02 Nov, 2009

Heavens on earth

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Why visit an art gallery when you can visit a cathedral instead? Jonathan Jones takes a tour of our forgotten masterpieces

There’s a sculpture in Gloucester Cathedral of a youth falling through the air with his arms outstretched, as if he’s trying to fly. A man with a curling beard reaches out, in a futile attempt to catch him. The sculpture is known as the Mason’s Bracket, because the man wears the toolbelt of a mason. It’s an odd little monument that juts out from the wall, with the falling boy carved, cubist style, into its underside. Stand beneath it and look up, and the boy seems to be falling from that great vaulted ceiling high above.

Gloucester was my final stop on a journey around Britain’s cathedrals to experience their artistic marvels. For a second, standing under that boy, all the glories of the cathedral, its ornate patterns and its mighty walls of honey-tinted stone, faded away – and I was left with the image of a medieval building site, and a craftsman seeing his favourite pupil slip and fall to his death. For the Mason’s Bracket is a memorial by the cathedral’s builders to one of their own. What a unique piece of sculpture, I thought. Why had I never heard of it? The Mason’s Bracket has all the makings of an iconic work. People just need to know it exists.

The wonders of Britain’s cathedrals, those great stone edifices pierced by coloured glass that tower over our cities, are about to be celebrated at the V&A. Next month will see the opening of the London museum’s new galleries, built to showcase its outstanding medieval collection. Among its treasures are an enamelled casket, made to hold the relics of Thomas Becket, and decorated with scenes of the 12th-century archbishop’s murder, burial and ascent to heaven, and the ornate Gloucester Candlestick, one of the most sumptuous surviving medieval works in the world. Yet how can we understand such things, made for an age so different from our own? The best way is simply to visit your nearest cathedral. Living theatres of the medieval world, these incredible structures were raised between the 11th and 15th centuries, an age when Christianity – the shared faith of a still deeply primitive Europe – was the prime focus of art.

A stained-glass window or a blank-eyed gothic sculpture may seem baffling when seen in a museum, but they have a completely different quality in the setting for which they were designed. Cathedrals are not just great architecture with art inside: they are installations that aspire to enfold you in a multi-sensory artistic experience that culminates in ecstasy.

From the intoxicating facade of Durham Cathedral, which rises above a placid river gorge, to the Wagnerian grandeur of Canterbury’s dizzying nave, the cathedrals I visited deliver one overwhelming vista after another, their builders having used every trick in the book to awe the faithful. The result is a sense of spectacle that has most film-makers running to them for settings. The cloisters of Gloucester, after all, are better known as the corridors of Hogwarts.

A gothic cathedral was an attempt to imitate Jerusalem, the City of God (rather than the actual place) that, according to the Book of Revelation, will triumph at the end of days. That is, literally, the meaning of these places. Every detail, every knobbled spire within a spire, is a nod towards that city, each playing a part in a dazzling evocation of an architectural fantasy.

We live in a time besotted by art. Yet we are surrounded by great works most of us don’t even know exist; masterpieces by medieval artisans still integrated into the buildings they were made for. Archaeology is increasing in popularity, apparently: well, here’s a bit of archaeology we can all do. Visit your nearest cathedral, or one of the many medieval parish churches that survive. You’ll find plenty to look at. My tour took in just three cathedrals, yet I saw frescoes, sculptures, stained glass, portraits – a galaxy of beautiful images. And the thrill of finding something for yourself, something overlooked, is unbeatable.

Nearly 1,000 years ago, stone masons created, in the form of Durham Cathedral, a geometrical vision that anticipates aspects of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings. Work on Durham began a few years after the Norman Conquest, as a symbol in the north of the regime’s power and glory. It’s not just the mass of the cathedral’s thick stone columns that amazes; it’s the fact that they’re perfectly cylindrical. Imagine the endless calculations such precision required. And that’s not all. Into each column deep patterns were cut: spirals, zigzags, lozenges. Meanwhile, up above, tiers of arches and windows are divided and subdivided again, in perfect proportions.

Not long before, Europeans had been quaking in their huts, without laws, cities or architecture, in the long, barbaric aftermath of the fall of Rome; the reason Durham became a religious centre is that monks from Lindisfarne came there looking for a place to rebury their leader, Saint Cuthbert, after Viking raids made Lindisfarne unsafe. In the 11th century, this new society, ruled by knights and the church, had the confidence to build a marvel of a cathedral over that saint’s shrine. As well as a ghostly forest of columns, its Galilee Chapel features paintings: frescoes in which Saint Cuthbert is seen with the bloodthirsty Oswald, Christian King of Northumbria. Elsewhere, a statue of Cuthbert nestles Oswald’s head in his hand.

Although the Reformation was meant to have destroyed monastic buildings and stripped churches bare, many images remain. At Durham, the monstrous head of a mythic beast once adorned the door, to be knocked by people seeking sanctuary. Today, it is in the cathedral museum. At Canterbury, treasures abound in its crypt. There is a chapel with frescoes painted just after 1066, in a style that is an uncanny echo of the contemporaneous Bayeux Tapestry: the characters have big-eyed angelic faces and there’s a wonderfully bright image of a palace. More compelling still are the carvings of monstrous beasts in the crypt – creatures from the dark ages that seem to have crawled into the church’s shadowy recesses.

One reason we should celebrate medieval cathedrals, in this time of ugly British nationalism, is that their creators were truly international in outlook. So let’s put patriotism aside and say that, great as they are, our cathedrals are not Europe’s finest. Those are in France. In fact, most of the art movements of the middle ages started in France. Above all, there was gothic, which set out to build heaven on earth.

Canterbury cathedral – designed by a French architect and even built with Caen stone – was one of the first flowerings of gothic in this country. With its curving, tapering vistas, lit by the blues and reds of stained-glass windows, gothic Canterbury enfolds you in its radical design, almost devoid of straight lines. An entire universe of medieval life is waiting to be read in those painterly windows, from the martyrdom of Becket to the everyday life of peasants, toiling in what must rank among the most haunting images of British landscapes.

You might think that art in cathedrals is all religious. But you will also find images of war and chivalry, given the nature of those whose bodies were placed in their tombs. At Canterbury, the helmet and sword of the Black Prince, an exceptional military leader, are preserved. His bronze effigy lies nearby: it’s a mighty portrayal, a gigantic figure of a man with legs in armour and a moustache spreading out over a chainmail hood.

A miraculous office

It’s tempting to list treasure after treasure, but it’s the overall experience, the harmony of place, that makes these works live so intensely in their original context. Gloucester is perhaps more typical of our cathedrals than Durham or Canterbury, which dominate their towns. Modern Gloucester is a lot less picturesque than those two towns. You feel its cathedral may be a bit less of a tourist attraction, a bit more taken for granted (despite its appearance in the Harry Potter films).

It’s certainly quieter. In the cloisters, time stops, reverses even. On one side of these sublime tunnels, a trough served the monks’ washing needs. On the other, in niches, were their desks. What an office. Above them hung a miracle of “fan vaulting”, the radiating, intricately boned branching that was pioneered at Gloucester, and remains the most original British variation on the international art of gothic.

But the most overwhelming sight in Gloucester is the vast stained-glass window, which casts a silvery light on the angels in the vaulting. It’s so big, so close, it seems to be pressing into the building. The combined effect of vaulting, coloured glass and gloriously enclosed space is majestic – and common to all our cathedrals. It is the heaven that apprentice died to create.

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