Category Archives: Churchcrawling

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




Barry Thurible’s guide to London Churches

Cor lummy! Barry Thurible here, suffragan archsubdeacon of Mudchute. As an entirely fictional Cockney entity, when I’m not carrying enormous thermometers to another building that needs to keep track of their roof fund in the only way the Church of England knows how, I travel the parishes of London on my 60+ Oyster Photocard on a Sunday morning and check no one’s deviating too far from the BCP, while also providing a ceremony of high aesthetic merit! If like me, you like nothing more in life than a good Mass, then here’s my partisan guide on what buildings to choose and which avoid on a Sunday Morning! And maybe I’ll also make some nonsense Eastender interjections occasionally. Chim-chim-awooga!

St Mary Hendon“Medieval” churches
Despite what cobblers you might hear, there are no real medieval churches in London. The ones in Zone 6 or whatever that did survive that rather big ‘elf and safety clumsy-up in 1666 ended up with a Victorian mega-church welded to the side anyway. Since essentially every last patina of the Middle Ages has been scrubbed off by Victorian do-gooders round here, the atmosphere has totally gone. This ain’t Norfolk. The service will be tolerable, but you’ll be looking forward to the Nescafé and the Custard Cream more than anything else. Don’t be taken in by the relatively long Pevsner entry, give these a miss.

Wren City Churches
All these bloody things look the same to me. And walking round the City on a Sunday is a mug’s game anyway. You’d never get a celebrant, deacon, subdeacon and M.C. behind one of those Grinling Gibbons communion rails and have space left for so much as one acolyte so I don’t know why you’d bother.

St Mary, Wyndham Place, MaryleboneOther Classical churches
I can’t even bear to talk about these. They look like libraries.

St Paul, Mill HillCommissioners’ Gothick boxen
Dreary things. Before the Victorians worked out how to build proper Gothic again, these cheap-o things went up at the behest of the Church Commissioners that are basically four walls with a roof on top but – oh wait – with some pointy windows. Sink me Bismarck! I’d have all these things knocked down but apparently there’s someone between the Vic Soc and Georgian Group who thinks they’re worth more than half a cobble. Now despite the fact the architecture gets right on my Hack-e-ney bits, some of the clergy do try regardless, but you’re just as likely to trip over a drumkit while tutting at the enormous projector screen some numpty’s set up in the chancel arch. Don’t take your chances.

Dec ragstone potboilers
Decorated Gothic, the architectural style of high medieval England, was realised by the Victorians to be correct way a church should look forever and ever. And blimey, they were right! Just they built far too many and we don’t know what to do with them all now! So although that ragstone dressing means they look pretty pukka on the outside, on the inside they’ve probably had to block up one of the aisles or something to put a nursery in there to help balance the books for the parish share. Worst case scenario is that they’ve been subdivided into a block of flats: terribly embarrassing if you’ve made a special trip to see where they keep the Blessed Sacrament these days. Not worth risking.

United Reformed Church, Enfield TownThe not-a-church
See a spire, majestically riding above the skyline? Think it must be a beacon of the nation’s one true Church, good ol’ C of E? Well, don’t be fooled, precocious young pendlemill, because sometimes underneath is a United Seventh Day Reformed Methodists of New Bethlem or something. I don’t know what they get up to, I’m sure they do some essentially wholesome activity based around our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, but I’m not ready to start closing my eyes and putting my hand in the air like I’m at a Bon Jovi concert, so give these things a wide berth.

St Chad, HaggerstonBig Brick Basilicas
Well these things are alright, in the East End we have a job-lot built by the Victorian James Brooks who afterwards seemed to travel down the Piccadilly Line building one at every stop, so a lot of those are now not-a-churches to be avoided at all costs. ‘Cause it’s cheap, you see, the Catholics threw up a lot of stuff like this too, so watch out. Not that there’s anything wrong with being Roman Catholic. Some of my best friends are Catholics. Just it’s not the best thing if my employer sees me praying the rosary too much. Not the Big Geezer that is, I’m sure He’s fine with it, just the bish’ is really into brand loyalty to the purple cross places. All in all, too risky for me.

St. Richard, HamModern rubbish
Some of these things I wonder whether I should be taking my swimming cossie rolled up in a towel – they don’t half look a bit like leisure centres, you see. Now, some of them can be alright, but the altar’s probably right in the middle due to some misjudged keeping up with the Romans, so unless they have a 360 degree priest who can balance the Host on his head I wouldn’t bother with these.

P1470103‘Igh Church Strongholds
In fact, the only church you need bother with is something where the architecture is so fabulous – Pearson, Street, or someone other mad Victorian fella who really knew pointy – that it’s a place that time forgot. Literally! Same thing every week! You can expect a Byrd or Palestrina motet, a sermon with some actual theology in it, Merbecke Credo, some respect shown to the Blessed Sacrament, and probably a sherry afterwards. Ooga-booga! Then if you stick around long enough they’ll probably do a Nunc Dimitis, Magnificat and Benediction. So pleased I’ll be, that I’ll go back to the office on Monday and turn a blind eye to the fact that they’ve been fiddling with their Gift Aid envelopes. Knees up my ol’ Gran Turismo!

Trouble at t’ church – around Blackburn

St Luke, Blackburn Blackburn – a hilly Lancashire mill town with wonderful views of the surrounding countryside – is a nice place to get out of, residents seem to agree. But just as I liked to visit the dingier bits of London looking at their churches armed with a Pevsner Guide, it seemed a good place for my first Sunday excursion of architectural exploration by motor car. But perhaps residents are a bit hard on it. It’s been sliced up by roads and nothing whatsoever medieval left, but has a great deal of interest. Of course I just looked at the churches, but there’s mills, municipal munificence, and modern malapropisms (like this bloody thing which looms over the town like the OCP building in Robocop’s Detroit) to be savoured too.



St Silas, Blackburn

St Silas, BlackburnI drove there for the 10:30 service at St Silas, a church of 1894 that, with its striking profile from the road, cannot fail to make an impression on the passer-by. It’s by Lancaster firm Paley & Austin, a firm which Pevsner had much affection for, although his account of St Silas in 1969 is rather grumpy and succinct, judged to have “none of their spatial ingenuity”. Indeed, the inside is basically two great arcades with a chancel at one end and a tower at the other, but still with a great honesty throughout, just like a top-whack medieval building. The way the chancel arch for instance, is slipped in almost non-nonchalantly: as if it’s grown up between the piers.

