling his special role as protector of the City of Florence by exhorting them to stay hard as iron to scare away the devil and the malocchio of any other jealous city states through the use of a vernacular superstition.

P1060101

Grimacing pointy-eared face from the centre of the Tomb of Christ / Sacrament Shrine at Hawton (Nottinghamshire), late 1330s.

So any initial surprise you might have at a medieval saint apparently giving the sign of the devil actually says a lot about art and culture. Dio’s lyrics show a fascination with the concept of evil. From his “Holy Diver”, facing the apparitions in the midnight sea to the night terrors that lurk in your own mind in “Dream Evil”. Of course, they are adolescent fantasy that pervades much of heavy metal, but not that far removed from the Middle Ages. As everyone knows, medieval artists put monsters everywhere, as apotropaic symbols but also acknowledgement and morbid curiosity in the darker side of existence. Church water spouts were in the shape of grimacing gargoyles who vomited down the rain onto the churchyard. The margins of rich people’s prayerbooks were full of bizarre creatures. The statues of saints on altarpieces were held aloft by all sorts of profanities we find difficult to understand. This is because the Church embraced everything: both the divine and the human fascination with the grotesque.

DH_X5SwWsAEO2n0[1]

Headstop between chancel sedilia and piscina, St Mary in the Marsh (Kent), probably last quarter of the 13th century: the spitting image of Iron Maiden mascot, Eddie.

It reminds us that art should only be obsessed with virtue, but also explore notions of vice to understand the human condition. I often say it’s curious that the two genres of music I love to listen to that basically sound like white noise unless you sit down with the lyrics and concentrate are sacred polyphony (Josquin Desprez, Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, Palestrina) and death metal (Suffocation, Cannibal Corpse, Gorguts, Necrophagist). In some twisted way, this painting encapsulates that for me.

On and on and on, it’s Heaven and Hell!

The Conspiracy of Westminster Abbey

If you’re reading this blog you’ll probably have at least heard of Westminster Abbey. Most of you are likely to have more of an idea about it than say, Ripon Minster or Selby Abbey. However, if you’ve been, I bet you remember the stuff in the building, not the building itself. If you’ve studied English medieval architecture, you’ll have been told that it’s one of the most important, influential buildings of the Middle Ages. Well, I’m here to argue that it ain’t. The Abbey is run as a revolving door of a church versus tourist attraction, never feeling like both at the same time (there is the usual hourly enforced moment of stillness and prayer, although this doesn’t stop the ringing of the cash registers). It’s choked with people wandering round with audio guides glued to sides of their heads, shuffling clockwise round the ambulatory like it’s the Tunnel of Love. It’s hard to feel spiritually uplifted in what is a tourist rival to the London Dungeon. But I’ve been the Abbey for Holy Communions, Matins(es?), Sung Eucharists, I’ve been in the upper galleries, in the Confessor Shrine, the chapter house crypt and been on private visits. Even when I have stunning music, colleagues, or solitude: I STILL HATE THIS BUILDING. And I’m going to try and sum up why it’s just not that great. Not that its had settlement, or tower collapses, or badly-planned aisles like most of my beloved wonky arches, but why it’s just a bad, cold piece of design.

bayeux01[1]

The Romanesque Westminster Abbey, begun 1040s,  from the scene of the burial of King Edward, The Bayeaux Tapestry, 1070s.

Some background. The Abbey at Westminster (as opposed to Eastminster, that is, St Paul’s Cathedral over in London) was first made architecturally preeminent through the benefaction of King Edward the Confessor, who begun what was essentially the first proper Romanesque building in England: Norman before the Norman Conquest. We have almost nothing of this building left. There its representation in the Bayeaux Tapestry, which obviously has a bit of artistic licence (since it depicts the gap between the church and the Palace of Westminster as being narrow enough for a giant man to traverse it on a ladder in order to put a cock on the east end – no really, look at it), but is confirmed by both a medieval description of the church and archaeology under the high altar and nave.

P1440357

Westminster Abbey, south transept, east arcade

This Romanesque church stood, probably largely unaltered, until in 1220 the monks of Westminster decided to append a Gothic Lady Chapel (totally demolished to make way Henry VII’s famous fan-vaulted replacement), with the foundation stone laid by a celebrity guest, King Henry III. In 1245, Henry III turns his attention back to Westminster, and gives them more than just a bit of ribbon cutting. Instead, he basically writes them a blank cheque to rebuild the whole damn building. With the royal coffers at their disposal, the east parts of the Confessor’s Abbey were demolished, and an ambulatory with four radiating chapels, double-aisled transepts, two walks of the cloister, and three bays of the nave (which actually functioned as the monks’ choir) are built to connect with the recent lady chapel. This campaign, that took about 25 years, is essentially the building we see today. Overall, around £45,000 was spent on this project, which is a phenomenal amount of money from one patron, even a king. It is like one person bankrolling the £1.2 billion for the Shard entirely from their personal wealth. Henry did this no doubt of piety, but also to rival the projects of his brother-in-law Louis IX of France, by sprucing up the English coronation church into a family mausoleum and also a shrine to kingship by his devotion to his ancestor, Edward the Confessor.

Westminster Abbey, north transept, north facade. The portals are a semi-archaeological reconstruction by Scott in the 1870s. The rose window and gable were essentially redesigned by Pearson in the 1880s.

