Saturday 18 May 2013

Exeter Cathedral: The Bishop's Throne

Of international importance, the 14th century bishop's throne in Exeter Cathedral is another of the city's most significant artifacts. Constructed on an unprecedented scale the throne is described by Nikolaus Pevsner as "the most exquisite piece of woodwork of its date in England and perhaps in Europe".

The throne or, strictly speaking, the architectural canopy which covers the throne or cathedra, was the idea of Walter de Stapledon. Born near Cookbury in North Devon c.1260, Stapledon was the Bishop of Exeter from 1308 to 1326.

Educated at Oxford, where he later founded Exeter College, Stapledon regularly attended the Royal court and undertook diplomatic missions for Edward I and Edward II. A man of enormous power and ambition, he twice held the post of Lord High Treasurer of England under Edward II.

Bishop Stapledon contributed immensely to the creation of Exeter Cathedral as we see it today and continued the rebuilding program which had started c.1275 under his predecessors.

His most lasting legacy however is probably the group of spectacular fittings he commissioned for the choir. These consisted of a bishop's throne, a sedilia, a reredos behind the high altar and the pulpitum (the screen dividing the choir from the nave upon which the organ now stands). According to Jon Cannon, "few groups of structures anywhere show a more brilliantly unreined creativity". The reredos was largely destroyed during the Reformation and nothing of it remains but the throne canopy, sedilia and pulpitum commissioned by Stapledon remain in the cathedral today, "a group which cannot be parallelled in any other English cathedral" (Pevsner & Cherry). The first of these to be started was the throne canopy.

Work on the bishop's throne canopy began in 1313. In June of that year the acclaimed medieval architect
Thomas of Witney visited Exeter for a month just to select the timber. He was almost certainly also responsible for its design. Witney was both a master mason and an exceptionally skilled carpenter who worked on the cathedrals at Winchester and Wells and at Malmesbury Abbey.

The oak for the canopy came from trees felled from the bishop's estates at Chudleigh and at Newton St Cyres, a small village a few miles north-west of Exeter. At Newton St Cyres the timber was artifically seasoned by being immersed in a mill pond for several years. Construction of the canopy lasted from 1316 to 1317. Although Witney designed the throne canopy it was the creation of the master carpenter Robert de Galmeton and an associate. It seems from the Fabric Rolls that Galmeton was paid £4 for creating this enormous piece of woodwork, less than the cost of the timber itself. Thomas of Witney was probably in Exeter to oversee the final construction of the canopy as he was made master mason of the cathedral in 1316, a post he held until his death c.1342. He also designed the timber vaults still in place over the transepts and the cathedral's west front.

Once completed the throne canopy was almost certainly painted and gilded, and there is some evidence that even more detail was added with moulded putty. Standing nearly 60ft (18m) tall it is the largest and highest bishop's throne canopy ever constructed.

The base and enclosure of the canopy are Victorian but the rest is largely unchanged since it was created in the early 14th century. Built of oak and originally held together with nothing but wooden pegs, the canopy is framed by one of the arches of the south choir aisle. The canopy has a ceiling of wooden vaulting. The section immediately above the actual throne consists of four great gables built around a crenellated central tower. Within the gables are cusped nodding ogee arches decorated with angels. According to Pevsner and Cherry, these are some of the earliest nodding ogees in England. A series of crocketed pinnacles rise at each corner of the canopy on slender buttresses, joined further up by yet more buttress-type supports and pinnacles. Almost at the top, half buried within the forest of pinnacles, is a square frame of Gothic open tracery upon which originally stood a large medieval statue, probably of St. Peter (now replaced with a Victorian statue). The entire canopy is surmounted by a single openwork crocketed pinnacle.

The entire scheme is intensely architectural. Every concept known to the medieval stone mason was thrown
into it: ogee arches, pointed arches, gables, vaulting, tracery, pinnacles and buttresses. It's like the central spire that the cathedral never had. And almost every available surface is intricately decorated with a carved vine leaves and bunches of grapes with human faces and animal faces peering out through the foliage.

It is an astounding confection of almost overwhelming ostentation.When painted and covered in metal foil it would've been even more so.

But what could've motivated Bishop Stapledon to commission such an object, twice the size again of any existing medieval throne canopy? Clearly Stapledon wanted to express his episcopal might and create a chair which would glorify the people who sat upon it. Jon Cannon has written that Stapledon's elaborate fittings, including the throne canopy, were designed to turn the cathedral "into a kind of living shrine, not to a saint or a miracle - for it had neither - but to the liturgy itself, and by extension the authority of its bishop". He continues: "Exeter on a major feast day would have been worth the trip for the rituals and their setting alone." I suppose the throne canopy is ultimately a statement of power, whether it be spiritual, political, episcopal or financial.

Alexander Jenkins claimed in 1806 that after the English Civil War the Parliamentarians ordered the throne canopy "to be taken down, as useless". Apparently "some worthy gentleman took care of the materials of the throne, and had them privately conveyed to a place of security, where they remained until the restoration, when they were replaced with (happily) very little damage".

I don't know how accurate this claim is. True or not, it's amazing that the throne canopy survived the upheavals of the mid 17th century at all.

The throne canopy was taken apart again in the 1870s during the restoration of the cathedral by George Gilbert Scott. It was apparently buried in "brown paint and varnish". The restorers liked the appearance of the plain old oak so much that "all idea of reviving the colouring of which traces were found was well rejected". It's perhaps a pity that the Victorians didn't reinstate the colours which they found upon cleaning the throne. Stripped of its colour and gilt it is only half the object intended to be seen by Bishop Stapledon and Thomas of Witney in the early 14th century. The very early photo above left dates to 1869 and shows the choir looking west prior to Gilbert Scott's restoration and the removal of the Georgian box stalls. John Loosemore's organ from the 1660s sits on Witney's pulpitum, largely concealed by panelling. The bishop's throne is to the left.

The throne canopy was dismantled by Herbert Reed after the outbreak of the Second World War, the pieces stored in a cellar at Torquay. Reed was one of Devon's finest 20th century craftsmen. If you go into many parish churches in Devon you'll often see his remarkable reconstructions of medieval rood screens, frequently based on surviving fragments of the originals.

It's alleged that Herbert Reed had a dream in which he saw the throne canopy destroyed and persuaded the Dean and Chapter to allow him to take the canopy apart for safekeeping. Either way, his actions saved the canopy from destruction. During the Exeter Blitz on 04 May 1942 a high explosive bomb hit the cathedral and completely destroyed the Chapel of St James and part of the south choir aisle right. Like the medieval glass in the Great East Window, if the throne canopy had still been in place it would've been smashed to pieces by the blast.

Despite the much-repeated claim, recent examination has shown that the throne canopy is no longer held together with just wooden pegs. After the war the canopy was reassembled and Herbert Reed added bolts in certain places to improve the structural integrity. It's almost exactly 700 years-old and the throne canopy is still one of the highlights of a visit to the cathedral. Bishop Stapledon had a less happy fate. He was murdered in London by an angry mob in October 1326 who associated him with the unpopular Edward II. His body was eventually returned to Exeter where it is interred in an elaborate tomb to the north of the choir. The photo below shows the throne canopy in the choir c1890.


1 comment:

Unknown said...

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