The Holy Communion was dignified and enjoyable, and everybody very friendly, I’m just glad the fill-in organist arrived since everyone seemed to think I might be doing it. I left my car here and ventured into Blackburn for more traditional foot-based urban reconnaissance.


St Luke, Blackburn St Luke, Blackburn St Luke, Blackburn

I was quite fortunate to get into St Luke, for which I had a magnificent preamble down a hill and past the gas works. Judging by the brackets around the description of the interior, even the Pevsner revisers didn’t get in here. Inside it’s a bit lumpy, with a great honking barrel roof with dinky pretend aisles. These are currently all piled-up with chairs, as all the pews have recently been removed, leading to a ramshackle feel like a church hall. The star attraction here are the magnificent windows in the north transept by Heaton, Butler and Bayne for the War Memorial Chapel. Startling to think that even in 1919 they were still making glass of this quality, and of some rather obscure Old Testament scenes. Moses held aloft by Aaron and Hur, anyone?

St Mark, Blackburn

St Mark, Buncer Lane – a like a temple to Hades built out of Duplo

St Luke was until recently a joint parish with St Mark, by scholar-architect Edmund Sharpe in 1836-8. Rather than in his Dec Gothic Style for which he was later known, it’s in the then still in-vogue Neo-Norman, but remarkably primitive-looking. Pevsner reviser Clare Hartwell writes that it is “almost Soanian in simplicity”. The tower has a rather menacing, pagan look to it, and it seemed as if the very sky turned to lead as I approached it.

I heard that this church had recently become redundant, and was to be handed over to a non-denominational Christian group. This is somewhat surprising, as I thought this was something the Church of England stopped doing in the ’80s. Despite the obvious attraction of a church staying in the Church, many of these independent Churches – unlike Wetherspoons – simply have no idea how to look after a historic building, and they can get into a horrific state. It looks like it could survive a thunderbolt from Zeus, but is St Mark tough enough to survive a happy-clappy congregation?

St Phillip, Blackburn

The orphaned tower of St Phillip and some colourful paraphenalia

It would be a shame to lose such an unusual church as St Mark, but for many other churches in Blackburn, one has to accept that just because the Victorians built it, doesn’t mean it must stay forever. The large Asian population means that by the late twentieth century Blackburn had a surfeit of buildings with Christian altars at the end, and many churches have been demolished. A few orphaned spires remain. Many others, such as St Peter’s in the centre, have all but disappeared without trace.


Blackburn Cathedral

Blackburn Cathedral Gothick nave, stodgy transepts and concrete crown

This situation makes it all the more peculiar that Blackburn a diocesan centre for the CoE, with a thoroughly Anglican Cathedral, what with all its concessions, bodge-jobs, but undeniable charm. The medieval church was demolished and replaced in the 1820s with a surprisingly pleasing bit of pre-Victorian Gothic Revival. In the 1930s the east end was demolished for a protracted campaign to construct cathedral-scale transepts and east end, in late Gothic Revival so conventional it borders on pastiche. In a surge of modern ambition (or realisation they couldn’t afford the projected tower), the crossing was finished by a concrete corona in the 1960s, which decayed so badly it had to be replaced in the late ’90s.

Blackburn Cathedral

The high altar (dressed in red for martyr saint St George)

This woeful set of mishaps does not mean that Blackburn Cathedral is an embarassment. The plaster-vaulted nave with its pretty decoration provides a fine entrance to the eventual experience of the crossing with its abstract stained glass, with the altar directly underneath. Rather than succumb to the fallacy of the 360-degree priest, the east end is fenced off by screening, to create an ambulatory and eastern chapel. This does leave the transepts as feeling rather pointless, with nothing much in them except from the misericords from Whalley Abbey.

Blackburn Cathedral

John Hayward incised glass screen and stained glass in eastern chapel of Blackburn Cathedral

The 1960s furnishings at Blackburn Cathedral were entirely ignored by Pevsner, which is a shame, as they are by John Hayward, shortly after his initial success with paintings at London Fields but before he went into stained glass full-time. His spikey high altar baldachin does look like something from Hellraiser, but hey, that’s cool with me, and his decoration of the eastern chapel, is nicely minimalist and well-judged.

When I visited Blackburn Cathedral in the afternoon, there was a service for the Royal Society of St George, which basically seemed like the excuse for the mayor’s wife to wear a hat, but we all got to sing Jerusalem so what’s wrong with that? At least we could celebrate the horrific multiple martyrdoms of George with a delicious cake.


Holy Trinity, Blackburn

Holy Trinity, Blackburn – You’ll need more than Faith, Hope and Charity to get in ‘ere, lad.

The last two churches I went to look at in Blackburn overlook it from a hill to the north. One is a clearly-oversized bland Late Victorian hulk Roman Catholic Church of St Alban, the other the rather important Holy Trinity, 1837-46. Also by Lancastrian Edmund Sharpe this gives a whole other side to him from his primeval building-block terror we saw above at St Mark. It’s an amazingly pure bit of fourteenth-century architectural scholarship, more of a model than a real church. It’s been redundant since the 1980s, but is kept by the Churches Conservation Trust. However, unlike most CCT buildings, which have a friendly keyholder, here, as someone from the Cathedral advised me, first you need to know where the key is, then you need to do some serious grovelling to actually prove you should be able to go in. Not a very happy prospect.

St Cuthbert, Darwen


St Cuthbert, Darwen

Interior of St Cuthbert, Darwen

The last church I got in was after a quick drive south, towards the hills, to St Cuthbert, Darwen. Always nice to bookend the day with Paley & Austin, this was built in 1875. The saddle-back tower of 1907-8 with an inappropriate clock by a borough engineer is a bit daft, and the whole thing looks from the outside as if it’s going to plow off into the street. “Sound and serious, nothing more”, says Pevsner, obviously satisfied but at a loss for words. Indeed, it’s a lovely atmospheric building, honest in every degree, but not much to say about the interior, except that it works in a thoroughly modern Gothic manner. The best thing is the 1908 window in the north aisle by Shrigley and Hunt, that shows St Cuthbert with his attribute of an otter at his feet. To show the Edwardians weren’t above a bit of animal whimsy, he’s wearing a mitre.

St Cuthbert, Darwen

Thanks I love otters in hats

The Director’s Cut – Flickr Box Set

Die Kölnerdreizehnkirchenherausforderung (The Cologne thirteen churches challenge)

My trusty guide for the day

My trusty guide for the day

Recently I piggy-backed another Courtauld trip, this time to Aachen, to try and get a bit of experience with German churches, and a day in Cologne. Cologne is famous for its twelve Romanesque churches, of which is it especially proud from its massive post-war restoration that returned all them to their former glory despite significant damage (we’re talking tower and vault collapses here) in  nearly every one. And then of course, there is the Cathedral. Could I do the lot in 24 hours (including pesky sleep?).