Now, I don’t want to focus on the tombs, or the shrine of the Confessor, or any of the stuff that you’ll get on the Audio Guide about all the bloody awful self-important monuments of marble admirals in wigs fighting skeletons or some rubbish like that. I want to talk totally about the architecture. And why Westminster Abbey is not a very good building. It doesn’t help, that the main entrance to the Abbey, the north transept that everyone too tight to pay the entrance fee takes a picture of, is not very inspiring as it’s basically been ruined by callous rebuildings. It had its main portal hidden by a porch as early as the 14th century, but it underwent a really disastrous 17th-century Classification after the Civil War, which Christopher Wren undid as well as he could. George Gilbert Scott came along and fixed up the portal zone to be something more proper-Middle Ages, and if it had stopped there, it would have been fine. But for some reason the Abbey let the next surveyor of the fabric, the respectable architect John Loughborough Pearson, totally unnecessarily, rebuild the upper half of the north front. He scandalously replaced the medieval gable, and needlessly dismantled Wren’s rose window, replacing it with something that looks more like a pub dartboard than the flower of flowers. Indeed, the whole of the exterior of Westminster Abbey has been redone so many times there is not a single medieval stone left outside. It is essentially a replica. However, inside is very well preserved, and this is what we will focus on.

kingsworksdesign

From Colvin et al, A History of the King’s Works. Looks complicated, but note how the Abbey looks like 3, but with big buttresses in place of the outer aisles.

It is well-known that the Westminster Abbey is unusually French, and it is usually said this import of French sensibilities kicked off a whole new attitude in English architecture. The former is definitely true, in that it has the tallest high vault in English medieval architecture. However, at 31.75 metres, by French standards, it’s pretty pathetic. Amiens was being vaulted at about the same time with a 43 metre high vault, and Beauvais would go on to have a dizzying 48 metre one. Now, I’m not saying size is everything: but then I’m not French. Problem is, the achieved height is so constrained by English design, that its effect is negligible. The quest for height causes a major aesthetic problem: the church is so narrow you can’t really read the elevation from the floor. It has been argued that the proportions of the elevation imply a design with double aisles each side. This would explain why the whole thing feels so claustrophobic.


P1770932

Rheims Cathedral, looking E to the apse.

P1440740

Westminster Abbey, looking E to the apse. Note the small size of the clerestory.

It’s often said that Gothic – in contradiction to received opinion about gloom and doom – is about light. But Westminster Abbey is, let’s be honest, pretty bloody gloomy as received opinion would have you believe. What causes this? It’s primarily because the clerestory – the top “clear story” of windows – is so damn dinky. The clerestory windows of Rheims Cathedral are of very similar design, and the master mason of Westminster was referred to as Henry of Reyns, so it’s very likely that’s where they’ve copied them from. But the windows at Rheims are much taller, allowing much more light into the main vessel. Why couldn’t they do it right at Westminster?

P1440511

Westminster Abbey, inside the presbytery gallery space, S side

The answer is in the second storey, which is key to so many of the building’s aesthetic drawbacks. Despite what the Abbey keep calling their new exhibition space, the second storey is a gallery NOT a triforium. A triforium is a second storey that is essentially nothing more than a wall with a passage in its thickness. You can’t really walk down it, unless you have a harness and hard hat. A gallery is much safer: I’ve been in the gallery in Westminster, as well as many English Romanesque Cathedrals. You can too, if you go to Stained Glass Museum at Ely, which is the gallery over the cathedral’s south nave aisle.

P1230003

Westminster Abbey, N transept W elevation. Notice the “spherical triangle” windows of the gallery which cannot be seen from the floor inside.

One of the ways you can tell if a building has a gallery is does it have windows on the outside that you can’t see on the inside? See here, the outside of the Abbey has this great honking second storey with the so-called “spherical triangles”, essentially a triangle with three curved sides, taken from a similar idea in the undercroft of the Saint Chapelle in Paris. By this period any church in France (and most in England, for that matter) would have a lean-to roof over the aisle, which looks a lot neater, but more importantly, provides window space that actually lights the inside of the building, rather than what is essentially attic space. This gallery may have been included to help increase the capacity of the Abbey for monarch’s coronations, or as a Romanesque hangover, either way, it’s a lead weight round its neck.

Stain-Glass[1]

Westminster Abbey, chapter house. Begun 1246, restored 1860s by G.G. Scott. Glazing a rearrangement of bomb-damaged 1860s Clayton and Bell scheme by Joan Howson, 1950. Image © English Heritage

The matter of illumination is very different in the Chapter House, by far the best part of the building. An inscription on the pavement recounts “as the rose is the flower of flowers, this is the house of houses”.  Monk and chronicler Matthew Paris of St Albans described it as “a chapter house beyond compare”. They are right to be proud of it – even if later it was utterly spoilt by being converted into a records office, and about 80% of the masonry inside (all of it outside) is from the heroic rescue of the building by George Gilbert Scott. If only those magnificent four-light windows could have crowned the second storey of the church. Never mind, that would have taken some proper flying buttresses which the English were always a bit suspicious of.

P1230002

Westminster Abbey, north chapels of ambulatory. Note the big buttress between them on the left.

The ambulatory chapels are very confused. They form neither their own distinct spaces like a French cathedral’s, but nor are they very good at unifying with the main space. Their interiors, are again, gloomy, which considering they have no Victorian stained glass to blame, is a poor do. Maybe if they didn’t have these enormously over-engineered buttresses outside which block the windows. The whole eastern arm is tremendously squashed because it had to connect with the now-lost Lady Chapel, which is tremendously confusing as to why it was built so far away from the original Romanesque east end. One wonders if the monks started the Lady Chapel with the intention that they would get Henry III to pay for the rest of the church. But if the 1220s Lady Chapel was built freestanding (or connected to the Romanesque church by an ambulatory or extended axial chapel we have no archaeology or documentation for), this might have been the first spanner in the works for Henry of Reyns making anything that would even pass at Café Rouge for being authentically French.

P1760113

Ely Cathedral, presbytery, 1234-52.

“Okay, okay, I know Westminster Abbey is really crap at French stuff, you’re hardly the first person to say that” you say. “But,” you continue, eloquently, “I read Nicola Coldstream’s The Decorated Style once and apparently it kicked off a whole new attitude to the illuminated interior in England!”
Okay, well let’s have a look at the wonderful choir of Ely Cathedral, often thought of as the last gasp of so-called “Early English” before Westminster. It has piers of coloured stone with beautifully carved and restless “stiff leaf” capitals. The arcade spandrels are decorated with pointed trefoils, in between which are the vegetative corbels for the high vault, which touchingly burst into bloom around the site of St Ethelreda’s shrine. The arches of the arcade are trimmed with dogtooth, and little leaves cover the gaps between the gallery shafts. Yes, it does still have a gallery, which makes it a little gloomy (so although they stuck a glazed triforium in in the fourteenth century to light Ethelreda’s feretory) but it’s an absolutely ravishing, electric space.

