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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Lanercost Priory: Undercroft

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Beneath the refectory (dining room) in the south cloister range at Lanercost Priory is the vaulted undercroft. Originally divided in two, the undercroft was built during the mid 13th century and provided plenty of space for storage of food and drink. The last three bays were known as the warming room, the only place the canons were allowed to keep warm in front of a fire. As with the other monastic buildings at the priory, the undercroft is constructed of dressed sandstone and originally lay beneath the refectory which was a victim of the Dissolution.

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Providing a practical way for masons to identify which pieces of masonry they have produced, the marks of the masons were used both as a way for masons to ensure they were paid for their work and as a quality control. Many such marks (above and below) can be found on numerous stones around the priory.

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The marks of the masons provide us with evidence for the working practices of the highly-skilled and able men who constructed the magnificent stone structures of the past. The marks were put on the stone for entirely practical reasons and in answer to the particular needs of the industry. Most masons only worked on site between the spring and the autumn and work was scaled right down during the winter when it was not possible to build for fear of frost damaging the partially complete structure.

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Archaeological excavations in 1994 recorded eighty seven masons marks with tooling marks evident on most of the masonry wall blocks. The position of the marks on the lower courses of the wall above the foundations suggest that they are related to the first phases of construction of the priory church in circa 1200 A.D. We may not be able to identify, or name, all the masons from their marks but we can use them to deepen our understanding of their work and appreciate more the buildings that they helped to create.

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The undercroft contains replicas of Roman altars and tombstones found near Lanercost over the last 200 years. The above relief sculpture depicts Hercules on the left and Jupiter on the right. A similar relief was found in 1821 at Birdoswald Roman Fort and a more detailed description can be found in my earlier post entitled Gilsland: Birdoswald Relief Carving (July).

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The above altar is dedicated “To Jupiter, Best and Greatest, the First Aelian Cohort of Dacians… willingly and deservedly fulfiled its vow, with (…) rinus, beneficiarius, in charge of the work.” The Province of Dacia was situated in Romania and a beneficiarius was someone who had been seconded for special duties.

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The above altar is “To the god Cocidius the soldiers of the Twentieth Legion Valeria Victrix willingly and deservedly fulfiled their vow in the consulship of Apr… and Ruf…” Cocidius was a native god and is identified with the Roman gods Mars and Silvanus. This altar was dedicated in AD 153. On the left hand side is a jug and on the right is a dish for pouring the libation or offering on to the top of the altar. A wild boar, symbol of the Twentieth Legion, is portrayed on the base of the altar. This altar was found in the foundations of Milecastle 52 at Bankshead.

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The above altar is “To the god Cocidius the soldiers of the Second Legion Augusta willingly and deservedly fulfiled their vow.” This altar was also found in the foundations of Milecastle 52 at Bankshead.

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The above altar is “To the holy god Cocidius, Annius Victor, legionary centurion.” The cult of Cocidius was limited to north Britain and most of the dedications to him come from Hadrian’s Wall or its vicinity.

New Abbey: Sweetheart Abbey

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The ingenious wheel window in the south transept

Located on the eastern edge of the village of New Abbey stands an impressive shrine to human and divine love. The ruin of Sweetheart Abbey sits between the grey granite bulk of Criffel and the waters of the Solway Firth. Lord John Balliol of Barnard Castle died in 1268 and his grieving widow, Lady Dervorgilla of Galloway, had his heart embalmed and put into an ivory casket. Dervorgilla undertook many charitable acts which included establishing the Cistercian abbey of Sweetheart, not far from her home at Buittle Castle. When she died in 1289 her body and her husband’s heart were buried there.

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View from the west front towards the presbytery

Established in 1273, the abbey was a daughter house of Dundrennan Abbey near kirkcudbright and was devoted to the worship of God. While builders were still working on the abbey church, the Wars of Independence erupted and after 50 years of bloodshed, the monastery was in a poor state of repair. The new lord of Galloway, Archibald Douglas ‘the Grim’, had the abbey repaired but thereafter little is heard of the abbey until its demise following the Protestant Reformation of 1560. Despite the prolonged wars with England, much of the abbey survives almost entire providing a lasting testament to the monastic ideal that was of such pivotal importance in the medieval age.

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The crossing tower

The site of the abbey was perfect for the Cistercian way of life with shelter provided by rising ground to the west with fertile land drained into a slow winding burn, Abbey Pow, and a neighbouring loch provided water for drinking, flushing toilets and powering corn mills. A little over a mile from the abbey was a safe natural harbour for ships bringing in building materials and other provisions and carrying away the produce of the monastery’s granges (estate centres).

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View along the nave to the west front

The abbey church at Sweetheart, in common with all Cistercian churches, was dedicated to St Mary the Virgin. It was planned in the shape of a cross and divided up into different areas including the presbytery, monks’ choir, transepts and nave. A pulpitum (timber screen) to the west of the central crossing divided the long church into two with the presbytery and monks’ choir to the east and the nave to the west. The west front and upper part of the nave were only built in the later 14th century as a result of the Wars of Independence interrupting the building schedule.

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The wheel window in the west front

The abbey would have been designed by a master mason appointed by the abbot. The builders lived in temporary wooden huts as did the monks themselves until their new home was ready. The land was cleared of granite boulders which were used to build the precinct wall, the domestic buildings and the cores of the church walls. The red sandstone for the church and for the window and door surrounds in the cloister buildings was brought from nearby quarries. Oak for the roof and fir trees for scaffolding may have been imported by sea. Although the building has beautiful stone tracery in the windows, Cistercian austerity is evident in the planning of the building. There is no triforium and the tower over the crossing was deliberately kept low in deference to a ban in 1157 on bell towers. The battlements and gables above the tower were added much later.

