Ely, mark two, or, In Which We Are Not Gothic

Today I sat a series of complicated French tests, for which I was drastically underprepared but also pretty blasé. For some reason, despite having an Actualfax Anxiety Disorder and everything, exams don’t phase me. Today’s marks are probably not a credit to my language-retention skills, but on the other hand, I think I scared the oral examiner with the force of my enthusiasm. Not my fault they gave me a prompt about the usefulness of student evaluations for assessing university teaching, is it?

After something like four hours of French testing on subjects that I mostly don’t care about, though, I am not succeeding at focusing on work this afternoon. So here, have some more photos from Ely!

View of the nave of Ely Cathedral, looking toward the main entrance/exit

Large nave is large. Not the oldest part of the building – that’s the trancepts – but still, as I understand it, part of the Norman construction project. Look at the lovely lines – tall, yes, but simple and rounded. No fan-vaulting, either. Compare to the – later, showier, French – Gothic finery of St Gatien de Tours. Who’s on Team Norman Architecture? Anyone?

I’m also pretty fond of the colouring on the ceiling – it’s from the 1839 restoration.

Aisle - Ely CathedralThis is, I think, the North aisle – although if it’s actually the South, no matter, they look the same. The roof here intrigues me – it’s like they were thinking of fan-vaulting but couldn’t quite be having with this strange new continental idea. The surfaces of the arches are rough, and aside from along the spines it’s hard to see the individual bricks. I’m not sure what’s going on there – perhaps they were plastered over at one point? Note the continued lack of Gothic fripperies on the columns, too.

Fun fact from Wikipedia: the stone to build Ely Cathedral was bought from Peterborough Abbey (which owned quarries) for a price of 8000 eels a year.  That’s what I call putting your local economy to work.

Long view of the Prior's Door: dense 12th-century scuplture on columns and lintelI love love love this style of carving/decoration. Look at it! It’s so… definitive. This is the Prior’s Door, which dates to the 12th c. Enlarge it and look closely at the columns: I’m finding a lot in those floral shapes, the solid curves, and the knotwork on the capitals, that reminds me of earlier Hiberno-Saxon art styles. On the other hand, look up to the top left of the arch. What’s with the break in the curvy leaf pattern to give us that spiky, line-drawn leaf?

Lintel and arch of Prior's DoorHere’s a close up of the lintel. At least I think it’s the lintel. Is that a lintel, folks? OK.  So. Let’s talk about the human figures here. Humanoid figures, rather. That’s God up there, or possibly Jesus, chillin’ in his oddly vulvar-shaped heaven.* He reminds me of this God here (warning, huge file) in MS Junius 11. Vulvar Oval shaped heaven? CHECK. Special Godly version of the Boy Scout salute? Check. Except our God, or possibly Jesus, is carrying a cross, whereas Junius 11’s has a book: and our chappy fills up his whole border. He’s a little bit better proportioned, but not much.  I’m thinking, and correct me, O Art Historians of the internet, if I am making this up, that some Gothic influence is showing through in the proportions of the Angels; in the sheer detail of the clothes and facial features; and in the fact that God, or possibly Jesus, is looking right out at us instead of down at something else in the picture.

Oddly, he’s breaking the bounds of his border. I’m pretty sure I remember my supervisor saying that border-breaking is one thing you’d use to tell if a picture (French) was late 13th or 14th century – as opposed to the twelfth, where people stay within the borders they’re given. Not sure what’s going on here.

Let’s call that a day! I have more pictures of Ely, though, so expect to hear more on this topic soon. 🙂


* Heaven shaped like a… ok, possibly not so odd then.


Leeds Report #5, or the one where Highly went to the wrong side of campus

Dr Who - universally recognised as a mature responsible adultHere are some things that happened to me on Wednesday morning at Leeds.
1. I overslept and missed breakfast.
2. I drank truly abysmal tea in Boddington. Seriously, who thought it was a good idea to have coffee and plain boiling water and hot chocolate all coming out of the same spout on the machine? I ended up with tea that tasted of hot chocolate!
3. I dashed onto the bus to Weetwood, running late.
4. I got to Weetwood and discovered that the session I wanted, ‘Royal, Patron and Civic Saints’, was actually back at Boddington.
5. I scanned the program, saw the words ‘pontificate’ and ‘Innocent’ and dashed off to Session 1127.

Of course, it turned out that Session 1127 was about Innocent II, not my buddy Innocent III. One presenter, Damian Smith, wasn’t present; and I missed enough of Anne J. Duggan’s paper on legal reform that it made very little sense to me.

