Quick word association game for you, folks. Cathedrals are…
1. Awesome (both senses)
I was in Christchurch, NZ, just over two weeks ago.
The good thing about travelling with medievalists is that, generally speaking, a medievalist is tolerant of one’s compulsion to look at *every* *single* church you pass.1 Many medievalists can even carry on a conversation about neo-gothic cathedral design and stained glass windows. Or – and this is what happened in Christchurch – your fellow medievalist will apologise to Cathedral tour guides when your questions about the interior get too complicated.2
Christchurch Cathedral was beautiful on the exterior. In the inside was an odd space, wavering between High and Low church depending on where in the building you were. The overall effect was gorgeous, but the detail level left me confused. Above all, perhaps, it was a building which had been used and changed to meet the needs of its congregation.
It had the elaborate High Church chancel, above. It had a chapel of St Michael and All Angels on the north side, damaged from the Sept ’10 quake.
On the south side, though, no Lady Chapel – instead, there was this chap:
Back on the north side of the nave, some less traditional examples of church decoration:
The cathedral was – is – so very bound up in the history and philosophy of the city and its founders. Christchurch is the most extensive exercise in Anglophilia I’ve ever seen3. Most of the streets, we figured out whilst wandering about, are named after Anglican bishoprics. Not English cities – although of course many of them are cities – but dioceses. As with the Scots who founded Dunedin, the Englishmen who settled the Canterbury region were fired with that odd mix of nostalgia and independence, hoping not so much as to transplant Englishness as to improve on it.
I climbed the spire of Christchurch cathedral two weeks to the day – almost to the hour – before it collapsed. I browsed the historical display at the foot of it, read the history of the spire – about the times it had fallen down in the past, the debate the congregation had had over whether or not to rebuild it, and the eventual erection of the latest spire with the help of Japanese engineers.
For some reason, it never occurred to me that it might fall down now.
I knew, wandering around Christchurch, that I was taking photographs of a particular moment in time, one which would soon be gone.
I thought that when I talked to people about Christchurch in the future, I’d be saying “ah, yes, I was there a few months after the big quake, when they were in the middle of rebuilding”.
I was there a few weeks before much of the city centre pancaked.
I have no claim on Christchurch, aside from having acquired very sore feet trekking about there for a couple of days. But I have photographs on my camera of places that don’t exist anymore, or will never be the same again. I went blithely up and down the spire, thinking only about vertigo and churchbells; two weeks later people will have died in that same tower.
I don’t know what else to say about it, aside from the NZ Red Cross exists and takes donations.
1. It is possible to get church-fatigue, after a while. I didn’t go to a single church in Wellington! We tried to snoop around Old St Pauls, but there was a function on, while the new cathedral was a salmon-coloured monstrosity so we went elsewhere instead. Parliament, in fact. Ladies and gentlemen, the citizens of NZ have installed a Dalek in their parliamentary precinct.
2. And by too complicated, I mean ‘show any knowledge of high church design principles’. The unfortunate tour guide in question didn’t know what the altar was.
3. And I’m saying this as someone whose institutional motto is ‘Sidere mens eadem mutato’ and I like it that way.