P1440627

Westminster Abbey, detail of the arcade and gallery, showing diaper ornament. Notice that there’s no real system on whether they should go right up to both the shafts and the arcade arches or not.

P1440617

Westminster Abbey, nave, junction between 3rd and 4th bays showing break between 13th and 14th-century campaigns.

So what decoration does Westminster have? Oh, diaper. Yes, every spandrel of the arcade, and a lot of the dado, has these little flowers-inside-squares carved directly into the facing masonry. And the thing is, the thing is, it can’t even do that properly. Famously, the north transept has finer, smaller diaper, and the south has bigger squares, presumably to save time. However, it does look bloody awkward when the two sizes meet incongruously in the spandrel of the north arcade of the ambulatory. The parts on top of this have the bigger diaper, which proves they were later (in the absence of any other evidence). There are loads of bits where the diaper isn’t finished because it was clearly such a pain in the arse to do. In fact, such a pain, that when the nave arcades were resumed by Henry Yevele in 1387, he was probably was so pleased when the monks accepted his “no more sodding diaper” design.

P1440598

Westminster Abbey, south transept counter-facade. Detail of glazed triforium of gallery zone and base of rose window.

P1440516

Westminster Abbey. Censing angel in spandrel of S transept counterfacade.

So apart from some very limp foliage in the surrounds of the gallery arches, that’s it. So where are the stiff-leaf capitals? Where’s the ludus? Where’s the damned dogtooth, for pete’s sake? There was some clearly quite wonderful sculpture in the dado arcading, but only small amounts of this are left – what hasn’t been obliterated by ridiculous tomb monuments (some of which are medieval) is hidden behind the admissions tills. But even so, a dado is only for up-close examination, it has minimal effect on the building itself. All this would be fine if it had beautiful proportions, and left its surfaces bare to accentuate this, but as we’ve seen, it doesn’t. It did however, have some beautiful statues, such as St John the Evangelist handing the ring to Edward the Confessor on the south transept counter-facade, with absolutely breathtaking angels censing the holy scene. This sculpture is helped by the fact that the transept terminal walls have glazed triforia linking the two galleries above the chapels, which brings us closer to the French wall-of-glass than anywhere else in the building other than the chapter house. The south rose is also a beautiful design; in fact slightly more advanced than the contemporary window in Paris Cathedral’s south transept, showing that some up-to-date French ideas were getting to Westminster.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Binham Priory (Norfolk), W facade, 1226×44.

So, what about the influence of this so-called pivotal monument in the development of English architecture? It is said that it introduced bar tracery (that is, thin bars of stone at the tops of the heads of windows) to England. But then there’s the perennial “problem” of Binham Priory, which originally had a great eight-light west window. This facade, added to a Romanesque nave, we are told by Matthew Paris (and he should know, since St Albans was the mother house of Binham), was at the behest of Prior Richard de Parco. Since his priorate spanned 1226-1244, wherever you put it in his term of office, it has to be started at least one year before Westminster. Often you will see it dated as late as possible at 1244, as if it’s unthinkable that anyone could beat the royal abbey to bar tracery.

P1600420

Collegiate church of Howden (East Yorkshire), N transept, c. 1270.

Except, it’s not a problem. Westminster didn’t start anything, it was part of something. Bar tracery pops up all over England in the 1240s. Despite that Henry III’s chapel at Windsor almost certainly had it, Lincoln Cathedral had a big west window put in (since replaced). The transept chapels at Ely are also clearly direct from France too, even if we don’t know that they date before Westminster. Yorkshire Rayonnant – like the massive honking transepts at the collegiate church at Howden – again may be later, but clearly independent of anything going in London. I can tell you, however much you might think it, no one in the North gives a monkey’s what’s going on in London.

P1060284

Lincoln Cathedral, the “Angel Choir”, 1256-80.

One of the much-touted “spin-offs” of Henry III’s supposed magnum opus at Westminster is the Angel Choir at Lincoln Cathedral, a huge extension that lopped off the weird wedge-shaped apse of St Hugh’s choir, ironically in order to house his shrine. So close are the links, allegedly, that the Judgment Porch at Lincoln can be used to reconstruct the lost north portal at Westminster (apparently the much-restored Lincoln Christ’s gesture to His side wound has to do with the Holy Blood relic at Westminster: lost-prototype nonsense that most art historians got over in the 1970s). So look at this elevation of the Angel Choir. Does it look like Westminster? No. Not at all. Does it look like anything else you’ve seen in the last five minutes? Yeah, that’s right, it’s basically Ely presbytery with bar tracery instead of lancets, but with proportions that match an existing Gothic choir rather than Romanesque transepts. In an excellent article which no one seems to read (Journal of the British Archaeological Association), Mary Dean convincingly argued this bar tracery came from continued connections to the Continent, not via the Royal Abbey.

P1640005

Hereford Cathedral, N transept, 1260s.

So did Westminster Abbey influence anything? Well, there were the royal abbeys built at Hailes, Battle and Vale Royal that all had polygonal ambulatories, but since we’ve lost their elevations to demolition, how close they were to Westminster in aesthetics is anyone’s guess. At Hereford Cathedral, for reasons that are only apparent to himself, Bishop Peter Aquablanca replaced the Romanesque north transept with what can only be described as a parody of Westminster Abbey. It has diaper. It has spherical triangles. It even has a great whopping gallery over the chapels rather than a triforium. It has very strange arcade arches, and a clerestory of spherical triangles stepped back into the thick wall to the point they’re almost invisible. No one would really want to call it a success. A bit of fun, at best.

P2140126

Lichfield Cathedral, nave, 1260s.