But I learned interesting things from Dale Kinney’s paper ‘The Artistic Patronage of Pope Innocent II’.

What I liked best about Dale Kinney’s paper was that she said from the outset that she was correcting an assertion she’d made in her own PhD thesis, with which she now disagreed. I like a person who’s happy to argue with themselves in public!

The second thing I liked about this paper was her lovely slides – art historians are good at slides, I have noticed. The third fabulous thing was that she accidentally referred to scholar Herbert Black as ‘Herbert the Black’. More scholars should have fearsome monikers, I feel.

Also, there were some arguments in this paper. Basically, in her PhD thesis, Dale Kinney had asserted that Innocent II was ‘not a building pope’. This, she now realises, rested on a strange assumption that there was such a thing as a ‘building pope’ in the 12th century; and that Innocent II’s well-attested rebuilding projects (described by Cardinal Boso; mostly it was falling rooves. Apparently rooves were falling in on churches all over Rome) had no particular project.

Now, she thinks otherwise. She discussed three facets of Innocent II’s building programs:

  • Gifts (possibly re-gifts?) to various churches, including a big shiny silver cross to St Peter’s, which may be a deliberate parallel with a similar gift of Constantine’s. Such gifts seem to point to a high value placed on churches in general and church decoration in particular.
  • Technologically demanding rebuilding projects – for example, the Cathedral of St John Lateran had collapsed in the 9th century, been rebuilt in the early 10th, but struck by lightning in 1115, after which it began to collapse again. Innocent II seems to have been the first to attempt a complete reconstruction. Many of these reconstructions involved deviating significantly from the original plan – at St Pauls, for example, Innocent II’s architects halved the span of the columns, with shorter arches and windows placed above, for lack of the technology to replicate the originals. At St Stephanus Rotunda, which had originally had several (2? 3? I’m not sure and didn’t write down) concentric colonnades, they had to fill in the second colonnade in entirely and cut the outer one out entirely, making the whole church dramatically smaller.
  • Innocent II was also a great spoliast, removing and re-using a number of features from Roman monuments. This is by no means the lazy option – as Dale Kinney pointed out, much of Rome was actively hostile to the Papacy at the time; dragging great big columns and whatnot across the city is no mean feat.

Perhaps most interesting of all, she told us the story of Innocent II’s own sarcophagus. It was found ‘in media giro’ (in the middle circuit) of the Mausoleum of Hadrian, which was at the time a heavily-used fortress.

First of all, the Mausoleum of Hadrian doesn’t have circuits, so no one’s quite sure what that meant. The passage from the entrance to the two central chambers was a sort of spiral, so it could mean in the middle of that; or perhaps in one of the two central chambers.

Secondly, Innocent II laboured under the delusion that the sarcophagus was Hadrian’s; but Hadrian was cremated and buried in an urn. So it must be someone else’s sarcophagus. But whose?  Everyone else buried there – the last person was a woman named Julia Domina – would also have been cremated. So the sarcophagus must have been *moved in there* from another tomb at some point.

At any rate, Innocent II took it out and got it across Rome, through largely hostile territory – Dale Kinney suggested a route, involving floating the sarcophagus upriver as far as possible. This probably saved it from destruction in an assault on the  Mausoleum. In fact, it ought to have been perfectly safe forever – except the church it was placed in burned down on top of it in the 14th century. Ooops.

This post needs more pictures, but, unlike Dale Kinney, I don’t have access to a lot of educational and illustrative pictures of medieval reconstructions of various Roman churches. I can’t even find a picture of St Stephanus Rotunda.


[NB: Dear person who’s sending me compliments via google search strings – <3. Dear person who’s googling ‘stairway fantasy’, I got nuffin’ for you.]

Tours, part three: towers!

St Julien at dusk

This here is the Eglise St-Julien, at dusk. I knew nothing about it at the time, but I was walking past and was completely fascinated by the swallows. We don’t get swallows in Australia!

According to Wikipedia, though, the building dates to the 13th century, but it belonged to a Benedictine abbey, which itself dated to the 6th century. I wonder if the tower might be a reconstruction or restoration of part of the 11th century building, rather than a complete fresh start after the nave collapsed in 1224, because that does not look like a typical 13th century tower to me. It’s got buttresses going on, yes, but it’s much, much more square than the shiny gothic facade on the other side.

At any rate, the whole thing’s a wine museum, now.

