A visit to a cathedral

 

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Move fast and break things

This is the supposed mantra of the founder of Facebook who stole the idea but not the name for this cobbled-together monstrosity of our era, a name which glues together two rough pieces which don’t match but make an easy-to-remember new creature.

The first thing that greets the visitor to the interior of Winchester cathedral is a window filling the entry wall made of thousands of senseless fragments.  This huge work has sometimes been mistaken for a recent design by an abstract artist, but instead of an intentional work, the window is a strange response to destruction. Puritan soldiers smashed all the old stained glass in 1642 and twenty years later the shards were collected and formed into this new whole.  These must be the remnants of a much bigger destruction, though, because they fill the old frame completely. Looking for survivals of order in the chaos is an almost hopeless task. A couple of heads are placed as if a long panel was planned for a single large figure, but that is about all the order I can find.

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As a child I broke things. I know this because my grandmother collected the bits and made them into an umbrella stand, a fairly useless object which fascinated me by its glitter and by how nothing fit. What is the thinking behind such projects? To make sure you never forget the destruction? Or a form of redemption, to extract beauty from its contrary? So it’s a twisted form of conservation, and a memorial—you don’t lose the broken treasures entirely. Is this primitive archaeology where the idea of the jigsaw puzzle came from? To create a shattered pot and then re-assemble it.   Maybe a love of fragments and a focus on the part not the whole sometimes starts in the idea of destruction, which will be followed by collecting the debris left behind by the cyclone of history.

Questions remain about the intentions of the reassemblers of the big West Window at Winchester: was it to make the neatest possible replica, or the most chaotic, even violent one, a memorial to destruction? Memory of the original organisation of the glass would have been fresh enough twenty years after, and it should have been possible to make a more orderly impression, instead of something like an explosion. So perhaps what we have instead is more like abstract art in intention after all, expressing complexity or conflict. The reassemblers were making a political point, not just filling space.

In the late poems of Geoffrey Hill (perhaps in Speech! Speech! most of all) the jostling of different vocabularies, tones and speakers makes The Waste Land look decorous, and if obscure, not scrambled. For Hill, a true rendering of our reality comes out looking something like the reassembled shards at Winchester, fragments of speech banging uncomfortably into each other, in which the final outcome or fullest understanding will not be a reassembly of shards into a recognisable image now continuous. The shattering is deeply part of the poem’s being that cannot be wished away or resolved by explanation.

The meaning of the great West Window has perhaps changed with time and become a picture of something its assemblers never saw or intended. It is not exactly like a window that any contemporary designer would call into existence; neither is it entirely remote from certain modern designs. Nor does it provide even an approximate key to Geoffrey Hill’s most shattered poems. But there’s a strange way in which it has unexpectedly come into its own. Hill finds himself in a fractured world and like Ruskin sets about putting it right, not by reconstructing the lost wholeness but by thriving on brokenness, summoning it forth to disgrace itself and lend him and his readers propulsive force in the process, making poetry of the newest, rawest, most appalling contradictions thrown up by the destructive forces that rule our public realm.

Only in retrospect do I realise that I hardly looked at the envelope or up at the vault in this visit to Winchester cathedral.  First, odd wall tombs at odds with their surroundings, settings which had been ignored, if known at all, by their designers, and next the famous font with scenes like children’s drawings in a stone so dark the scenes were hard to see.

DSC08721.jpgAnd then, something unexpected, which I mistook for a nineteenth century replica, a set of spindly wooden stalls covered in carving, a thicket of close-packed detail I mistook for recent because the wood looked new and yellowish, like fresh oak that hadn’t had time to mellow. Later I found an old description that complained about ‘the rich treacly brown the nineteenth century liked’, now (in 2019) banished by aggressive cleaning, which had removed every visible sign of the centuries’ passage.

In spite of the apparent newness, I am soon convinced that the carving is medieval by the randomness with which figures appear in the surrounding foliage. They don’t form a narrative, aren’t a uniform size and are almost swallowed by the insistent vegetation that sweeps across flat expanses, then stops suddenly, to be replaced by an entirely different species.