Lichfield nave is another matter. Possibly one of the best buildings erected in England in the 1260s, according to Prof. Christopher Wilson. This also has bar tracery galore, a similar paired two-light middle storey (although a false gallery, with a lean-to roof behind), and spherical triangles. The thing is, rather than being used inconsequentially like Westminster’s gallery portholes, the spherical triangle windows at Lichfield ingeniously fill up the clerestory space, the two upper curves matching that of the vault. Lichfield nave really is one of the finest compositions of the second half of the 13th century. It’s well-composed, bright, has beautiful sculpture, and oodles of dogtooth. In fact, it’s everything that Westminster Abbey isn’t.

So, there isn’t really a conspiracy at Westminster Abbey. I just gave this article an intentionally provocative title. It’s just that people think too much about the centres and don’t rethink engrained theories. It’s a building by an English master mason who spent some time in France and brought back a few ideas from the coronation church at Rheims, the huge passion reliquary of St Chapelle and the royal mausoleum at St Denis in order make a great mash-up of form and function that turns out not to be very good at either. Very few subsequent buildings were directly influenced it, so as far as innovation and experimentation go, it was a bit of a spectacular dead-end. So if you’re planning to take the kids to Westminster Abbey, if you want them to experience great architecture, my advice is to spend the entrance fee on a train ticket to Lichfield instead.

A footnote. Westminster Abbey does not usually allow photographs under any circumstances inside the building, which makes posts like this very difficult to illustrate. It would have been impossible to do so without the visit to the church during the British Archaeological Association conference in 2013 when Warwick Rodwell, the Abbey archaeologus got us permission. It seems to me that if people are paying tourist prices to enter, they should be able to record their experience as tourists (or pilgrims) in the usual way, as well as permitting people like me to study the building. Photography is just another way of looking, and in that way, can even be used to aid prayer.

The Towers of London

You might wonder why I haven’t updated my blog for over a year. The short answer is: I’ve been living in London! I’ve been ground down to the point where I realised that Dr Johnson’s pithy “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life” does not actually mean it is impossible to get tired of London. Not in the slightest. In fact, it just confirms we all get tired of life from time to time. But slowly London is turning into little more than a dehumanising playground for the super-rich, with all of its rich heritage being buried under totems of steel and glass. This is why I’m going to break my fast of posting with an angry blog post that has nothing to do with churches!

P1580001

Site of Nine Elms Northern Line station, July 2017

I used to joke every time I visited London, there was a new skyscraper visible from Waterloo Bridge. Now I’ve actually seen the concrete cores shoot up in real-time, followed by inevitable dismay of a steel frame with ugly cladding, I can confirm I wasn’t exaggerating. I was living at the edge of Vauxhall for a while this time, which all the way from Nine Elms to Battersea is essentially one big building site. Many of these buildings, such as the Keybridge estate on South Lambeth Road (the UK’s largest brick tower – as if anyone asked) replace former mid-height tower blocks. It has taken around a year to reduce the post-war tower on its site to a sad lump of smashed conglomerate and twisted rebar. The rest is being built on lingering brownfield sites, regenerated by the gigantically oversized American Embassy in Nine Elms, and the promise of a Northern Line extension, which is currently boring its way through the subsoil.

P1580030

Battersea Power Station, July 2017

The housing round here is the generic example of “shiny and new”. Its newness is all it has going for it. Flats like goldfish bowls are stacked as high as they can go, as close together as possible – one wonders how you’d get a fire engine in between some of them in a disaster like Grenfell. They might be luxury when they open, but with their lack of any real social cohesion beyond commuter hideaway, they’re surely the slums of the future. Battersea Power Station, sitting unused for what seems like forever, has required the unchecked greed of the luxury property boom to find a use for it. This largely consists of imprisoning it in walls of steel and glass, building unconvincing replicas of its famous chimney-stacks, and falling back on its promise about the amount of affordable housing.

Affordable housing: what a wonderful phrase. You would think it would be a passing phase too, but the bubble never seems to burst. The egregious Vauxhall Tower which adjoins the St George’s Wharf – clearly visible from the World Heritage Site of Westminster Bridge – is perhaps the worst case for this. A Guardian exposé revealed there is not a single resident registered to vote in the UK in it. Most of it is empty. Cars with blackened windows merely drop their VIP cargo off behind a closed gate at the base. It’s basically a huge folly, which houses little more than occasional entertaining suites for foreign executives when they happen to be in London, and properties for high-flyers’ investment portfolios. And a big “up yours” victory lap from the land-grab.

20170422_152527

St George’s Wharf apartments and the Vauxhall Tower, begun 2007, designed by Broadway Maylan. (In the background is the core of part of the Vauxhall Square development, at time of writing rapidly receiving its curtain walls of brick cladding. It will be relatively low-rise at 87 metres, and will be joined by a pair of 187 metre luxury blocks)

Next to it is what is, I think, without doubt, the most incompetently ugly building in London: St George’s Wharf. It is a grotesque complex, which neither has the conformity of a single block, nor the variety and interest in its grouping. The pyramidal arrangement of the towers – which have been described as butterflied prawns which I can’t possibly top – is unnecessary and aggressive. What do the towers even do? Why is all the glass green? Why is it so downright bloody awful and right at the edge of such an important city? It’s the sort of terrible thing you’d expect in the desert, where there’s not much to do except make an empty statement: but not in a place brimming with important buildings.

20151203_114655

122 Leadenhall Street and 30 St Mary Axe over the church of St Katharine Kree (1628-31), in 2015.

The City has become unrecognisably foreboding and suffocating in a very short time. Aside from Tower 42 (The Natwest Tower), the Swiss Re Building (now officially 30 St Mary Axe, but really, everyone calls it the Gherkin) was the first skyscraper to be built in the City. It was enabled by the regeneration of the area after the IRA bombings in the early ’90s: the 1992 bombing that all but destroyed the Baltic Exchange, and the 1993 Bishopsgate bombing near Liverpool Street station, the crater of which undermined the facade and north wall of the little medieval church of St Ethelburga, all but destroying it.

 

P1700047

Main entrance of 30 St Mary Axe (The Gherkin) begun 2004 by Foster + Partners.

The thing is, the Gherkin is not a bad building. It’s not the best, but it’s good. The original plan was for a 386 metre-tall Millennium Tower – that’s taller than the 309 metre Shard. The building that was eventually built was a mere 180 metres, but has both a memorable and pleasing profile. It has solidity – the motif of the steel-frame construction giving it both an interesting surface texture and distinct visual character beyond its silhouette. But most of all, it respects its surroundings and earns its height. When you visit what architects call the “street interface” (the “way in”) the steel frame cleverly opens up, quite invitingly. The way in is clear, and the building actually has a presence on the human scale. The lattice work also draws the eye up to the building above. You know immediately you’re in the presence of an iconic building you’ve encountered first on the skyline. This is far from true for many of the other garbage skyscrapers going up in the City since.

P1700054

Street interface of 122 Leadenhall Street (aka “The Cheesegrater”), begun 2006 by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners.

The Leadenhall Building (the “cheesegrater”) is the first of the diminishing returns. It’s not terrible, but it does pretty much the same trick for the street interface as the Gherkin. You could be generous and say it is sublime – but it’s more overwhelming and on the side of ugly. But at least it makes a statement on the street. The main reason for its silly shape is to preserve views to St Paul’s: which in some ways is a worthwhile function but also begs the question why a skyscraper was allowed there in the first place.

800px-Walkie-Talkie_-_Sept_2015[1]

20 Fenchurch Street (aka “the Walkie Talkie”), begun 2012 by Rafael Viñoly Architects. Image
© User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons

Now, this piece of crap I have no time for whatsoever. 20 Fenchurch Street is sited somewhat south of the city skyscrapers, and dominates the view from London Bridge. It has a particularly arrogant top-heavy look. This look is basically the only trick it has. With the bundled tube method of construction, buildings can be any shape they want. These doesn’t mean that they should. This building is a planning disaster – partly it got through with its textbook greenwash strategy of “London’s highest public park“, which is essentially an over-priced bar with a few bedding plants dotted around. Its shape – which goes against any good sense in design – has also caused quite serious problems: the well-publicised “death ray“, when magnified sunlight reflected down off it caused property damage around the City.

P1700055

20 Fenchurch Street, main street interface

But I think that what really shows what’s bad about this building is its street interface. When you walk past it, there’s absolutely no interesting frontage. There’s no way, if you don’t know to look up, that there is a tower above you. It just looks like every other front. All it is there for is to make a jokey shape on the skyline. It oppresses at the human scale. Medieval cathedrals may dominate the cities they lie in, and make big statements with lofty steeples on huge towers, but no one can argue that can’t realise when you’re standing right in front of them.

Strata SE1. from Monument 2014

Strata SE1 (aka “that stupid thing with the fans in”), begun 2010 by Bogle Flanagan Lawrence Silver Ltd. © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons

A similar building to this in many ways is Strata SE1 at Elephant and Castle, apparently known as the “Electric Razor” but more commonly referred to as “that stupid thing with the fans in”. It is claimed that these turbines make the building sustainable, but since nobody has ever seen them actually turning, this is clearly a load of bollocks. Ironically, what the building does do is create a wind tunnel effect that I noticed when taking this photo.

P1700061

Strata SE1, main entrance.

Again, its street interface is so poor (although, admittedly, at least it has some reaction to the main elevation of the skyscraper, with the big vertical division that carries up to the top) the only way you’ll notice you’re at the base of what you wondered “what the hell is that stupid thing over there with the fans in” at from Greenwich is because it’s caused your bucket hat to be blown off into the worst roundabout in the world.


P1700049

The Scalpel (52-54 Lime Street), as of July 2017, over the church of St Andrew Undershaft (early 16thc).

There’s so many more hideous buildings to complain about. In the City, three skyscrapers are currently going up on Bishopsgate (in addition to the already completed Heron Tower, the tallest building in the City), and the extra ones in the financial heart, such as the intimidatingly-named (and actually, for the first time, taking a shape-based name officially) Scalpel on Leadenhall Street. The poor city churches: often ones that survived the great fire, such as Katherine St Kree, St Olave Hart Street, and poor poor old St Ethelburgas, seem about the only buildings of any age around here. Blackfriars One, looming over the bridge, going against everything the Friars Preachers stand for in its vainglory. The Chelsea Waterfront. The Corniche opposite Tate Britain on the Albert Embankment. 121 Strand opposite St Clement Danes (which would have been one of the main beneficiaries of the most egregious vanities disguised with greenwash: The Garden Bridge). You might notice I’ve left the Shard out of this, which although I’m not a huge fan, I feel like it’s the Gherkin of the South Bank. It’s not brilliant, but it’s undeniably striking, has a few clever ideas (such as a successful street interface), and despite its height, doesn’t really spoil that many views. I could go on with worse. But it’s time to finish.
 

20170122_101147

One Blackfriars, by Ian Simpson Architects, in February 2017.

It is an unimaginative cliché to label these buildings phallic. They’re nothing like phalluses. Phalluses are useful, and perhaps even for some, pleasureable to look at. Nor these buildings more specifically ithyphallic: an erection does not always point up, and you don’t show it off to lots of people to show how important you are (not unless you want to be banned from every branch of Wetherspoon’s). These skyscrapers are like giant aggressive fists, shaking intimidatingly in the air, grasping wads of cash outside the reach of those below. They’re not progress: but are often mostly empty, built by people who don’t give a crap about anything other than money. The people being conned into giving these things planning permission are swayed by a Blade-Runner fantasy that the future must be vertical. But down on the ground, the housing crisis continues.

Essentially, these things aren’t that much more than overblown marquees like the Crystal Palace. Hopefully they will last as long as the 1960s-70s predecessors they invariably are built on top of, and the importance of preserving the human scale in architecture, as well as ornament, craftsmanship, and good design will some day return.

