Durham Cathedral: Cloister

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Durham cathedral is described as “the finest and most complete of all the Norman cathedrals surviving in Britain” (Tatton-Brown, 1989). The location of the building is high above the River Wear making its magnificent setting very striking. Bishop William of St Calais decided to build a new cathedral in 1092 resulting in the complete demolition of the existing church on the site which had been built almost a century before. The first foundation trenches for the new church were dug on 29th July 1093, in the presence of the bishop and the prior, and on 11 August the first stones were ceremoniously laid. When Bishop William died in 1096 the monks carried on the building work and after Rannulf Flambard was made bishop in 1099, the church was “made as far as the nave” (Chronicle of Simeon of Durham, c1104-1108). The coffin of St Cuthbert was moved to its new resting place within the eastern apse on 29th August 1104 and the 12th century English historian William of Malmesbury tells us that “there was a premature but harmless collapse of the centring upon which the vault over the east end was erected.” The walls of the nave were complete “up to the covering” (Chronicle of Simeon of Durham, c1104-1108) when Bishop Flambard died in 1128 and work was completed during the course of the next five years. It is thought likely that Durham was the first great cathedral in Europe to be vaulted throughout and the spectacular structure was constructed within a period of forty years ((Tatton-Brown, 1989).

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The plan of Durham cathedral is uniform throughout and is based on the plan of Lanfranc’s cathedral at Canterbury some twenty years earlier. The technological high point of English Romanesque architecture was fully embodied at Durham. At a time when many new ideas were reaching north west Europe from the east, and following the period of the First Crusade, the masons skilfully introduced remarkable innovations. With the introduction of new building techniques, the massive solid early Norman structures were gradually enhanced with much more decorated and beautiful buildings of the High Romanesque architecture of the 12th century. Benedictine cathedral monasticism drew to a close at the beginning of the 12th century and was followed by the Cistercians who started to build churches in a very different way.

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Needless to say, the materials that a building is constructed from will play an important part in its visual impact. Durham cathedral is constructed of dressed sandstone and as Clifton-Taylor (1983) notes, a building of stone “has something of the monument about it.” The Conquest effected a revolution in English stone building when the Norman prelates required enormous churches and the stonemasons of the Middle Ages were among the best paid and most highly regarded of all workers. These trained craftsmen were needed in huge numbers during an incredible age for building and with many of the finest cathedrals and castles dating to the Norman period, numerous masons were Norman French arriving in England to undertake the vast scale of architectural work of the period. Many architectural terms are of French origin and are a direct result of the introduction of the Norman stonemasons’ words. The standardization of building units is of Norman influence and the glorious art and architecture of the 700 years that followed was equally met by the craftsmanship of the stonemasons. The master mason was for many centuries considered the key figure of building construction. Supervising the works and often assuming the role of architect before architecture became a separate profession, the master masons were under direct control of the Crown, the church and high dignitaries. They were responsible for overseeing the quarrying of the stone, arranging transportation to site, preparing full scale layouts (drawings) and working the building stone entirely by hand (Clifton-Taylor, 1983).

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On the south side of Durham Cathedral is the cloister. From the Latin ‘claustrum’, meaning enclosed space, the word cloister generally refers to the covered ambulatory around a monastery or college quadrangle. Benedictine and Cistercian cloisters were very often majestic in scale compared to those of the Franciscans which were of more modest proportions (Jenner, 1993). Although construction began in 1093, when the cathedral was begun, the buildings contained within the cloister date from the 15th century and later. In monastic cathedrals such as Durham, the cloister was at the heart of a complex of buildings which included the chapter house, dormitory and refectory. Once built, a cathedral would have been profusely decorated with stained glass, sculpture and wall paintings (Tatton-Brown, 1989). Window tracery was an exacting task for banker masons with nearly all designs rooted in geometry. At the Reformation, and again during the Cromwellian period, such ornamentation was considered to be heretical and idolatrous resulting in widespread destruction. Clifton-Taylor (1974) describes the destruction of medieval stained glass as “the greatest calamity that has ever befallen English art.” The Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century by Henry VIII was far more than an act of ecclesiastical reform. The period also saw the most radical redistribution of land ownership since the Norman Conquest despite Henry VIII’s principle policy of destroying monastic buildings being motivated by his desire to acquire their valuable fittings (Jenner,1993). As it was not possible to destroy all the hundreds of abbeys, priories and friaries which had been built over so many centuries, thankfully the ruinous beauty and majesty of monastic architecture can still be appreciated.

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Often covering the intersection of vaulting or a ceiling intersect, roof bosses are a prolific feature at Durham Cathedral. The wooden ceiling above the arcades in the cloister is richly ornamented with these beautiful architectural features which would originally have been brightly coloured. With the advent of Gothic architecture, these decorative bosses became widespread and are often elaborately carved with foliage, heraldic shields, animals and grotesques. Not only was their purpose to cover a joint, in stone or wood, the boss could be applied when the structure was complete or be an integral part of the structure. The bosses, capitals and ornamentation surrounding windows was the responsibility of the carver who was usually trained in a masons’ yard (Clifton-Taylor, 1983). Several wooden benches are all that now furnish the cloister yet walking along the arcades and looking out onto the grass courtyard, there’s an ambience that takes you back to the hustle and bustle of times long since passed.

The lack of comfort and extremely cold temperatures in some of our religious buildings is humourously noted in 1771 by Tobias Smollett in The Expedition of Humphry Clinker: 

“the builder’s intention fhould be to keep the people dry and warm – For my part, I never entered the Abbey church at Bath but once, and the moment I flept over the threfhold, I found myself chilled to the very marrow of my bones – When we confider, that in our churches, in general, we breathe a grofs ftagnated air, furcharged with damps from vaults, tombs, and charnel-houfes, may we not term them fo many magazines of rheums, created for the benefit of the medical faculty? and fafely aver, that more bodies are loft, than souls faved, by going to church, in the winter efpecially, which may be faid to engrofs eight months in the year. I fhould be glad to know, what offence it would give to tender confciences, if the houfe of God was made more comfortable, or lefs dangerous to the health of valetudinarians; and whether it would not be an encouragement to piety, as well as the falvation of many lives, if the place of worfhip was well floored, wainfcotted, warmed, and ventilated, and its area kept facred from the pollution of the dead.”

Durham Cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Grade I Listed.

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