I did no research whatsoever on the churches, except where they were (quite important) and when they were open, as I wanted the experience to be full of surprises. What follows is a brief account, light on the dates and analysis of building breaks, to try to distill each church to a one favourite stand-out feature or we’ll be here all day. Onward!


Arriving in Cologne was quite an unforgettable experience. Cologne CathedralLittle did I know, searching for internet access so I could have my phone magically point me in the direction of my hotel, that the Dom was right outside of the south exit of the station, a looming critical mass of distilled Gothic through the plate glass facade. This was not a moment to think “oh, hey, there’s the Cathedral, now, let me put a fake email address into this network log-in screen…”. No, Cologne Cathedral is something of such sublime proportions that it immediately shatters any such worldly concerns such as foreign wi-fi signals. The west facade is nearly entirely nineteenth century, but finished from now almost relic-like “Plan F”, which showed the original design. And what in reproduction, can seem like two facades clumsily stacked on top of each other, appears in true experience as the apotheosis of the Gothic system, and quite frankly, initially, utterly bloody terrifying to the point of inducing vertigo. Eventually it beckoned me to enter in. I cried a bit. It’s enough to evangelise you that Gothic is not a style. It is the Law.


#1 But, alas, most of my time was going to be concerned with Romanesque, which, as a responsible art historian, I should tell you was not a style where people were working out how to do Gothic but a creative force in its own right. The Northern-most church, on the way to my hotel, is St. Kunibert, on the other side of the railway station. As my first of the Romanesque churches it was not a disappointment. It really sets the scale for the monumental churches all over the city – a dominating “westwerk” block with two towers at one end and a raised choir at the other end with a semi-circular apse.
St. Kunibert, CologneSt. Kunibert, CologneSt. Kunibert, Cologne
The incredible thing for me is that this church was built entirely in the thirteenth century. Even in England Romanesque was totally old hat by this time. This church was especially badly gutted in the war, but the simple polychrome of red and blue the restoration has instated on the columns, ribs and arches sets off marvellously against the pale grey stone.


#2. Also on the first evening I managed to see Groß St. Martin, as this seemed to be open til 7:30pm everyday.
Groß St. Martin, Cologne Groß St. Martin, Cologne Groß St. Martin, Cologne
This is another enormous church with a tower with four flanking turrets that dominates the skyline after the Dom (sadly all rebuilt as the crossing caved in from a direct hit). Unlike St. Kunibert the fabric has much more of the patina of time about it, and there’s certainly a lot less in the way of altarpieces and statues. But what was most memorable about this church is the reason it’s open so late: it is staffed by a Monastic order and has a Mass every day. The nuns’ plainchant was captivating and there was a wonderful serenity to the whole thing. As nearly every service I’ve seen in a building like this, it was not able to approach the scale of the ancient church, and merely taking place in it. However in its modest quality it felt like watching a very distant shadow of the medieval liturgy, like the underdrawing of a faded fresco.


#3. The next day I set off south to work my way up through the remaining ten Romanesque churches. Upon seeing St. Georg open I dived inside. A much stumpier building than so far, with a westwerk like Mecca in a dunce’s hat.
St. Georg, Cologne St. Georg, Cologne  St. Georg, Cologne
Quite an interesting church archaeologically for modifications (check out that added vault on the nave elevation…) and changes of plan, but I won’t bore you with my tedious pictures of such things. The most memorable thing here is the crucifix in the westwerk, a so-called gabelkreuz, where not just Christ but the cross is twisted into a Y-shaped expressionist agony.


#4. So down to St. Severin, the southern-most church, a commanding spire making it easy to find and the only one with a Gothic nave.
St Severin, Cologne  St Severin, Cologne St Severin, Cologne
This pointy fourteenth-century nave was certainly the most memorable bit, even it was a bit workman-like, but it had some quite unusual Renaissance tombs with alabaster reliefs. Oh, and another fourteenth-century gabelkreuz!


#5. St. Panteleon was next, which is important for having really early Romanesque in the mighty westwerk.
St Pantaleon, Cologne St Pantaleon, Cologne  St Pantaleon, Cologne
However, what made me make an noise of audible delight was the choir screen, documented 1502-14, but in full-on Florid Gothic: a veritable fugue of intersecting nodding ogees and fantastic pinnacles. Oh daddy.


#6. Over to St. Maria Lyskirchen, the smallest of the churches, which largely escaped Bomber Harris et al, and so still has its strange Baroque balcony in the nave.
St Maria in Lyskirchen, Cologne  St Maria in Lyskirchen, Cologne  St Maria in Lyskirchen, Cologne
It also means it keeps its utterly extraordinary series of paintings – the earliest the Adoration on the counter-facade, mid-thirteenth century in the main vessel, and later, towards 1300 in the two choir chapels dedicated to St. Nicholas and St. Catherine.


#7. Back to the massive Romanesque with St. Maria im Kapitol, here the nave never had its vault rebuilt after the war so has the bare springers. There was some setting up of a light show behind the Renaissance screen, and I wasn’t sure whether it was off-limits, so took it as a covert operation. As Alec Clifton-Taylor says, the good thing about Romanesque is how easy it is to hide behind the piers (but “One has to be so particular in Perpendicular”).
St Maria im Kapitol  St Maria im Kapitol  St Maria im Kapitol
But this church is full of extraordinary things. Romanesque Madonna, prehistoric “bones of St. Mary”, the original carved wooden doors, another gabelkreuz… but I am going to choose the late Gothic Hardenrath chapel, consecrated 1466. It has a singing gallery off the south transept leading into a tiny intimate space crowded with art. Sadly the wall paintings were largely detached in the war, but it is still an impressive space. Even more so when you realise the gate is unlocked when you’ve been taking pictures through it for five minutes.
St Maria im Kapitol  St Maria im Kapitol  St Maria im Kapitol


#8. I dive over to St. Aposteln. In practically any other town this would be looking at Cathedral status, but here it’s just another Romanesque mammoth with two towers flanking the choir like oriental sentinels.
St Aposteln, Cologne  St Aposteln, Cologne   St Aposteln, Cologne

Not too much inside, they were setting up a concert when I arrived so mainly could only see the westwerk, but a zoom lens and tripod got me the choir and nave. The full set of fourteenth-century apostles set into the modern high altar were by far the stand-out of the furnishings.