 

Top 10 wrongs about parish churches

One of the most difficult things about working on parish churches is dealing with the general misinformation that surrounds them. So often the interpretation in the building is composed by its well-meaning guardians who only have a vague idea of the significance of their church. Not everyone can be an expert, sure, but when you are faced with multiple instances of “hoverers” – a custodian who insists on accompanying you around the building and regaling you with the same old clichés – means you need the patience of a saint to endure a day’s fieldwork. And I mean a proper saint, like John the Baptist, not one of those rubbish bishops of nowhere in the first millennium whose only miracle was coaxing a few swans.

A great many persistent factoids resonate around parish churches, some that I feel damage the general understanding of the history and practice that the rich material culture they consist of represents. So here is a collection, presented in true Huffingfeed listicle style, of my top bits of guff you will see spouted by church guidebooks that you should be very cautious in believing.

1. This church was founded 823 years ago last Tuesday

Burneston, North Yorkshire

A load of Perp.

You will nearly always see something like this as soon as you open the door of the church: a sign proudly declaring the date that the building was founded. This is because it answers the question most people will inevitably have, and it allows them to declare that the site has been occupied for an impressive amount of time, such as nine hundred or one thousand years. It means that most visitors will gaze around a run-of-the-mill fifteenth-century Perpendicular church cleaned up in the nineteenth century with the impression that it’s more than twice as old as it actually is. The story, as any churchkrawler kno, is much more complicated than that.

The dates that tend to be incorrectly given for the foundation of a parish church usually come from two types of sources. If they’re a specific date, like 1123, then they are probably the first time a church in the village is mentioned in a legal document. If they’re more vague, like twelfth century, they probably refer to what can be observed in the fabric of the church, even if it’s just a bit of Romanesque chevron built into the vestry wall.

The reality is that the parish system as it was in say, 1500, was basically established during the tenth century. After that, except in rapidly-growing cities, parish churches were very rarely built from scratch as they were in the nineteenth century. It is almost certain then, that any medieval church has pre-Norman Conquest origins. The famous Domesday Book is frustrating to church historians because it very rarely mentions churches or priests: it was really only interested in indexing taxable property. It is kind of a big deal if a church can say it was mentioned in Doomsday, but it doesn’t really mean it’s older than most other English churches.

2. The chancel was rebuilt by the monks of Xey Abbey in 13xtyx

Checkley, Staffordshire

Not built by monks.

This is the same sort of thing, where a piece of documentary evidence is seized upon to put a date on to something. When a date and monastery are mentioned in a parish church guide, it refers to when the advowson of the parish was transferred to them. The advowson was the legal right that allowed someone to appoint the new rector of the church: a highly sought-after job for a priest, as it was a steady source of income for life. It was recorded by the diocesan cathedral and nomially approved by the bishop, but it was very rarely turned down, which meant it gave the advowson holder – often referred to as the “patron” – a great deal of power and influence. It originally was usually held by the lord of the local manor, but this power that it represented meant it quickly became an object that was traded, for money or goodwill.

A lot of patrons gifted their right of advowson to monasteries. The monasteries however, quickly realised this was very convenient for them if the community had a cashflow problem. A parish rector had to a be a Religious man – an ordained cleric – so a normal lord of the manor could not rector himself. Unlike lords, monastic communities of course were made up at least partly by priests (the actual proportion of monks in a community who were ordained depended on the type of order), so exploited the loophole to appoint themselves rector, which meant all the tithes – the taxes of the parish – went directly to them. As rectors, they were supposed to maintain the chancel and provide divine service, but it was more likely they would put a vicar in, supported by a small fraction of the tithes, or even a chaplain, on a measly stipend.

The last thing a monastery would do after getting the money from the tithes, is pour it back into the parish. Monks made themselves institutional rectors because they needed the dosh to support their house, not because they had some zeal to go round rebuilding parish churches.

3. Saxon fonts

Saxton, North Yorkshire

Bowl = who knows; stem = Victorian; base = B&Q

Fonts were an important part of Early Christianity because they represented conversion and entry into the faith. No doubt there are a lot of impressive ancient fonts in churches, but the amount of times you hear about a font being discovered in the vicarage garden gets very suspect. Baptism remained an important part of post-Reformation parish life, so fonts are one of the few free-standing fitting to remain unscathed in English parish churches. If you see something that looks like an extremely crude thing for washing pigs in, then high chance that’s what it is, not a thousand-year old font.

4. Crusader tombs

Edington, Wiltshire

Excuse me, I’m having a lion

The main story with these is that if a knight has his legs crossed, then he died in the Crusades. This is, of course, a load of rubbish. The reason effigies have their legs crossed is because they look pretty silly with their legs straight, as if they’re lying in bed, depressed and not wanting to get up and go to work. With their legs akimbo they look ready for action. It’s not a special cipher ready to be decoded.

5. Ancient stone seats

Welsh Newton, Herefordshire

Who would even want to sit there, really

Same with the fonts. There are ancient “frith-stools” and Beverley Minster that are connected to the right of sanctuary granted to these places – that is the right to be tried under Church, rather than state law. These however, were special churches, and there is no evidence that it extended to ordinary parishes. Any sort of “armchair” you see in a parish church is unlikely to have the same significance. Most of them were mocked up from fragments by Victorian restorers – my theory is that the arms we used for very simple bench ends for the western half of the chancel.

6. Our stained glass window by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones

You know those stick-on transfers you can buy in cathedral gift shops? Yeah..

You know those stick-on transfers you can buy in cathedral gift shops? Yeah..

Burne-Jones was a prolific designer for Morris and Co. The firm kept pumping out poor-quality versions of his cartoons well into the twentieth century after anyone connected with them in their heyday was long dead. Unless it’s an early, bespoke piece of work, it’s very unlikely Ned saw the piece of glass, let alone visited the church. In most cases, claiming your glazing is by Burne-Jones is like saying you often host concerts by Bob Dylan because you have a 1992 CD remaster of Blonde on Blonde.

