Saturday, January 07, 2017

Not Just a Big Church: a Building Site

  As we visit the great churches of yore, whether they are still in use or exist as mere ruins, we see a distorted image of how these buildings actually functioned in the middle ages. They are serene, eternal somehow, decorously quiet except for the sounds of worship, largely monochromatic. They display tangled threads of chronology, as the work of various eras is knitted together. They reflect the end point of something that has evolved. The potential for anachronism when looking at them historically is enormous.

  Every time I see an article about St Hilda illustrated with an image of the much later Gothic ruins of Whitby Abbey, which didn't have any nuns in it and was massively more huge than its Anglo-Saxon predecessor, I feel a (possibly unreasonable) urge to scream. Yes, it does engender a sense of place, but not a very accurate sense of time or circumstance.
  I intend to write a series of posts about how various kinds of medieval buildings, while being beautiful things to cherish and admire, can give us a distorted idea of what these buildings were about in their heyday, and how they themselves changed during the course of their use. This first episode is about the myth of timeless serenity as these massive monuments were constantly under reconstruction, using slow and laborious building methods that meant that many of them were building sites for years, They reverberated not just to the gentle chanting of the offices of monks or canons, but the ring of hammers and chisels, the groaning of winches, the crash of occasional accidents and no doubt the cursing of workers.

  Take a very famous example, York Minster, which has an early English south transept with narrow lancets and a wheel window.

  Then there is the famous Decorated heart of Yorkshire west window set in a much more elaborated setting.

  The great Perpendicular east window is a massive expanse of glass on the outside and an amazing stained glass picture gallery on the inside. The building has become bigger, brighter, lighter.

  Underneath, the Norman crypt is the only evidence for a whole earlier building of which nothing survives above ground, apart from a couple of little isolated stained glass panels. This does not simply mean that the building had periods of change over time. It also means it had extended periods, years and decades, when there was noise and dust and scaffolding and horses and bullocks all around and lumps of partially carved stone lying all over the place. Masons and painters and gilders and glaziers would have been climbing over everything. Presumably the canons and priests just hung in there and did their best.
  This is not the image we have as we potter respectfully through the building today. Indeed, there have been periods of major repair even in my lifetime's experience of York Minster.

  In 1973, great metal braces held up the southwest tower and there was scaffolding all over the place because of major fears for the foundations. Later the south transept burnt out and was inaccessible for a number of years while they repaired it. These were regarded as aberrations caused by time and circumstance, and were dealt with using modern machinery and building practices. In fact, during the medieval era such disruptions must have been just part of the regular rhythm of life. They did not occur in order to restore the building to some conception of an older ideal state, but to upsize and improve it. The building was not static. It was in a constant state of change and chaos.

  Most major churches have had something of a similar history; building, enlarging, accidental destruction by fire, earthquake or human miscalculation, more building, rebuilding, deliberate destruction due to political or religious strife, reconstruction. They look like big, solid, static things but they are living organisms. One of the most peculiar histories is that of Cologne Cathedral. Please pardon the qualities of the photos here, but they were taken during the winter solstice in the evening because I was actually there to do something else in the brief hours of daylight.
  There are folks who will tell you that Cologne Cathedral is not a medieval church at all, as it was largely built in the 19th century. That is only sort of true. With its strange history, it is as much a symbol of place as Whitby Abbey is of the history of the English church.
  It was a Christian site from the 4th century, and remains of a 6th century freestanding baptistery survive. The old cathedral was completed in 818. It acquired the relics of the Magi in 1164, taken from Milan by Friedrich Barbarossa and given to them as a nice little earner. That was how big churches funded their improvements, by promoting pilgrimage to sacred relics. Never mind any dubious aspect to the provenance. It burned down in 1248. However, unlike Chartres, they didn't manage to use their relics and resources to rebuild rapidly. It actually took until 1880 to finish the job. The sequence in which it happened perhaps gives us a peep at what these massive buildings were like during their phases of reconstruction.

  The eastern end, with the apse, was built first in the Gothic style, very French in conception unlike the collection of massive Romanesque churches that adorned Cologne at the time (and still do, despite horrendous circumstances). 

  The vault was one of the tallest in Europe. But this segment sat there detached for centuries. Work on the west front began, but was halted in 1473, with the bottom section of one tower completed. The building was effectively in two bits, with not much connecting them except the lower section of one aisle.

  The building has the French Gothic arrangement of grand portals with narrative sculpture on the tympana, large column figures and smaller figures around the arches, but this one is the only one that was completed in the 15th century. The whole rest of the west end waited for around 400 years to be finished.

From P. Clemen and W. Ewald 1911 Die Kunstdenkmäler der Stadt Köln. Im Auftrage des Provinzialverbandes der Rheinprovinz und mit Unterstützung der Stadt Köln: Düsseldorf, Vol. 3.
  This is an impression of it in the 16th century, almost like two separate skyscrapers overlooking the houses and walls of the town. The diagonal structure on the western tower is a crane that was part of the scenes for centuries.

P. Clemen and W. Ewald 1911 Die Kunstdenkmäler der Stadt Köln. Im Auftrage des Provinzialverbandes der Rheinprovinz und mit Unterstützung der Stadt Köln: Düsseldorf, Vol. 3.

 P. Clemen and W. Ewald 1911 Die Kunstdenkmäler der Stadt Köln. Im Auftrage des Provinzialverbandes der Rheinprovinz und mit Unterstützung der Stadt Köln: Düsseldorf, Vol. 3.

  Before it could be completed, the building was occupied by French Revolutionary troops in 1794, sustaining internal damage. These two early 19th century paintings show the oddness of the building before reconstruction started again in 1842, using a medieval plan of the facade but some modern materials and different stone. I don't know how detailed this medieval plan was, or quite how closely they stuck to it. But the building process lurched into life again.

From F.T. Helmken 1901 The cathedral of Cologne, its history, architecture...legends. A guide for visitors, compiled from historical and descriptive records.. : Cologne.
  This wasn't the end of its troubles, as the use of poor quality stone necessitated repairs and replacements, and then there was the ferocious destruction of the monuments of Cologne in the Second World War. The cathedral was damaged, but it stood. There is a tale that it was deliberately spared, sort of, because Allied bomber pilots used the towers for navigation. If that isn't true, then it makes a good legend. Many stained glass windows and treasures, such as the reliquary of the Magi, had been stashed away for safekeeping and survived.
  See the reliquary here. It's an amazing survival. It is, in fact, the little golden square blob in the picture of the apse above, but I couldn't get any closer because of the Christmas services going on at the time.
  What happened in Cologne Cathedral in the 19th century must have been something of a recapitulation of what went on in other great churches during the multiple rebuildings of the middle ages. We look at those buildings as things complete and try to preserve them. They saw them as aspirational. Many people would not have seen their local great church in any kind of completed state in their lifetime.
  Our concept of how one should behave in a church is also based around its completeness. Lowered voices and respectful behaviour are a response to the enclosure and wholeness of the building as a retreat from everyday life. For great lengths of time, the great churches were busy workplaces, no doubt with their quiet and respectful corners but in other areas buzzing with their connection to the world of work and daily life outside.
  In this sense Cologne Cathedral is very much a medieval church, just displaced by a few centuries. All the great churches have suffered periods of neglect or damage, and times of restoration. None of them is a time capsule.

The historic pictures of Cologne Cathedral here are brought to you courtesy of the wonderful and fabulous Internet Archive.

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