#9. Now, St. Cecilia is a different sort of church. It’s not much more what you would expect out of a Romanesque parish church, nothing fancy.
Cäcilienkirche, CologneCäcilienkirche, CologneP1860983
However, it is now home to the Schnütgen Museum, and packed full of medieval sculpture. Now, the main museum foyer had a “no photo” sign in so I actually only took pictures sparingly and covertly at first, until I noticed other visitors not getting told off (this how you roll as an art historian – interesting because this fellow Cologne church crusader got slapped down). It’s cheating and I should probably just talk about the wall paintings or something that is actually part of the original church, but I was totally absorbed by the altarpiece of St. Ursula that was displayed on the site of the high altar. The goldsmiths work and inlaid enamelling is twelfth century, but the current figures were painted in the late fourteenth century. The best of both worlds, culminating in a vision of the next! (I didn’t really take many pictures of the collections and also haven’t uploaded them to Flickr as it’s a nightmare to tag museum photos)

#10. At this point I went back in the Cathedral. Access had been rather disappointing earlier: although it’s open from 6am the whole east end is roped off for much of the early morning for confessions only. So this means you don’t get a chance to enjoy it without it being filled with buggies and people with T-shirts with writing on, a shame, really, and a bit baffling. All I could really do in the morning was go to Mass in the Lady Chapel and look at Stephan Lochner’s altarpiece from the Town Hall (which ain’t so bad).

Cologne CathedralCologne CathedralCologne Cathedral

Even later in the day all the ambulatory chapels are gated off so the extraordinary tombs, like this fourteenth-century bishop lying on a castle, are not easy to see, and you can’t use a tripod so have to shoot everything except the stained glass on grainy high ISO anyway. All in all a visit is very restrictive compared to an English Cathedral. Also, unless you want to see a bunch of post-Reformation shiny plate (always a frustrating experience for a medieval art historian: which of the shiny things are old enough for me to care about??), the Treasury is not worth a visit and is badly laid out. All that’s really interesting are the original sculptures of the medieval south porch of the facade.

#11. So, we’re nearly finished now! St. Andreas is right next to the Cathedral, and is distinguished by its tall Gothic choir, with mouchette wheels in the tracery.
St Andreas, Cologne St Andreas, Cologne St Andreas, Cologne
Wall paintings in here, too, but rather suspiciously over-painted. I enjoyed the St Christopher statue attributed to stone carver Tilman van der Burch, whose sculpture was all over Cologne around 1500. Unlike his version in the Cathedral, in which the giant’s face is seized by the pain of exhaustion, here he seems to be looking up to check on the Christ child in a quite charming way.


#12. St Gereon is really the most extraordinary of the churches, as its thirteenth-century nave is a centrally-planned polygon. Not only this, but it uses Gothic motifs in the elevation.
St Gereon, CologneSt Gereon, CologneSt Gereon, Cologne
The architecture really is the most stunning thing about the church, and despite the church being staffed, the high choir is roped off. After initially taking tripod pictures, one of the attendants, looking very concerned, asked me not to, I assume, for health and safety reasons while there’s a group in wandering about. He then followed me covertly into the crypt where he caught me crouching down using it unextended and then threw me out. It’s a serious job preventing people taking long exposure images in low-light conditions!


#13. And finally St. Ursula. A good church to leave til last as it’s utterly fascinating. Unusually for the churches, the Gothic choir was open to visitors, with only the extreme east and the sanctuary roped off, partly to allow people to admire the famous cycle of paintings about Ursula and her 11,000 virgins, martyred near Cologne.
St Ursula, CologneSt Ursula, CologneSt Ursula, Cologne

The grave of Ursula and her ever-multipying band of Virgins was quite the coup for Cologne, as it means they were never short on relics. Reliquary busts of the ladies are all over the city, here they populate every arch of the triforium gallery. But undoubtedly the most remarkable thing in the church is the 17th-century Goldene Kammer. It has dozens of the reliquary busts, but also, in the classic gruesome Baroque directness, thousands of bones arranged into prayers in the spandrels of the vault. It was also interesting to watch a pair of conservators working on restoring the original colour scheme.

St Ursula, CologneSt Ursula, CologneSt Ursula, Cologne

So that was it. Quick look in the Cathedral again and then into the train station where no misadventure befell my trip back to Brussels whatsoever. I would actually recommend anyone else who has a few days in Cologne to take up the Kölnerdreizehnkirchenherausforderung, as it is perfectly manageable in one day, as I had to leave relatively early but also spent around an hour and a half in the Schnütgen. Some of the churches are staffed and you have to avoid the periods where a few (St. Aposteln, St. Gereon, St Ursula, St Kunibert) close around lunchtime, and of course the dreaded Monday when everything interesting for tourists across continental Europe is shut. Many of the churches were open before their advertised times and are simply left open without attendants, and it really is a marvellous thing that they are so accessible. A lot of English towns (like Leicester!) could learn from the effort Cologne has made to bring their churches together as historic and holy monuments, and make the most of an opportunity to see such a variety of architecture and art in one place.

There’s a lot of pages on the Twelve Churches if you search Google, but very useful for full list of opening times of the Cologne churches, is this site in German.

Here’s the full Flickr set which is probably a bit below my usual standards for comprehensiveness of fittings since, well, there was a lot to take pictures of!

BAA study day of Welsh wall paintings: consolidating history

Llancarfan, Glamorgan

Waiting outside Llancarfan in the May sunshine

Last month, another British Archaeological Assocation study day whisked me off to Cardiff, to have a look at two churches in Wales: Llancarfan and Llantwich. I didn’t want to pass this up, as I had previously blogged about these wall paintings before, when the BBC did a little piece on them last year. First being discovered in 2008, the church has recently been closed to the public and the paintings rescaffolded for consolidation. Conservator Jane Rutherfoord is currently going through the laborious process of removing the salts that have built up on the surface, at risk of pulling these amazing late-fifteenth-century paintings of St George and the Dragon and the Seven Deadly Sins off the walls.

Llancarfan, Glamorgan

Up on the scaffold to look at the wall paintings in the south-west corner of the nave

The one thing we were brought to realise this day is how special these paintings are, mainly for being uncovered so recently and treated so well. Because the biggest damage to English wall paintings was not the immediate state-sponsored iconoclasm of the sixteenth century, the Puritan vandalism of the seventeenth century, the neglect of the eighteenth century or “restoration mania” and the “scrape brigade” of the nineteenth century. No, actually, the post-war decades, with its misplaced confidence in new materials such as polymers, did more irreparable damage to existing wall paintings than any other period. The fact that in the 1960s an allegedly conservation-minded architect could put a concrete vestry of nuclear bunker-like construction bang on top of these paintings, hacking off the plaster of their lower parts and not even notice any medieval pigment is quite frightening indeed.

