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.

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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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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Furness Abbey: Crosier

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During excavations to investigate the rotting medieval wooden foundations of Furness Abbey, an undisturbed grave of an abbot was discovered in the presbytery, generally reserved for the richest benefactors. The medieval grave contained the remains of an abbot belonging to the Cistercian order which was the most powerful monastic order in England. The grave, which may date to the 11th century, also contained a rare medieval silver-gilt crosier.

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An abbot or bishop usually held a crosier (ecclesiastical ornament) with his left hand and was used at liturgical functions. The head of the crosier is is decorated with gilded silver medallions showing the Archangel Michael defeating a dragon.

Bury St Edmunds: Norman Tower

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Located off Crown Street is the Norman Tower of the former Abbey of St Edmund. Built between 1120 and 1148 under Abbot Anselm, the Tower is constructed of Barnack stone and consists of four stages.

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The Romanesque tower features tall blank arches with colonnettes dividing the window openings.

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The tower was restored by the British architect Lewis Nockalls Cottingham between 1846-1847.

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The interior timber roof beams

The Norman Tower is Grade I Listed and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

Bury St Edmunds: Chapel of the Charnel

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Located within the grounds of the Abbey is the ruins of the Charnel Chapel by the elected 16th Abbot, John of Northwold.

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 Dating to the late 13th century, the Chapel is constructed of rubble flint and stone dressings and features numerous memorial tablets.

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The Chapel was built to store the bones originally buried in the Great Churchyard.

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The Chapel of the Charnel is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and is Grade I listed