Speaking of very square things:

Tour d'Horlogue, ToursThe Tour de Horloge (clock tower), surviving from the original Romanesque basilica of St Martin de Tours. Some of the foundations might go back to the original 11th-century building, but I think most of it is from the 13th-century Romanesque basilica. (So perhaps I shouldn’t doubt St-Julien’s 13th-century credentials; I wouldn’t, if the rest of that church weren’t so screamingly Gothic.) I’m getting the impression that Tours wasn’t exactly at the forefront of architectural innovation in the Middle Ages.

Tour de CharlemagneYou can see here where the basilica adjoined the tower, and something of its style of decoration. That building lasted a good while, only to be destroyed by the Hugenots in the 18th century. So determined were they that St Martins should not be rebuilt, they put two whacking great roads through the area.

But never fear! A new St Martins was erected in the 19th century! It is, quite frankly, hideous. Although quite interesting – Neo-Byzantine architecture isn’t something I’ve had much cause to encounter.

There’s also the Tour de Charlemagne, but I liked the clock tower better.

Tour de Charlemagne, ToursThe Tour de Charlemagne has obviously undergone serious restoration on the front there.

Tours: full of towers. Who would’ve guessed?

Tours, part two – La Psalette

Quite some time ago I had the intention of doing a multi-part post on Tours (which turns out to be one of the few places where I took consistent photos), but then I got distracted. The first post is here, and I should note that I have now corrected an error (it’s St Martin, not St Gregory, tearing his cloak in two).

What I have today is some photos of La Psalette cloisters, attached to St-Gatien. As I said in my previous post, possibly the most valuable part of the touristy bits of my trip was the chance to look at a range of medieval art and architectural styles all at once. I’m not a very good visual learner and I don’t generally ‘get’ artistic information, so this really was a boon to me.

Each side of the cloister is in a distinctly different style.

You enter- after crossing a breach between the Cathedral wall and the cloister, once the location of the chapter house, and where the remains of the 4th century Gallo-Roman enclosure can be seen -into a mid-fifteenth century gallery:

It’s in a bit of a scrappy condition, but the guide-leaflet (which I am absolutely cribbing off right now) calls my attention to the rather nice medieval floral design which you might have to zoom in on to see. I believe the rubble lying along the left is salvaged from the original building, but where, I’m not sure.

La Psalette - 15th and early 16th century galleriesHere, a view from the upper gallery: the gallery on the right dates to the first quarter of the sixteenth century. The difference in support structures is striking: the 15th century gallery, on the left, has fairly simple buttresses; on the right, they’ve become a little more elaborate, and if you zoom in on the first floor of the right-hand gallery, note that instead of buttresses, the first floor has pilasters, which according to my handy leaflet, are like flat columns. The sixteenth-century gallery got gargoyles, too – not that gargoyles are a distinctly 16th century feature, but obviously the designer of this gallery was more ostentatious than his fifteenth-century predecessor.

Those first-floor galleries, by the way, are the library (left) and scriptorium (right).

I appear not to have taken photos of the interior of the sixteenth-century gallery, which is apparently in ‘Flamboyant Gothic’ style. The last bay is distinctive, though:

Final bay of sixteenth-century gallery, La Psalette

Multiple-ribbed vaulting, which is, apparently, characteristic of the late middle ages. The wall painting is 17th century, showing the Massacre of the Holy Innocents and the flight to Egypt. The colouring on the vaulting might be earlier than the picture, because next up is the Little Chapel:

La Psalette - Little ChapelAccording to the leaflet – I love the leaflet, can you tell? I chickened out of getting the French version, though – the Little Chapel is in the ‘style of the First Renaissance’. I’m a bit confused about that term. Wikipedia.fr tells me it’s an art historical term for mid-late 15th century art which makes a distinct break from the ‘pre-Renaissance’ or, presumably, late medieval style. Now, this can’t have been built until the 16th century, along with the rest of the gallery; and the ‘First Renaissance’ would be contemporary with the building of the very-gothic  first gallery. So I’m thinking that the architects of La Psalette were, in both centuries, fairly conservative in their taste.

At any rate, the leaflet tells me that the Little Chapel has ‘many surviving polychrome traces’, which I hopefully take to mean *original*polychrome traces.

La Psalette - centred on staircaseThis very pretty staircase – thought to be by Bastien François – appears to be a replica of one at Blois Chateau, the latter built around 1520. It’s the only access to the upper floor scriptorium and library. Also, I sat, rather gleefully, on the low stone of the cloister to the right (in this photo) of the staircase, and faffed about with my credit card and mobile phone. The discord between my gadgets and the setting was pleasing unto me.

This concludes your not-very-specialised photographical tour of La Psalette!