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At the level of detail there doesn’t seem to be much of a plan –falconers or monkeys or soldiers or lions just pop up, like the whole assemblage did when it took over my attention in the first place. I think of Ruskin’s reconstruction of the mind of the Gothic workman in his most famous piece, published as a detached fragment by William Morris.  His depiction of this mind was really a breaking-to-pieces of conventional ideas of how art is made and of the special character of Gothic in particular.

Obstinacy, changefulness, inconsistency, wilfulness–Ruskin’s qualities of the medieval workman are all forms of unruliness and disobedience, lacking overall plan and any sort of predictability, which of course can’t possibly account for the design of any large structure as a whole. I’m tempted to look up the complete list in Ruskin’s chapter now. That day in the cathedral I was carrying a book in my backpack which gave a careful description of the building, starting with its bare bones and the logic of the structure, which I’d begun by pushing aside, a book (I didn’t know this then) I would never open in the whole course of my visit. There’s something strangely satisfying about having the authoritative unpacking of the subject but never actually using it, like an umbrella or extra set of clothes included in case the others get wet.

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There are those thickets of carving, but the Winchester stalls consist primarily of a lofty fictitious architecture towering overhead, decorated with perforated elements looking through to further spaces closed off by miniature vaults. First architect-masons devised novel methods of spanning odd-shaped spaces and then their successors made vaults into intricate terminations for spaces primarily conceptual.

The clearest sign that the designers and carvers of the Winchester stalls are just playing with ideas of building is the spindly quality of all the upper elements and also the contrived congestion at the four points where the stalls must turn a corner. Here the carvers make a spatial opportunity out of an awkwardness, flaunting the need to cut off forms in order to fit together two sections arriving from different directions.

 

 

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Even though I don’t remember Ruskin’s qualities of Gothic word for word, they are still my guide to the unsystematic system on which the biggest works of their era are based, with results of great richness that only ever fit together imperfectly, while never losing a sense of the life which inheres in departures from strict regularity.

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Still in the choir at Winchester, not far from the stalls in their new-found paleness, is an oversized 19 c bishop’s throne like an independent building, a chunky tower in wood so dark it approaches blackness. All its pinnacles, and there are many, exhibit vegetable growth so clogged it seems almost diseased. The most wonderful moment comes in down-pointing elements whose every strand ends in a tormented head, howling, grimacing, or sticking out its tongue, an idea of Gothic that reaches a last flowering in horror comics which, extrapolating from these congested heads, we can almost recognise as authentic descendants of medieval grotesque.

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Winchester has far more than any other place of a distinctive English form of late Gothic architecture, the so called ‘stone-cage’ chantry, a kind of construction even more like another building inserted within the larger building than the enclosure of stalls forming three sides of a rectangle and terminating in gables and spires as if they strove to become architecture.

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The stone-cage chantry inserts itself between two existing piers, which it claims as parts of itself and surrounds with an enclosure of tall screens. The chantry rarely swallows the piers completely, because it’s crucial to its self-idea that it is a parasite of a harmless kind, joined to the fabric which it enriches, though closing off other possibilities just by being there.

Although the stalls at Winchester have architectural elements and qualities, they’re not competing with the enveloping building in the same way as the chantries. Stalls are furniture, chantries are more preemptive: complete, bounded and self sufficient as stalls aren’t. Such constructs were to a significant degree the form into which architectural invention went at a certain point in the development of Gothic, but how seriously can you take a whole new architecture for just one person, and that person a corpse? The key feature of these implants is that they are intruders, which promulgate an alternative view of architecture from that of their surroundings. The chantry’s status thus becomes more problematic the more assertively individual the result, an alien body within a preexisting body, a tumour more threatening to the life around it the more lively it is in itself.