Llancarfan, Glamorgan

Up with St. George on the scaffold

Jane’s task of conserving what is essentially a flimsy paint surface atop a rabbit-warren of plaster seems to require quite extraordinary tenacity and improvisatory skill. But more is being revealed: new iconography of the Seven Deadly Sins and also a scene with the hand of God, perhaps the life of a saint, await uncovering. What you notice when up on the scaffold (yes, generally the best bit of being an art historian is going up to high places where normal people aren’t allowed) is the peculiar quality of actual English medieval wall painting of this period. We are so used to staring at shadows of the past through discoloured varnish and restoration, and so actually see the vivacity of a medieval artist’s brush is quite a revelation. Yes, it’s not like the quattrocento frescos of Italy, but there’s still an admirable immediacy and skill to all his work, much as we admire a cartoonist’s capability to work fast and create vivid and engaging images. It’s many miles displaced from a nervous Victorian restorer trying to recreate a faded line.

Llantwich, Glamorgan

Llantwit, from north-west, showing the re-roofed Raglan chapel

We also went over to nearby Llantwit, a unique church as it’s about four in one: a chancel and nave, then an unaisled “western church”, then a further western chapel, recently re-roofed and restored, which now houses an extraordinary collection of Saxon crosses. David Robinson from English Heritage tried to get us to date all the various parts without relying on the Buildings of Wales, with us colouring in our phased plans to little agreement. The best thing was the towering fourteenth-century stone reredos, which Richard “mouldings” Morris has dated to c.1325-50 with comparison to Wells, about all we could agree on.

Llantwich, Glamorgan

The mammoth fourteenth-century reredos at Llantwit

Could have done without looking at a medieval dovecot up on the hill though. Didn’t get home for tea til about 10pm. The things we do for art.

Flickr set. Jane issued a no-photos policy of unconserved work one can respect: untreated parts could be misinterpreted when spread around the internet, so these pictures are generally only of the architecture of Llancarfan. The paintings will be fully visible to visitors next year.

Nairn’s Chichester

It is now a year since my first post on Stained Glass Attitudes! What was intended to be a PhD research blog quickly transformed into a front-end for my Flickr uploads, and generally accounts of me messing about in pointy buildings, be they the correct date for my thesis (which, I think, is going rather well I might add) or not.

Chichester Cathedral

Chichester’s steeple

Reminiscent of that trip a year ago to Leicester, Chichester was something I had been putting off for a while since it involves me coordinating a lot of usually inaccessible buildings. It’s also the last of the medieval English cathedrals I haven’t been round. I did actually visit the city two years ago to see the Edward Burra exhibition at Pallant House, but refused to look in the Cathedral as I could hardly fit in a proper visit alongside a rare opportunity to see Burra’s rarely-exhibited watercolours, so, except for the Lady Chapel sedilia, I pretended it wasn’t there.

Chichester, unusually for a small cathedral town, is actually quite nice (c.f. Peterborough, Gloucester). The Cathedral is possibly the most unloved of the English medieval cathedrals, as it has no outstanding work that admits it into the textbooks. It is essentially a smallish example of the Norman Romanesque cathedrals thrown up after the Conquest: dinky compared to Ely, Norwich or Durham. Then, after a fire in 1199 (the usual excuse), the Norman apse (on the St Bartholomew Smithfield/Norwich three chapel plan) was demolished for a retrochoir, which, again, pales in comparison to the slightly later square-ended  explosively ornate eastern extensions of Ely and Lincoln. The Gothic remodelling of the Norman work is also embarrassingly superficial: a few Purbeck shafts stuck into nooks, nothing like the modernity lashed out of Gloucester choir and Worcester nave in the fourteenth century. The weirdest thing about it is it has a set of buttress chapels added to the nave in the thirteenth century: very common in France, but unique in England, possibly because it interferes with the dado arcading (and we LOVE dado arcading).

Chichester Cathedral

Elevation of the early C13 retrochoir


Aftermath of the spire collapse, 1861

Norman cathedral crossing towers falling down is not unique either, but Chichester was the only one to have it happen in the modern age. In 1861, the crossing piers started to buckle and then the spire spectacularly collapsed in on itself, bringing down the whole central tower and the first bay of the choir to its east. Luckily, with can-do-attitude, George Gilbert Scott came along and built another one. This does mean a large chunk of the middle of the Cathedral is a replica, and while it’s easy to spot, it’s remarkably cohesive.

But this is what makes Chichester a really interesting building – it is an everyman cathedral. And that is why it is very appropriate that the Buildings of England account is mostly written not by my usual guide through churches, the German art historian émigré Nikolaus Pevsner, but by Ian Nairn, to whom Pevsner delegated the western half of the Sussex volume. Nairn was much more of a critic and populist than Pevsner, sensitive to the everyday and the townscape. This does mean that the account of Chichester has a slightly different character to the other cathedral towns of England.

Chichester Cathedral

Late C13 sculpture high up in the triforium spandrels in the retrochoir

Pevsner modestly claims Nairn’s writing to be far superior to his own in the Sussex introduction, with a caveat that he may have interfered in his text to pander to those “fervently interested in mouldings”. Thus Nairn begins with an “aesthetic summary”, where he actually considers the whole building rather than just diving in for the earliest Norman nook-shaft. Also, Nairn appears to amplify the charming idiosyncracies of the BoE, so sometimes, it’s hard to tell if it’s a pastiche of Pevsner, or Herr Doktor has snuck in one of his own paragraphs. First there’s the long mulling of dates and construction sequences, question marks with no actual answer, such as the date of the strange chevron of the vault in the north-east transept chapel.

Chichester Cathedral

Nave elevation

Then there’s the injections of Empathy Theory: Nairn constantly speaks of  rhythm, descriptions that inject anthropomorphic motion into an inanimate object, a tactic Pevsner learnt from his mentor, the great art historian Heinrich Wolfflin. He is sensitive to the building, and assumes that the architects who added to it were too, respecting and adding to its character with the style of their own age. And then there’s the cheeky asides. Robert Willis, the mid-nineteenth-century architectural historian antiquarians loved to hate (because he had a tendency towards being right) observes the nave must had a revised plan because he measured the piers and arches and found a discrepancy between the fifth and sixth bays. “God bless him” adds Nairn. Such objective methods would be entirely alien to his, and also to Pevsner’s, much more aesthetic approach. It is of course, the sort of thing the art historians today are expected to do. God bless Robert Willis indeed.