Gratuitous Cathedral Post

One thing I hadn’t quite been expecting, when setting out to poke my nose in as many churches as possible, was that so few of them would be exhibiting a single cohesive architectural style. It makes sense, if you think about it – a cathedral takes a century or more to build, and then you tack new frilly bits later on as well, if you can afford it. A lived-in church is going to be a bit of a hotch-potch, and if done well the combination of styles can be attractive in its own right.

Nevertheless, in my head, hotchpotch ecclesiastical architecture is something I associate with antipodean church-builders who ran out of money and/or standstone for their neo-gothic edifices. I don’t have any good photos of the new part, but St Pauls Dunedin is a good example of what I’m talking about – they’ve managed to integrate a concrete chancel into a neo-gothic nave.

I think this is a product of the way architectural history is taught (at least the way it was taught to me – and bear in mind that I’m not a visual learner and shied away from art-history heavy subjects). Hey hey kids, Romanesque churches! *photo of a Romanesque ediface* Norman Cathedrals! *photo of the most Norman bits of a church with surviving norman bits* High Gothic! *photo of the flying buttresses of Notre Dame* I do remember one lecture which involved a lot of photographs of 14th-century additions to once-small parish churches in the wool-farming areas of England (they ended up looking like particularly horrendous wedding cakes), but I guess it hadn’t sunk in properly.

I’m not very good at differentiating between architectural or artistic styles, but seeing them all jammed up together in the one place is remarkably educational.

Consider Saint-Gatien de Tours:

Facade of St Gatien, ToursThis is, for my money, a rather obnoxious façade (and also not a brilliant photo). The church was started in the late 12th century, but I think (from wikipedia and the guide sheet, which I don’t have to hand right now) that it was the 14th century before they got so far as the main doors. Note the heavy high gothic decoration on the arches. The towers, on the other hand, are 16th century additions

Flying buttresses at rear of St-GatienThe chancel, which I think is mid-13th century, has the whole Gothic Spiderweb effect going on (although it’s quite hard to get a good shot of it, since there’s construction work all down one side).  Flying buttresses about to take off and fly away, methinks.

13-th century mural in St Gatien de ToursThe insufferably lucky sods still have some of the original 13th century murals – here you’ll see St GregoryMartin tearing his cloak in half and sharing it with a beggar.

Mural in process of restorationI couldn’t figure out what this mural actually depicts – it wasn’t signposted, and although I could follow the conversation of the people near me when they were discussing the restoration process, I didn’t pick up what the picture’s actually *of*. I think it might be a little older than St Greg, though – if you look above, St Greg’s halo is breaking out of the picture boundary into the text, whereas what I could see of thi sone seemed to be keeping within the frames. I learned something in the class I taught this year, and that’s that 12th-century figures stay within their frames, whereas mid/late 13th century sees figures creeping out of frames. Congrats to my supervisor, she managed to teach me *something * about art. Ten points to her.

Coming later – the cloister of St Gatien, a nifty progression from 12th century to renaissance.

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.

A post of stuff!

Stuff, it’s happening! On the internets.

For example, archaeologists in Iran have discovered a thirteenth-century observatory.

And RicaManuscript image - a piperrdo Chao created (and uploaded) a new computer font based on 12-th century Spanish chancery script. It’s shiny. Probably too shiny for anything but headings, and not all headings at that. But shiny. [This link and the preceding came via News for Medievalists]

U. Michigan have an online exhibition on Late Antique magical doodads: amulets, gems, recipes, aggressive magics, and something called a Demon Bowl.I <3 nerds

Here are a stack of pictures of medieval and renaissance dancers. Sadly, some of the links are borked.

Wickedday, in a laudable exercise of linguistic geekery, created an Old English scrabble set – and has instructions on how to build your own.

And [I think this was also via News for Medievalists]: renovations on a church in Berkshire have uncovered Britains’ oldest working window. It’s tiny. And adorable.

A week or so ago, Lesboprof posted a handy-dandy list of practical, professional advice for administrators and teachers (at tertiary level, although possibly applicable at other levels) on how to be actively queer-friendly on campus. I I'm in ur history - emphasizin your queerzassume by now you’ve all seen the flurry of blogging and social networking arising from the recent spate of well-reported suicides by queer youth in the US, and carrying on into (US-based) National Coming Out Day. I read a lot of the resulting material, and Lesboprof’s advice is that which I found ‘best’, by the arbitrary standards of ‘things Highly likes’. I urge you to read the post and consider applying some of her suggestions if you are in a position to do so.

Finally, in case you missed it, historians admit to inventing Ancient Greece.