7. The Easter Sepulchre

This is quite a serious and complicated one, so bear with me. Any feature built into the north wall of a chancel is usually called an “Easter Sepulchre”. It is symptomatic how a label can become received opinion, with no questioning as to its veracity.

St Albans Psalter, c.1130-45, P50 - The Three Maries at the Tomb

St Albans Psalter, c.1130-45, P50 – The Three Maries at the Tomb

What is an Easter Sepulchre? Well, it is part of the liturgical elaboration around  the Holy Triduum of Easter, first recorded in the Regularis Concordia, an ambitious text intended to consolidate monastic practice in England  in the tenth century. In this, it is described that on Good Friday, a sepulchre would be used for symbolic burial of a cross (the Depositio). Early on Easter morning, the cross would be removed from the sepulchre and placed on the altar (Elevatio). Then would follow the Vistatio, when the monks were supposed to re-enact the visit of the Three Maries to the tomb. Because the latter step was, as it involved a trio of priests dressing up as women, potentially a little bit silly, it seems to have been rarely enacted. However, the Despositio made its way into the Sarum Rite (the closest thing medieval England had to a Book of Common Prayer), so was known to clergy in parish churches as something they should be doing.

The famous bona-fide Easter Sepulchre at Cowthorpe (North Yorkshire)

The Regularis Concordia describes the structure as being curtained, and a representation of such a structure has been convincingly argued to be shown in the twelfth-century Romanesque wall paintings at Kempley in Gloucestershire (Stephen Rickerby and David Park, Burlington Magazine 133, 1991, available on JSTOR). By the later Middle Ages, they seem to have been commonly in the form of ornate wooden chests commonly recorded as such in church inventories, especially in the Reformation clear-outs under King Edward VI, when they were put to all sorts of domestic uses, even chicken coops. The only such Easter Sepulchre to survive – although admittedly with no documentation as to its function – is at Cowthorpe (North Yorkshire).

Stone-next-Dartford, Kent

Stone-next-Dartford (Kent). Monument to Sir John Wiltshyre (d.1526), north aisle.

We know that the Easter Sepulchre was always set up on the north side of the chancel because of the huge amount of medieval wills from the fifteenth and early sixteenth century that stipulate that individuals want their tombs set up there so that the sepulchre can be placed upon it at Easter. These tombs, when they survive, can be seen to be specifically designed for the purpose of having a chest placed on them: with flat incised brasses rather than sculpted effigies. There’s even a whole type of early sixteenth-century tomb that you find in the London area that is primarily designed as a console for the chest. But these tombs are NOT Easter Sepulchres. They are convenient places to put the Easter Sepulchre.

Heckington, Lincolnshire

The locus classicus of the stone “Easter Sepulchre” – Heckington (Lincolnshire), late 1320s

The textual evidence suggests that Easter Sepulchre itself was something you need to lie an altar cross down in once a year, probably shielded behind a curtain. Why then, does everyone call the features in the north walls of the fourteenth-century chancels of Heckington and Hawton Easter Sepulchres? Veronica Sekules convincingly argued (BAA Conference Transactions 8, 1986) that these were primarily conceived as Tombs of Christ. As the consecrated Host was actually the body of Christ, by placing it in what medieval people actually perceived as a “copy” of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, you were essentially making an actual tomb of Christ. The other prominent features in the north walls of these chancels are the founder’s tombs. It was always considered beneficial to be buried in good company, but what better grave-mate than Jesus Christ Himself?

Hawton (Nottinghamshire)

The south wall ensemble at Hawton (Nottinghamshire), late 1330s. Vestry doorway, founder’s tomb (probably originally rector John de Swine, d.1344), Tomb of Christ.

Sekules goes on to argue that these Tombs of Christ were installed in certain parish churches because of the cult of Corpus Christi which spread across Europe in the fourteenth century. As well as giving himself the prestige of a tomb next to the Son of God, the rector who commissioned the Tomb of Christ would also be creating a Sacrament Shrine, that would contain the Host all year round. We can assume that laity would be admitted into the chancel outside of services to be able to pay devotion to the Blessed Sacrament outside of the Mass.

The possibility that the features at Heckington and Hawton were used as Easter Sepulchres in the Paschal liturgy is at best, a tertiary one, and certainly less based in real evidence than the idea that they were an all-year-round Sacrament Shrine. A recent PhD thesis by Christopher Herbert (Leicester University, 2007, available online) actually set out to show how most so-called “Easter Sepulchres” were completely useless for putting a cross inside (essential for the public spectacle of Depostio and Elevatio), and confidently concludes that the stone Easter Sepulchre was never a widespread tradition in medieval England, but a Victorian misconception. But yet people will still stubbornly insist that they were, and the term remains de rigeur for describing any sort of niche in the north wall of the chancel. It’s essentially the fault of Nikolaus Pevsner, who, as an avid digester of Victorian literature and a formalist essentially uninterested in liturgy, sprinkled it liberally around the Gospel of church crawlers, the Buildings of England.  At best, “Easter Sepulchre” is a neologism that represents the multivalent functions of architectural features. But at worst, it’s an entirely incorrect moniker that misrepresents medieval practice, puts simple holes in the wall on the same level as true works of art such as Heckington and Hawton, and draws attention away from the actual Easter Sepulchres such as Cowthorpe which have vanished from thousands of parish churches at the Reformation. If you actually look at the textual and material evidence a priori and ignore the distorting effect of Victorian Tractarianism on assumptions about the Middle Ages, you will see the whole idea of permanent stone Easter Sepulchres built into chancel walls crumbles.

8. The church is the people, not the building

P1410494The Church (big C) is the people, and the church (little c) is the building, I’m interested in both; but please don’t demean the latter as an object of aesthetic and historic interest by sticking this needlessly iconoclastic statement in Comic Sans MS font on a big ugly noticeboard right in front of some fascinating dado arcading.

