A few pixels of history

Quick word association game for you, folks. Cathedrals are…
1. Awesome (both senses)
2. Big
3. Pretty
4. Solid
5. Permanent

Wait, scratch numbers four and five.

I was in Christchurch, NZ, just over two weeks ago.

Christchurch Cathedral exterior

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

Ch'ch cathedral altar

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.

chapel of st michael and all angels - damaged from Sept '10 quake

On the south side, though, no Lady Chapel – instead, there was this chap:

Henry John Chitty Harper, first Bishop of Christchurch

Back on the north side of the nave, some less traditional examples of church decoration:

Menorah-like installation in Ch'ch cathedral, under stained glass window

Pacific Chapel, Ch'ch cathedral

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.

Dedication plaque, Ch'ch cathedral

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.

Lower tower staircase, looking down
Upper spire staircase, ch'ch cathedral
Plaque on the spire staircase, Ch'ch cathedral (Dean and canons of Christchurch Oxford)
Churchbells in Ch'ch cathedral

For some reason, it never occurred to me that it might fall down now.

Cathedral Squire from the spire, looking at a building with a bilboard reading 'CAMELOT'
View from the spire, looking over the city to low hills beyond

I knew, wandering around Christchurch, that I was taking photographs of a particular moment in time, one which would soon be gone.

Scaffolding outside a church in the city centre - features dummy humans on bikes, kayaks, etc hanging from scaffolding

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.


5 Responses to “A few pixels of history”

  1. Stephanie Says:

    Wow. Great post. Great photos. And can I just say, I was there, and climbed the spire almost exactly THREE weeks before yesterday, and thus almost exactly ONE week before you. And was just thinking about breaking my blog silence to post about it. But you’ve said it all so beautifully.

    And … lovely to hang out a bit in Dunedin with you. So sad to think of that beautiful island undergoing such trauma.

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      I guess you went just before the conference and I went shortly after it. I’m glad I got to do it before it collapsed, but it’s so awful watching the news reports and photographs come in of the damage.

      It was fantastic to meet you, too 😀

  2. treeandleaf Says:

    it was a building which had been used and changed to meet the needs of its congregation.

    Ah, a real cathedral! I never quite believe in the ones that are entirely consistent and all-of-a-piece, however superior they may be aesthetically, or even in strict churchmanship terms.

  3. Annelise Says:

    It must be strange to have been there so recently… It’s been awful. This puts things into so much perspective, the value of people over buildings etc. Wow.

  4. Internets, meet my travelling companions « The Naked Philologist Says:

    […] 1. The chair is, or was, a retired bishop’s chair from Christchurch Cathedral, NZ; it was living in the small museum at the base of the tower. 2. Resolution for next time I travel: fewer books, more teddy bears! If nothing else, it’s […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: