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.