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Stone boss bearing the Douglas arms in the vaulting of the south transept chapel

The stone tracery in the presbytery windows demonstrates the influence of the style of Gothic architecture which developed in France in the 1230’s. The presbytery, in the east end, was the most sacred part of the church where the high altar was situated. In the vaulted ceiling of the south transept chapel (above) is a stone boss bearing two croziers in saltire together with a heart and three stars (the Douglas arms). This is evidence that the abbey church was repaired by the Douglas family after the Wars of Independence. The nave is six bays long and aisled down both sides. The phased construction of the abbey church is visible not only in the clerestory, where the two eastern windows are of a different design from the other ‘eyebrow’ windows (below), but also in the arcade where the moulded capitals on top of the two eastern pillars have simple mouldings while the four western ones have carved foliage.

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‘Eyebrow’ windows along the top of the nave

The monks who built Sweetheart Abbey were Cistercians. The order was founded in 1098 at Citeaux, near Dijon in France, by monks desiring to return to a purer observance of the monastic rule compiled by Benedict of Nursia for his monastery at Monte Cassino in Italy in around 540. The Cistercians, or ‘white monks’ as they were known from the colour of their habit, first arrived in Scotland from Rievaulx settling in Melrose in the eastern borders in 1136. Sweetheart Abbey was the last of 12 Cistercian monasteries set up in Scotland.

 

Egglestone Abbey

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East range with Chapter House

On the southern bank of the River Tees stand the ruins of Egglestone Premonstratensian Abbey. The church and cloister was a small narrow building and was first constructed in 1195-1225. In circa 1250, the presbytery was rebuilt and the nave enlarged. The north and west walls of the nave are the only surviving parts of the original church.

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The Abbey was founded between 1195 – 1198, by the de Multon family, for Premonstratensian canons and was constructed of squared stone and rubble. The cruciform plan church almost lost its Abbey status as a result of the poverty suffered by the canons throughout their history. Known as ‘white monks’, the Canons undertook preaching and pastoral work in the region but followed the Cistercian rule of austerity.

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East end of the 13th century church

The five light east window (above) consists of four tall straight moulded mullions with no tracery.

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After the Dissolution in 1538, the north and east ranges were converted to a manorial hall by Robert Strelley. Dating to the mid 16th century, the east range of the cloister (above) was of three storeys and features a first floor fireplace with a flat pointed head with the remains of a warming house fireplace on the ground floor.

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East range groin-vaulted rere-dorter undercroft

The Abbey was sold in 1770 to John Morritt of Rokeby Hall with his descendant placing the ruins in state guardianship in 1925.

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The ruins of Egglestone Abbey are a Scheduled Ancient Monument and Grade I Listed.

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Ely: Cathedral of the Holy Trinity

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Construction of the monastic church in Ely began in 1083 under the leadership of the Abbot Simeon, who was a kinsman of William the Conquerer. The church became a cathedral in 1109 with completion of the building in its present form by 1350.

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Also known as the Ship of the Fens, the cathedral is constructed of ashlar faced Barnack limestone. Flying buttresses support the 12th century exterior which retains numerous carved figure heads and grotesques adorning the towers with pinnacles.

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The cathedral contains early Norman to late Perpendicular examples of Gothic architecture with windows of several architectural styles which have been added throughout the course of its history.

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The 12th century Norman nave features a ceiling of painted panels which depict the history of man with figures of patriarchs, prophets and evangelists. The painting of the nave ceiling was started during the Victorian restoration of the building by the amateur artist Henry Styleman Le Strange in 1858 and following his death in 1862, the painting was completed by the English artist Thomas Gambicr Parry in 1865.

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Arcades of undecorated columns line the aisles with floor tiles which date to the 19th century restorations.

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The richly decorated pulpit dates to the 19th century Victorian restorations under the direction of architect Sir George Gilbert Scott.

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Beautiful vaulted ceilings adorn the cathedral interior which rise up from wall shafts between the windows. The Cathedral of the Holy Trinity is Grade I Listed.

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Lichfield: College & Library

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Located on The Friary is Lichfield College and Library. Dating to circa 1295, the buildings were part of the Franciscan Friary which was first established in circa 1237. The brick and ashlar buildings feature gables, casement, sash and oriel windows and mullions.

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The Friary buildings were purchased in 1538 by a leading Lichfield figure, Gregory Stonynge, after the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. Retaining some of the Friary buildings, Stonynge converted them into a large house. The site was extended in 1921-28 by Colonel GC Lowbridge who was the county and Staffordshire Education Committee architect. Now home to the college and library, the buildings are Grade II listed.

Barrow in Furness: Furness Abbey

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Furness Abbey was founded in 1127 by monks belonging to the Savigniac Order. The Savigniac Order was part of the great monastic reform movement which spread throughout Europe during the 12th century. Savigniac abbeys followed the Benedictine layout and were self contained complexes for self sufficient communities. The church at Furness had an open plan with side chapels accessed through arches within the presbytery walls. Excavations at Furness have revealed the 900 year old foundations of the Savigniac presbytery and confirm that the east end was apsidal, which was normal for Savigniac church architecture.

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Constructed of red sandstone, the abbey became part of the Cistercian Order in 1147. The Cistercian Order was the monastic powerhouse of the Middle Ages and while both orders shared similar spiritual ideals, the Cistercians were more austere which led to major architectural differences. The Cistercians demolished most of the east end of the church including the transepts and presbytery rebuilding it in a much plainer style.

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The church was rebuilt with Early Gothic style pointed arches and each of the transepts having three chapels. The church decoration was sparse in comparison with the richly decorative Savigniac architecture. The remains of the abbey include the east end and west tower of the church, cloister buildings and ornately decorated chapter house. Furness Abbey is Grade I Listed and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

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