Saturday, 16 June 2012

The Medieval Chancel of St Mary Major

The image above shows one of the most familiar sights in the southwest of England: the 14th century west front and image screen of Exeter Cathedral. It's a view that would be recognisable to anyone who has visited the city over the last 650 years. Even today it's probably the most frequently photographed vista in Exeter. But this image is slightly different and the presence of one particular feature makes it amongst the rarest and most unusual surviving photographs ever taken in the old city.

To the right of the cathedral can be seen the medieval chancel of the church of St Mary Major. Although only part of the church is shown this is one of the very few surviving photographic records of the church before it was rebuilt, detail left. The medieval church of St Mary Major was demolished in 1865 and subsequently rebuilt so the image, an albumen print, dates to before the demolition. Very few images of the city exist from such an early date.

The long history of St Mary Major is covered in an earlier post, but the church stood on the site of Exeter's Saxon minister, the abbey church of a monastery founded in the 7th century. The existence of the minster predated the creation of the See of Exeter in 1050. In other words, there was a building on this exact site centuries before the current Gothic cathedral was built. The minster was used as Exeter's first cathedral until a new cathedral was built slightly to the east in the early 12th century. This explains the close proximity between St Mary Major and the west front of the cathedral, as shown in the image. Following the consecration of the Norman cathedral, St Mary Major was downgraded, modified, and in 1222 became a parish church in its own right.

Jenkins visited the church in 1806 and left the following description of the chancel as it still appeared in the mid-19th century photograph: "At the east end, through a loft gothic arch, it opens into a large chancel, which is of a different construction, and appears of a more ancient date than the body of the church; it has a separate entrance from the yard, and over the north window is a small tablet, representing St Lawrence in a state of martyrdom on a gridiron; and on the angles of this and the other windows cherubims supporting gridirons are represented in bass-relievo". Jenkins added that "tradition informs us that this chancel was a chapel, dedicated to St Lawrence, unconnected with the church". (A medieval parish church dedicated to St Lawrence existed in the High Street until it was badly damaged in 1942 and subsequently demolished.) The church was built of stone which was covered in lime render and then whitewashed.

The image left is an animated stereoscopic view of the west front of the cathedral originally taken in the early 1860s. The chancel of St Mary Major can just be seen on the far right.

George Oliver claimed that the chancel dated to the reign of Edward III primarily on the style of the windows and the fact that the high altar was rededicated by Bishop Grandisson in 1336. Oliver also believed that the representation of St Lawrence had been inset above the north door during 1700s or early 1800s.

The much-weathered sculpted vignette of St Lawrence inset above the crenellated north porch is visible in the detail above right. The stone tablet still exists and is one of the few remaining fragments of the medieval structure, below. When the church was demolished in 1865 it was rebuilt further west, away from the front of the cathedral. The replacement was in turn demolished in 1971.

The area today is just an expanse of grass. It's now impossible to say if the chancel really was "of more ancient date" than the rest of the church, as Jenkins believed. It's also a pity that the photographer didn't turn their camera and capture an image of the entire building or take more high quality images of other parts of Exeter. In the mid 19th century many of the city's streets still contained a large number of impressive medieval and post-medieval structures which have since disappeared. Although several drawings exist of the church as it appeared prior to its demolition, to have even part of it recorded in a photograph is an exciting discovery.


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