In Which Highly Indulges in Hagio-Tourism

Did you know that St John’s Cathedral Brisbane has all the windows in its south chapel dedicated to founding Anglo-Saxon, Irish and Welsh saints? I didn’t, but now I do and they were very lovely.

I went up to St John’s yesterday on the recommendation of assorted fellow-conference-goers at AEMA. On the Wednesday of the conference, before my flight got in, there had been a trip down to The Cathedral of St Stephen, the Catholic cathedral, for a demonstration and lecture on medieval organ music, which I’m rather sorry I missed. At any rate, St Stephens was declared to be nice, but not up to exacting medievalist standards in architecture, and so an excursion was made on the Thursday, by several attendees, up to St John’s.

Rear view of St Johns from Adelaide St, 1910. Photo from Wikipedia Commons.

St John’s is the Anglican (Episcopal, C of E) Cathedral of Brisbane, and will be the last Gothic cathedral ever built. The initial planning began in 1885; the nave was only finished last year, and the final of the three towers is yet to be erected. It is beautiful. I’ve never set foot in a more stunning building- although that just tells you I’ve never been to Europe.

So let’s talk about some of the outstanding features of St Johns. First of all, from the front, it looks a children’s birthday cake. The outer cladding is in shades of grey and pink, and having gone there expecting a neo-gothic marvel, my heart sank a little.

Front view of St Johns before the two front towers were erected. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons- released into the public domain by the photographer. Presumably that is him or his friend in the picture.

Happily, as soon as you step under the west porch, you look up into an intricate web of vaulting, made from sandstone, cut small and fine. WikiCommons has a slightly blurry image of the vaulting in the quire (although actually i think it’s the apse).

Inside, everything is long and thin and delicately curved, as a good gothic cathedral ought to be. The only odd thing about it is that the final bay of the nave- completed only recently- is of noticeably different stone to the rest of it.

The nave of St Johns, looking toward the west door.

I was struck by the overwhelming emphasis on verticality- this photo is taken facing the wrong way, so it doesn’t quite capture the effect. You walk in and your eyes are drawn up before they look along. The ornamentation at the top of the columns is minimal, and the lines are kept clean and vertical on the second tier of arches as well (can someone give me the technical term for that second tier?). Compare, for example, to the interior of Salisbury Cathedral (Below left, courtesy of WikiCommons), an early example of English Gothic:

English Gothic, I am told by Wikipedia and also by a book whose title I have forgotten, is characterised by emphasis on length and horizontality which is equal to or greater than the emphasis on height and verticality.

On the other hand, St Johns has in common with Salisbury a slim light feeling to the columns which the vertically-oriented French cathredals don’t seem to have. St Johns has less clustered columns per actual upright that does Salisbury (only three), but compare to the heavy columns of St Denis (Below, courtesy of WikiCommons):

Where St Johns falls down, in my humble opinion, is in the matter of windows. Look at St Denis here- you can see the light pouring in through these upper windows. Salisbury has the same second teir of arches going on that St Johns does, but you can still see that light floods in from the apse and from the sides. The windows at St Johns are exclusively thin, individual English Lancet Windows. If you look back up at the interior view of the west front, you’ll see that there are just three windows- long, thin, and spaced apart. Compare this to the west facade of York Minster:

(York Minister, courtesy of WikiComons)

York Minster, I presume (having never been there) is completely flooded in the afternoons by light from these windows, which are composed of individual lancet windows combined into one. Now consider Truro Cathedral, Cornwall, which was designed by John Loughborough Pearson, the same architect who designed St Johns Brisbane:

(Truro Cathedral, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

That big rose window, which is typical of French Gothic cathedrals, as well as the four lancet windows on either side of it, would do a wonderful job of lighting the nave.

No one seems to have pictures of apse windows, but logic tells me that if you need electric footlights at the base of the columns in your apse (which St Johns does), or hanging lights in your quire, then there is only one thing to say: Gothic Architecture: UR DOIN IT RONG.


Leaving the architecture alone for a bit, the other reason I went up there was the cushions, about which I heard much praise over Thursday night’s conference dinner. All the pews have cushions on them, each cushion being donated by and dedicated to a different Anglican parish in Australia. When the cushions are properly arranged (and it looks like someone in the congregation enjoys mixing them up), each pew has four cushions which, when placed side by side, form one long machine-embroidered picture. There are some lovely landscapes, and some striking sets depicting Australian water-birds.

(Lady Chapel, St John’s Brisbane, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.)

In the Lady Chapel on the north side, however, is a set of eight four-cushion depictions of the life of Mary in ‘modern times’. For some reason the medievalists who told me about this were half-cringing, but it’s not like medieval iconography was free of anachronisms, is it? Granted, the sight of Mary and Joseph peering at a parking meter which said ‘no spaces’ made me cringe a little too, but the Madonna and Child depiction is particularly lovely. How many cathedrals have a depiction of the Virgin Mary naked? Not many, I’ll bet. She has not long given birth, and is holding the infant Christ to her breast. The newborn Christ does not mysteriously look nine months old, as many of them do. He’s not quite the wrinkly red alien most newborns are, but he does have the ridiculously oversized head and hair all stuck down to his scalp. And no halos in sight. Joseph is peering over Mary’s shoulder with an expression of mixed concern and confusion, which seems about right for a first-time father.

I do want to know how the heavily pregant Mother of Christ found time- while travelling, too- to shave her legs and underarms and keep her pubic region neatly trimmed, though. I wonder if the cushion designer even thought about how bloody difficult it would be to depilate when nine months pregnant?


And now, as promised, the bit about Anglo-Saxon saints! The south chapel has all its windows dedicated to founding saints / patron saints of important British cathedrals. Along the east wall you will find St Alban, St Augustine, St Oswald (twice. or are there two St Oswalds?), and someone else whose name I have aggravatingly forgotten. On the south wall, there are St Patrick, St Ninian, St David and another Welshman whom I have likewise forgotten. And then right at the west end of the chapel, but still on the south wall, there is St AEthelthryth, under the name of Etheldreda.

The iconography seems to be heavily based on this image from the Benedictional of St AEthelwold, which I have abused in the interests of icon-making (right), but in much brighter colours. She wears blue, with a blue halo and gold crown; her neck-coverings are white; she carries something green and leafy in her left hand, as in the Benedictional, and but the book in her other hand is red and is accompanied by another long piece of foliage topped by what looks like it might be white Australian flannel flowers, but could as well be any other white flower for all I know about botany. There’s a red, green and blue background behind her, and a red ribbon with the words ‘Ely Cathedral’ in gold (as with one of the St Oswalds and the other bloke whose name I’ve forgotten, who were accompanied by their cathedral titles. I wonder if they were all cathedrals associated with the Benedictine reform?). I have a feeling I’ve seen another window or picture somewhere which is closer to this than is the Benedictional, but google images isn’t turning up anything helpful.

Furthermore, to my great delight, as I was buying postcards, the lady in the shop told me their Etheldreda postcard (the only postcard with a saint’s window shown on it) was the most popular card :D.


To finish up, and speaking of postcards: having tacked three to my wall and put aside various ones for friends, I have two left over. First two people to comment and then send an email to nakedphilologist AT gmail DOT com with their postal address can have a postcard from the last gothic cathedral ever to be built! One is of the apse and the high altar, and one is a view of the Genesis Window from the side, under an arch.

The High Altar, St John’s Brisbane. (Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.) Note the slim three-part colums, and bemoan the fact that down in the ambulatory, there are footlights lighting up the base of each column from the rear.

And the moral of today’s lecture is: when in Australia, visit St John’s Brisbane :D.


7 Responses to “In Which Highly Indulges in Hagio-Tourism”

  1. Greg Carrier Says:

    You’re indeed correct about York Minster being flooded with light in the afternoons. I’ve been told that the best time to visit cathedrals is in the late winter, just before spring, when the sun is still low in the sky: the angle of the light causes the interior to just absolutely light up.

  2. Greg Carrier Says:

    I presume the St Augustine in question is St Augustine the Lesser, not *the* Augustine?

  3. highlyeccentric Says:

    Hey Greg! Long time no see 🙂

    Yes, I assume the St Augustine was St Augustine of Canterbury, but he didn’t have a flag over his head naming his Cathedral, so one can’t be COMPLETELY certain. His context with AS saints would suggest so, though.

  4. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    That does look quite impressive, even from Europe 🙂 I’ve never been in York Minster, I should fix this. However, I wonder how much light was wanted in some of these buildings. I willingly admit that many of the best Gothic cathedrals are full of light and space, but Durham or Peterborough for example are more than a bit short of it, and what this means is that if you’re having a service there, lots of lighting is needed. Now translate that back to the Middle Ages and what you get is control of what people see from one moment to another, all the spectacle value of a parade of sparklers on Guy Fawkes’ night (warning! anachronism!) when you fill the place with candles in procession, and the rest of the time you have people feeling slightly scared and oppressed by the shadows, and the building goes up and on further than they can see. Lux fiat! and so on. I think there is a choice people made here about how to use their spaces.

    Of course, St John’s are unlikely to be doing that, what with electric light and not wanting to be mistaken for a brainwashing cult, so I guess that this time the architect was asked to work with a different model. But that model might have been built like that out of choice, not lack of development, I reckon.

    • Tim Waite Says:

      yes but Durham and Peterborough are ROMANESQUE abbey churches . The latter was not even open to the townsfolk at all prior to the dissolution …..

  5. Greg Carrier Says:

    I know, Highly, I know – I’ve been away from the blogosphere for too long. =) It’s good to be back, though!

    I agree about the question of light. I was just in St Louis last week and I visited the Cathedral Basilica one afternoon. It was a cloudless, sunny day, but as soon as you stepped into the narthex of the basilica, it was as if it was overcast outside. Even the church proper was darkened; I suspect that this is because the basilica has the world’s largest collection of Byzantine(-inspired) mosaics on its walls.

    I think that this was deliberate, because the minimalistic amount of light really emphasised the gold leaf background of the mosaics themselves: they really glowed with light. If the cathedral had windows a la York Minster, for instance, the overall effect would have been quite diminished. One of the reasons Gothic cathedrals have so many windows is to allow for stained glass windows, obviously. (Speaking of stained glass, do pay a visit to York Minster – the East Window is the largest stained glass window in the world: about 2 million pieces!)

  6. Greg Carrier Says:

    Oh, and you make a good point about shadows and darkness, Jonathan. This is especially true for All Hallows Eve and Easter, not only in the medieval period, but today as well.

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