Bishop's Palace, ChichesterBishop's Palace, ChichesterBishop's Palace, Chichester
I had got up bloody early to go to Chichester, but I could have frankly stayed in bed and had a cup of tea because the first train from Waterloo I tried to catch was cancelled due to vandals on the line, and then the back-up train with a change at Three Bridges was delayed, missing the connection, essentially losing me an hour. But while sitting on the platform at Three Bridges, I realised that I had not fixed up to go into the Bishop’s Palace next to the Cathedral. I rang up the Cathedral, they put me through to the Palace, I asked how hard it was to get in, and how about this afternoon, and the chaplain said this was fine! So after my tour of the Cathedral architecture, I went into the Bishop’s Palace. First, along with a lady who was lucky enough to be granted permission to hold an event there, we saw the Tudor parlour with its ceiling by Lambert Bernard, an early sixteenth-century English painter. He’s more of an “and decorator” type rather than an English Michelangelo before you get too excited, but did a lot of work in the Cathedral: he redid its vaults with Flemish-style ornament (one bay survives in the Lady Chapel), and some cigarette-card style pictures of all the bishops of Chichester and other scenes in the Cathedral transepts (collect ’em all).

Bishop's Palace, ChichesterBishop's Palace, ChichesterBishop's Palace, Chichester

But the real reason to get in the palace is to see the Bishop’s Chapel. This all visitors will walk past when they visit the Cathedral, it’s an unassuming box to the south of the west front, with fourteenth-century curvilinear windows. However, going in through the door from the Palace, it reveals itself as a two-bay tour-de-force of the early thirteenth century, with magnificent rib-vaults and corbels as lush as anything in Ely retrochoir. Yet the main treasure is a miraculous survival on the south wall. The Chichester Roundel, star of many an English Medieval Art History textbook, is an extraordinary mid thirteenth-century painting with all the delicacy of a manuscript, and the materials; gold, lapis lazuli and silver, to match. There is a sweet, if stilted affection between mother and child, as if they are two awkward Romanesque actors cast in a Gothic romance and not quite confident enough to the intimate performance. But the decorative borders and technique are stunning. It was a pleasure to see, but I did have a barely-supressable urge to unscrew the perspex.


Guildhall (Greyfriars), ChichesterGuildhall (Greyfriars), ChichesterGuildhall (Greyfriars), Chichester
Next up was the Greyfriars in Priory Park. Now known as the Guildhall, as it passed to civic ownership at the Dissolution, it is open some Saturdays, but usually kept locked. Built in the 1280s, it is the only roofed former Franciscan building in England. It’s one of those puzzles that although it looks like it should have had a nave and the crossing piers are blocked up, it may be it never was any longer than it is now, but of course all the cloisters and such have gone. Inside it is stark, austere, but through choice, not poverty, a very powerful building. I had never seen the sedilia group, which is always an exciting experience. There is no drain in that niche to the right, so who knows what it was for.


Chichester, St Mary's HospitalChichester, St Mary's HospitalChichester, St Mary's Hospital
Then it was over to St. Mary’s Hospital, founded by the dean and chapter of the Cathedral. The “nave”, or really the former ward, is an enormous space with an impressive timber roof, now subdivided into individual almshouses with chimneys that tower up through the roof like a substitute arcade, which you walk past like a little street up to the chancel. Here was another set of sedilia I had never seen, and also some remarkable choir stalls dating with the rest of the building to the 1290s, extraordinarily early for church furniture. The most charming thing was the grotesque stop on the end of the piscina. Anathema to the Franciscans over in Priory Park no doubt, it is very affecting how one mason’s essentially silly little idea has survived the centuries to amuse me and countless others who come in here. Very cute.

Chichester, St Mary's Hospital

Carved stop to piscina in St. Mary’s Hospital. 1290s.


A quick perambulation around Chichester (I did not have time to see the Stanley Spencer paintings from Sandham Memorial Chapel at Pallant House: not when I’d seen them for free at Somerset House many times anyway), I returned to the Cathedral for the monuments and fittings. Nairn here eschews Pevsner’s east-to-west schema and instead takes us on a circuit round the perimeter. Again, even by Pevsner’s standards, he is delightfully opinionated. A “really terrible Flaxman“. Bishop Story’s tomb is of “no special effort extended by the shop-workers”. Graham Sutherland is “too self-conscious”: not his fault, but of the “inertia that has sat on the Church of England for a century”. Bishop Sherbourne’s monument “could have been carved out of cheese”. And of course, stained glass by Kempe, “terrible.” (That one never below Pevsner either)


The Raising of Lazarus, from an early twelfth-century choir screen at Chichester Cathedral

Chichester Cathedral

Mary and Martha witnessing the raising of their brother Lazarus (BEHIND PERSPEX)

But there are two very important works of art in the Cathedral. The first are the Chichester reliefs. These were part of the original Noman choir screen, and were found attached to the piers of the crossing in 1829. Thank goodness they moved them before the tower fell down. Unfortunately, they are disgracefully imprisoned behind very cheap, reflective perspex which both a barrier to photography and experience: a rope would be preferable (partly because I’d just look over my shoulder and duck under it for a minute). Nairn is very moved by these, and so was I, as well as countless English artists such as Sutherland and John Piper. He tries to compare the tortured faces of Mary and Martha reacting to the stone-cold stinking Lazarus’ miraculous reanimation to Grunewald, but such anachronism demonstrates that the expression that comes out of the sculpted actors almost reaches beyond Style to a region of emotion that one can truly call poetic.


Chichester Cathedral

Monument to Richard Fitzalan and wife. Late C14.

The other work of important work of art is poetic in another way, the monument to Richard Fitzalan d.1376 and his wife Eleanor. Not in itself: it’s a disappointingly stodgy, run-of-the-mill double effigy, only notable for the rather unusual conceit of their holding hands (although the whole piece of the joined hands is restored). “What went on in the minds of the designers as they made their hundreds of standard effigies?” remarks Nairn in 1965, stuck for anything to say. But what is important is that the poet Philip Larkin  must have seen this effigy about the same time as Nairn, for it inspired An Arundel Tomb in his 1964 collection The Whitsun Weddings. Larkin was just as baffled by this rather unconvincing display of affection, but rather than moving on to be rude about the E. W. Carew monument in the next chapel, he wrote an enduring poem about time, entropy and our delusions about the power of love.

blogs are a load of crap

An Arundel Fridge Magnet. Early C21.

I went into the cloisters gift shop in hope that they had a Chichester Roundel mug like I had seen in the Bishop’s Palace. Apparently this was an exclusive episcopal product, but I did find something even better. Earl Fitzalan and his wife had been made into this wonderful little kitsch souvenir (in the shop itself, an uncommon bargain at 75p). To think, their memory endures next to hundreds of Whirlpool logos and over countless till receipts because they had decided to plump the extra mark for the “hand-holding” model on their visit to John Mason’s tombe shoppe. Their final blazon: what will remain of us is a fridge magnet.

Flickr set, with the Cathedral pedantically following the BoE description. I lost the captions for the first part of the Cathedral and had to do them again, so I hope someone, some day, finds my labelling of things like the north-east crossing pier helpful.

Perambulating Picardy: A Gothic pilgrimage round north-east France

Looking at manuscripts in Arras with Prof. John Lowden

Looking at manuscripts in Arras with Prof. John Lowden

Each year, the Courtauld Institute has a joint meeting with Lille and Leuven Universities, and this time it was the turn of the French to host, and I was invited along. In between two days of papers which managed to provoke some interesting discussions and sharing of ideas,  we visited the new Louvre outpost at Lens, and then Arras to view some Carolingian, Romanesque and Gothic manuscripts. It was a rewarding few days, but really for me it was an excellent opportunity to get under the channel and do a trip round the area to actually see some Gothic architecture in the place where it all began. Four nights, five cathedral towns: Rheims, Soissons, Laon, Noyon and Amiens…



Rheims Cathedral, begun 1210. Choir.

Rheims Cathedral, begun 1210. Choir.

So from Lille I took an evening train via Charlesville-Meziers (where, in my hour’s change over, I found a C15 Flamboyant church in the dark, the lights were on but no one was home) to Rheims. I found the Cathedral in the early morning light and watched it slowly emerge in its pointy splendor. The coronation church of the French monarchy, this early thirteenth-century Cathedral is the birthplace of bar tracery, where the window heads are subdivided into skeletal shapes, leading to a whole new concept of surface ornament. Indeed, my interest in Gothic is often a little obsessed with linear forms, and it is the sheer scale of Rheims Cathedral and everything about it that impresses. The experience of these forms, and subsequently, the spaces they create, at their actual size that is a vital part of their meaning, and why it is borderline preposterous to write anything about these buildings without having been in them.

Gargoyles choked with lead from burnt-off roof, preserved in Palace of Tau museum

Gargoyles choked with lead from burnt-off roof, preserved in Palace of Tau museum

It’s a little harrowing however how little of Rheims is left. The roof was burnt off when the Cathedral got caught up in the First World War, and the gargoyles choked with the resulting lead vomit one of the most shocking things in the Palace of Tau next door. Yet also, many of the exterior sculptures are gradually being replaced with facsimiles, and removed from their original context into the museum they seem like idolatrous pagan  giants, including the quite incredible and massive scene of the Coronation of the Virgin from over the central portal of the facade. Once again, it is the size that it is incommunicable outside of experience.

Romanesque and Gothic in the nave of Saint-Remi, Rheims

Romanesque and Gothic in the nave of Saint-Remi, Rheims

Rheims Cathedral is largely the result of one campaign, unlike most English Cathedrals. Much more of a puzzle along the lines I am used to back home is the Abbey of Saint Remi not far south of the centre. This is a Romanesque church remodelled into pointed, with a pure Early Gothic twelfth-century chevet of the kind of Saint Germain-des-Pres and St. Martin des Champs in Paris. Opened by an elderly gentleman with a cane at ten to seven, I spent a most rewarding hour or so investigating its pier forms to see how they came to a solution for renovating this church.

St Jacques, Rheims. Nave elevation

St Jacques, Rheims. Nave elevation

Even more obscure was the parish church of St. Jacques, which I only learnt about from perusing the guidebooks in the Cathedral shop. Asking for, and following directions in French, I was rewarded with my schoolboy linguistics with a three-storey Gothic nave, a late-Gothic Flamboyant apse and two chapels in a bizarre Renaissance-Gothic hybrid. It was kept open by two welcoming ladies, which as I would find, to be a rather unusual arrangement for parish churches. (Since this doesn’t seem as well documented as other buildings I visited, I’ve uploaded my photos from here)




Facade of Saint-Jean-et-Vignes, Soissons

Facade of Saint-Jean-et-Vignes, Soissons

Next up was Soissons. The plan was to catch a bus to Braine for its Premonstratensian Abbey church, but the bus never materialised, despite numerous enquiries. If anyone know if ligne 560 to Soissons exists, I would be intrigued to learn where I went wrong! So it was a longer way round to Soissons by rail, and arrival at my rather grim highway-side hotel was rather late and I held a bit of a grudge against Soissons subsequently. The town is dominated by the facade of Abbey of St. Jean des Vignes, the rest pulled down at the revolution as it was too much to maintain, but the sculpture and ornament is well preserved.

The south transept at Soissons

The C12 south transept at Soissons

The Cathedral is a high Gothic unity, the generation of the purity (or, depending on your taste, boredom) of Chartres. The only major disruption to this is the somewhat disconcerting apsed and aisled south transept preserved from an earlier building. A very weird feeling, as it seems to provide a climax worthy of an east end, but diminished by a chapel jutting out at an angle. I did find a pointed niche at its entrance that may have been a sedile, although the floor level would need to be higher. I sat in it anyway.

Uncusped tracery in the Abbey of St-Leger, Soissons

Uncusped tracery in the Abbey of St-Leger, Soissons

After a quick peruse of the exterior of the Abbey of Saint-Leger, with uncusped circles in the tracery (a favourite obscure thirteenth-century motif of mine), I felt I had to forgo visiting the museums at these abbeys which did not open til the afternoon and escape Soissons early for Laon.



Laon Cathedral, from the south-west

Laon Cathedral, from the south-west

Laon was probably the most spectacular town on my trip, on top of an immense plateau with the Early Gothic rose of the Cathedral transept beaming north. Of course, the train does not get up there, so it was probably a bad idea when I wandered off to a hideous C19 Neo-Romanesque building and missed out on the funicular railway. The Cathedral is a largely twelfth-century building with a clean, cool atmosphere. You wouldn’t know it to look at it, but the original round east end was extended into a most unFrench flat termination after 1200, the only indication being the change of the triforium capitals from fussy Early Gothic to simple crockets. The Cathedral was also souped up with a Rayonnant remodelling in the transept and the ever-common buttress chapels inserted along its length, which I of course pedantically investigated for piscina and potential seating arrangements.

