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Friday 6 September 2013

Carvings from the last nine hundred years, Bread ovens, Starburst Memorials and grotesques in Bristol Cathedral

Isn't it funny how one can spend years living next to something incredible and yet never take time to see it properly?

Today I visited the Cathedral in the centre of Bristol for only the second time. The main purpose was to see the misericords there, but there were plenty of other things to see as well...

Bristol Cathedral started out as the Abbey of St Augustine, which was founded in about 1140 AD by Robert Fitzhardinge. A lot of the building has been altered since then, but one of the most interesting surviving original parts is the Chapterhouse, which dates to about 1160. This is decorated with beautiful Romanesque carvings and was where the economic and political areas of the abbey's life would have been discussed.

The site was used for worship before the abbey was built, however. During restoration work on the chapterhouse, a stone tablet from Anglo-Saxon times was discovered under the floor. This stone carving dates from just before the Norman Conquest (in 1066) and depicts the 'Harrowing of Hell', with Jesus going to hell to rescue mortal souls sent there. It's one of the most important pieces of Anglo-Saxon art ever found in Britain and is now on display in the Cathedral.

The Cathedral is one of the world's best examples of a medieval 'hall church'. This means that all of the ceilings in the main area of the building (the nave, aisles and quire) are at the same height. This makes the whole building feel 'lighter'. The ceiling vaulting in parts of the cathedral is incredible. Take a close look at this section of the South Choir Aisle shown below, which was built in 1298. The vaulting rises in pyramids off the stone bridges across the aisle:

This vaulting is between the nave and the quire:

The small Berkeley chapel comes off the main area and was the private chapel for the Berkeley family, the descendants of Robert Fitzhardinge. Next to it is a sacristy, where the priests and others would prepare for Masses. It has several interesting features. In the middle is a bread oven. Not what you'd expect within a cathedral but this is where the communion bread was baked.

The ceiling of the sacristy has more fine vaulting; this time 'skeletal', with the ribs of the vaulting not filled in:

Up in one corner, overlooking the Bishop's crozier, is this slightly disturbing caricature. It isn't a waterspouting gargoyle. I wonder why her mouth is so wide open with it's tongue lolling out?

I love looking for the little characters hidden away in corners of these grand buildings by their carvers. Here's a few more to be seen in the Cathedral:

There are some beautiful examples of later carvings too, like this wonderful melancholy Victorian figure:

Like most old churches and cathedrals in Britain, this has had it's share of destruction wreaked upon it. One of the main causes of church demolition in this country, however, didn't have too much impact here. When Henry VIII broke up the Abbey in 1539 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the king decided that it would become one of his 'New Foundation' cathedrals. 

This was probably because Bristol's rich citizens lobbied him successfully. So the cathedral was simply rededicated, to the 'Holy and Undivided Trinity', then carried on with the building unscathed.  The medieval nave was in the process of being rebuilt at the time, but a new nave wasn't completed until G. E. Street designed one and it was constructed in 1868, although he retained and used the remaining medieval features sympathetically in the new structure. Perhaps the fact that the structure was being physically rebuilt on a large scale at the the time of the Dissolution gave Henry a more metaphorical reason to use it for his own plans?

Even though Henry didn't come in heavy-handed, the Puritans in the seventeenth century did. Some tombs still show the scars. See how all the faces on the praying knights at the bottom of this tomb from the early seventeenth century have been smashed off ( but not the face of the woman interred there):

In a chapel, one tomb commemorates how it was 'defac'd in the civil war':

Although other family members nearby seem to have got away fairly unscathed:

Unlike other religious buildings in Britain, the cathedral in Bristol was almost ransacked again in 1831, when rebuilding work was in progress. 

The cathedral's officers had voted against allowing most Bristolian people voting rights (only 6,000 out of a population of 104,000 had a vote at the time) and the angry mob were so incensed that they had to be held back by one of the staff at a doorway (you can bet he wasn't one of the officers that had helped cause the problem in the first place!) . The rioters did a lot of damage to the twelfth-century chapterhouse and it was during the renovation work afterwards that the Anglo-Saxon stone carving shown above was found, so some good came out of it in the end. 

Unfortunately, another example from history of the church being firmly on the side of the wealthy, the unpleasant and the corrupt.  I'm glad, however,  that the cathedral building and its beautiful artworks survived. Quite a few of the rioters didn't, but that's another story.

One end of the South Choir Aisle leads to the Eastern Lady Chapel. It was built in 1298 and has been restored many times, but is very colourful. Perhaps it gives an insight into how all cathedrals may have once looked, brightly painted and gilded?

In one wall is a recessed memorial, which is surrounded by an amazing starburst-shaped surround:


There are more like this along the South Choir Aisle:

The stone carvings in front of them are by Kevin Blockley, the Cathedral's archaeologist. He is based in Wales and was a fellow participant in the Bristol Festival of Stone. Many of the sculptures represent microscopic forms in nature, such as this one that he has carved from Iranian onyx:

As said before though, my main reason to visit was the collection of misericords, which date from 1515-1526 and were installed by order of Abbot Robert Elyot. There's plenty to say about them, so they are covered in another post which you can go to by following this link

1 comment:

  1. Just stumble onto your blog, I will investigate further in future, but thanks for posting the picture of the Anglo-Saxon stone.