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conical intersect further into cones.jpgIn the 1970s Gordon Matta-Clark went round carving out new spaces in existing buildings, like chantries in reverse, or voids as independent structures, which it was only possible to discover lurking in nondescript industrial or commercial buildings because they were already corpses, that is to say, scheduled for demolition. A negative can’t ever be simply a positive, but Matta-Clark had remarkable successes in these figure-ground experiments that made absences feel stronger than presences. The effect could seem almost metaphysical, and the non-existent acquired inescapable reality. Perhaps the chantries too are always flying in the face of fundamental facts, and like fables or myths able to make you believe in something which isn’t entirely there.

The oldest chantry in the eastern-arm at Winchester spoils one of the most harmonious spaces in the building, the retrochoir between the chancel and the lady chapel, now interrupted by two matching structures, the first of which, Bishop Beaufort’s chantry, consists in its upper half of a crowd of pinnacles filling the space over the bishop’s tomb and reaching up until it seems about to bump against the vault. The forms are a quintessence of architecture, its slenderest, most ethereal parts, but effervescing so enthusiastically they threaten to form an indistinguishable mass. And the suggestion of energetic movement resembles organic growth, an overall effect that combines elegant brittleness and a hint of living tissues pulsing with life.

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In his lengthy piece about stone-cage chantries Julian Luxford compares these stone cages to monks’ cells, as if their seclusion were a form of turning one’s back on the world and worldliness, whereas the effect is usually more that of a privileged preserve which bars entry to ordinary worshippers. 

For the next chantry in the chronological sequence, Bishop Langton chooses a more defensible location in the southeast corner of the building, which is then engorged with a wooden successor to the choir stalls, topped off with a ring of fanciful towers whose most bewitching feature is a series of inverted cusps crawling with crockets, forms like noses or tongues which would be at home on African masks.

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The last two chantries built have no piers to hang onto. Instead they swallow sections of the screens running down the sides of the choir, which they intrude into at its top corners. Bishop Fox’s, accessible from the aisle that runs down its long side, is the richest trove of late Gothic detail in the cathedral.

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Every element is multiplied and repeated. Every line is crimped and what starts as a simple quatrefoil becomes an indescribable cusped form, where every sub-form ends as two. Niches have canopies that perform this dividing and subdividing until the whole seems on the edge of toppling into misrule, but never quite falls.  At times it seems there won’t be room for all the sub-friezes and the multi-faceted fragmentation of simple posts supporting pedestals barely big enough to hold what sits on them.

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Coming late in a long history, the Fox chantry thrives on distortion and fragmentation of familiar forms, and especially on forms turned inside out, so a column with a series of sharply concave faces is a kind of negative of the norm, in which comfortably rounded bulges are turned to uncooperative vacated forms, as if advertising that they can’t support weight, drawing attentions to hollows not solids, which Ruskin thought an offence against nature and a threat to all integrity, but was helplessly drawn to study and understand. Such forms seem leftovers or cast-offs from which the usable core has been spirited away, leaving a sense of absence.

Something exciting and also disturbing and undermined about these forms, like Matta-Clark’s voids which render surrounding fabric useless, which was already a corpse when he arrived and found a second life in decay, which for most of his adherents was always going to be no more than a wonderful kind of hearsay that almost as soon as it was born had been smashed to pieces.

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There’s a drawing of one bay of the elevation of Fox’s chantry that has generally been taken as the work of the chantry’s designer, the royal mason William Vertue, famous for fan vaults at Westminster and Windsor.  This drawing has long been regarded as a precious survival, a working drawing from around 1510. But now along comes Christopher Wilson, one of the best current writers on Gothic, to wonder if it isn’t an artefact of a wholly different kind, a post-Reformation rendering of the chantry stripped of its finery. After which, Nicholas Riall tells us that the drawing differs in fifty different ways from what was built, so it cannot possibly be an attempt to show it after construction.   I set about looking for those fifty variations, and I find quite a few, but then wonder what Ruskin would say about such a dogged enterprise.  At least the search has increased my appreciation of Vertue’s endless ingenuity and set me thinking about how much (or how little) of the later stages of his exuberance he ever mentioned to the client.

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