9. Leper squints

Selby Abbey, West Yorkshire

No no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no.

Apparently, if you believe English parish church lore, medieval England was a bit like Dawn of the Dead, with walking corpses shambling around churchyards. Of course, leprosy (now generally refered to as Hansen’s disease – don’t want to be caught leper-shaming) was a widespread debilitating  disease in the Middle Ages, but to think that parish churches actually modified their fabric to cater for this is quite ridiculous. Ridiculous enough in the eyes of academics, who realise that monastic hospitals would give ostracised lepers opportunity to receive the sacraments and would never think of bothering to write an article to debunk it; but not ridiculous enough to mean people don’t think twice before accepting it.

There are three things that usually get labelled as “leper squints” in English parish churches. (I may be pushing my luck here sub-dividing a listicle into letters)

9a) Low side windows

Washingborough, Lincolnshire

Open up the low-side window, I’m roasting in this chasuble – careful not to let any of those lepers in, mind

These are usually found in the south wall of the chancel, towards the west end. They often have evidence for shutters on their jambs. The problem is, unless you stood on a stool and stuck your head right in, you can’t see the altar from them. Paul Barnwell has argued – mainly because they are also used in secular buildings – that they were used as ventilation, to let air in when the oxygen levels inside were becoming rather asphyxiating (Ecclesiology Today 36, 2006, available online). This is very reasonable when you think of all the candles that would be burning, especially on dull winter evenings.

9b) Altar squints

Bamburgh, Northumberland

An unusually fancy “hagioscope” at Bamburgh (Northumberland)

Often, in the jambs of the chancel, there are holes often quite unartfully, smashed through the fabric. These are often called “hagioscopes”: a total Victorian neologism but not a bad one. The function of these is fairly obvious, because they always are positioned so someone standing in front of a subsidiary side altar has a good view of the high altar. This is probably so that a chantry priest can sync the all-important elevation of the Host with the main ceremony, almost like a monitor at a sporting event to allow the crowd to see a close-up view of what’s happening on the pitch. In this case it’s the body of Jesus Christ, not someone getting kicked in the balls during a vicious tackle.

9c) Blocked-up aisle windows.

St Michael on Wyre

This is, incidentally, one of the most exciting things ever.

Here’s a supposed persons-afflicted-with-Hansen’s Disease-vision-enabling-aperture at St Michael-on-Wyre (Lancashire). It’s not to allow an outcast to see inside, but actually the window of the original thirteenth century aisle. When the aisle wall was built further out in the later Middle Ages, a bigger window was put in and this one blocked up.

10. You might want to take a look at our delightful Millennium window/tapestry by the mothers’ union/prayer tree

Nope

 

Could Anyone Not On the Bus Please Raise Their Hand: A Guide To Conference Fieldtrips

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

It’s that time of year when academics can grab a break from their endless PowerPoint slides, passive-aggressive question sessions and lunch breaks with suspicious fish-based sandwiches, and instead be permitted into the real world to point at things in a somewhat organised manner. Like a school trip, bus loads of academics are driven from the lecture hall to archaeological sites, great buildings and art galleries, with a burning determination to show everyone around them that they absolutely ooze theory, methodology and object-based knowledge from every gland! Things can get pretty heated as they tear into poor display, conservation and interpretation; so here’s a few situations I have identified that you can be ready for!

___________________
P2000537Everyone will look at an interesting piece of medieval sculpture for a bit, then someone will realise it is a Victorian replica and the group will die a little inside

Well… it’s a very good pastiche


___________________

Seizing the opportunity, one eminent delegate will speak inside a building to the extent that they basically recite the entire manuscript for the book about it that they have never got round to writing

He’s been going for at least 35 minutes now, isn’t the wine reception supposed to be at six??

___________________

P2060052Instead of looking at a building, people will gather round a small model of it made by secondary-school children in the 1950s  and criticise its numerous inaccuracies

Of course, the layout of the monastic complex is conjectural to say the least; and that tracery of the infirmary is ludicrous for the documented date

___________________

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAIf a number of scholars are invited to climb part of a stair-turret, they will ignore instructions where to exit it and proceed to ascend to the very top as if they might glimpse the court of heaven with God enthroned with His angels in splendour, when actually all they will find is a roof-space filled with asbestos

Now this just doesn’t seem safe, maybe I ought to go back down and not mention this

___________________

P2020195One conference delegate will criticise the liturgical arrangement of a church building but absolutely no one else will care

Look at the state of those riddel-posts
They look like drainpipes


___________________

P1560077There will be a significant digression about the appropriateness of light fittings

All 1960s, of course


___________________

P1240071Two insane people will look at something utterly insignificant as if it is the most exciting thing in all of creation

Is that..?

I think it is…!

A PLINTHERFACE


___________________

13625143_10100333691940530_1400530738_nEven though every group is supposed to see the same things in a rota, people will hide the coloured sticker on their name badge and go with whatever group they feel like because they really don’t believe this is possible

Balls to that Anglo-Saxon tun, I’m going to the lady chapel roofspace first


___________________

P1770506Someone will be told by a guard not to get too close to an object when pointing at it and have their authoritative ego scarred for the rest of the visit

I wasn’t even that close… and it’s glazed anyway so I don’t know what their problem was frankly

 


___________________

P1630331An amateur guardian of a building will deliver an extended Ladybird book version of its history to an assembled congregation of eminent scholars who know more about it than anyone else on the planet, but everyone will be too polite to tell them to stop

And we have three windows at the east end, which symbolise the 3 at the beginning of our village dialling code

___________________
KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAIt will rain and people will make interminable jokes about the “English summer”

Even if the conference is abroad

Typical!

___________________

13816950014_3797aa884f_b[1]You will be stuck between two people discussing the differences between Purbeck marble and other types of fossiliferous limestone which is interesting for the first ten minutes but then you realise decorum means you have no escape

In the en-delit shafting in the triforium? That’s blue lilas, surely

 

 


STAINED GLASS ATTITUDES WILL RETURN

With more wonky arches

soon