The Abbey Church of St Martin, Laon

The Abbey Church of St Martin, Laon

Disappointing was the fact that the exceedingly interesting-looking church of St. Martin at the other end of town was locked up. I even asked at the library next door when it reopened after lunch, but apparently it was only open at 17:30 – presumably for Saturday vigil mass. A strange state of affairs considering the large amount of tourist groups visiting the Cathedral.

Fifteenth-century altarpiece from Laon Cathedral in the museum

Fifteenth-century altarpiece from Laon Cathedral in the museum

There was other stuff to see in Laon. The Hotel Dieu, the hospital formerly in front of the Cathedral and now occupied by the tourist office is worth a look, as is the museum, which has a twelfth-century round-naved Templar Church in its grounds, and a nice collection including the wing of an altarpiece from the Cathedral.


St. Jean-Baptise, Laon (new town)

St. Jean-Baptise, Laon (down the hill in the new town). Romanesque facade.

I also found a Romanesque church on the way back down to the hill, but, as usual, not so much as service times outside. Even if you are feeling particularly lingual, adventurous and cheeky abroad, without so much as a priest’s door to knock on, it’s difficult to know where to start getting into a church like this!





Sunday morning sedilia in Laetare Sunday pink vestments in the mid-twelfth century crossing of Noyon

Sunday morning sedilia in Laetare Sunday pink vestments in the mid-twelfth century crossing of Noyon

After the diminishing returns on my hotel rooms since Lille, Noyon was a relief, as I was staying in the budget wing of a relatively posh hotel. Noyon is fairly out-of-the-way and its Cathedral not of the same fame as Rheims or Chartres, but a very important building. Begun 1148, it is perhaps our first extant, unmodified approximation of what the premiere Gothic monument of St-Denis, Paris looked like before it was remodelled in the thirteenth-century. It is a precious survival of Gothic in its most primitive form, when walls were first opened to light and a new concept of shaping space started to emerge. After the over-restored facades of Rheims and Laon, the authenticity of Noyon stands out: there is a large amount of fragmentary polychrome surviving in the church, and the thirteenth-century portals are shocking since nearly every single piece of figural sculpture has been carefully obliterated, leaving only silhouettes and foliage.

C15 south-centre buttress chapel appended to C12 nave of Noyon Cathedral

C15 south-centre buttress chapel appended to C12 nave of Noyon Cathedral

It was also nice to attend Mass at Noyon, in the Chapter House on Saturday night, and for 10:30 High Mass on Sunday morning. Technically Noyon is no longer a Cathedral and only a parish church, so it was no surprise it was all conducted by one Priest with lots of young servers, but had plenty of incense, some nice hymns (“Debout resplendis” was a delight) and a large and reverent congregation. Yet it still felt like a distant echo of what used to go on in the choir behind and the tremendous chapels such as the C16 Flamboyant buttress chapel by the architect Charles de Hangest, if the patronage of the liturgy was even a tiny proportion of what was bestowed upon the architecture.

Ourscamp Abbey, choir, c.1150 (with later clerestory)

Ourscamp Abbey, choir, c.1233-57

Another Gothic delight is a short, or not so short if you’re on foot like muggins here, distance south of the town. The Cisterican Abbey of Ourscamp was founded around the same time Noyon Cathedral was built, and the choir rebuilt in the 1230s with a very restrained vocabulary of forms, making it not too disimiliar to the Early Gothic/Rayonnant hybrid at St-Denis, Paris. The pockets of the vaults were removed in the eighteenth century leaving only the ribs to improve its picturesque quality as a ruin, and this skeletal beauty is testament to the Gothic system. Worth the four miles walk, I think, if a little trying for the four miles back.



Amiens facade in the evening light

Amiens facade in the evening light

Finally on my gruelling Gothic quest came Amiens. We are now back to the early thirteenth-century spatial triumphalism of Rheims, but here with a choir superstructure of the 1250s that shows the beginnings of the self-referentialism of Gothic: once purely structural forms like gables are now used decoratively, resulting in the dreamy fantasy of the cosmic palace of the Heavenly Jerusalem, causing a formal feedback resulting in a delightfully cacophanous harmony of ornament. The facade is a sublime masterpiece of The Gothic, with the whole solution of our existence sculpted in stone across its surface. The Cathedral is also a bit of an oddity in France due to the amount of interesting stuff in it. While many English Cathedrals have bishop’s tombs, choir stalls and other furniture, the disestablishment of the whole Church in France means much of this stuff went at the Revolution. Amiens has all this and more: the fifteenth-century sculptural narratives are of absolutely remarkable quality, with incident, psychology and most of all, impressive skill that is characteristic of the late Gothic artisan.

Saint-Leu, Amiens. C15 Flamboyant Style church to west of Cathedral.

Saint-Leu, Amiens. C15 Flamboyant Style church to west of Cathedral.

Otherwise Amiens was a disappointment. Unavoidably, I was there on a Monday, which is a no-no for an art historian on the continent, as it tends to be galleries-and-museums-shut day. The churches were also all locked without so much as a sign with its dedication outside. It is surprising for a Catholic country how many of the churches are treated as “historic monuments”, and just sit there in the urban fabric with no real life or presence inside them. Services often seem to take place within, and in spite, of them, with no real community keeping them alive. I am sure there are exceptions, but French churches seem much more unloved than English ones.

Cheap 'n' nasty Lille Cathedral, 1850s.

Cheap ‘n’ nasty Lille Cathedral, 1850s.

Anyway, it was back to Lille for a look in the Cathedral, entirely rebuilt as a triumphal Catholic gesture in the 1850s on the site of a demolished collegiate church. It is a horrible, stodgy lump of a thing, like someone had poured concrete on top of the classic radiating chapel plan, sticking some ever-cheap plate tracery in the windows and giving it some strange galleries that look like something off a Brutalist car park. It doesn’t even have a rib-vault over the main vessel. It was irretrievably mechanical and depressing, especially after the tour d’forces of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries of the last few days. So quickly it was down to the Beaux Arts museum for some more authentic Gothic in the form of Netherlandish sculpture as well as some fine paintings before home on the 20:30 Eurostar. It was an ambitious few days, and although I prefer the smaller and more obscure to the famous and top-tier, it proved an unparalleled learning experience of the Gothic.

I will upload images to this Flickr set, but possibly not all because I think a few people have been to these buildings with a camera.