Friday 10 May 2013

Exeter Cathedral: The Evolution of the the West Front

The image above dates to c1860 and is the earliest known photograph of the west front of Exeter Cathedral. 150 years later and it's still probably the single most photographed subject in the south west of England. (The building to the far right is the medieval chancel of the Church of St Mary Major demolished and rebuilt in 1864-65). Despite extensive restoration and replacement of the stonework, the overall appearance of the west front has changed relatively little since the medieval period. But the west front has proved to be the most controversial part of the cathedral. Its history is fairly complex and not all is what it seems!

As previously mentioned, the reconstruction of the Norman cathedral at Exeter was started c1275 at the eastern end of the building. Between 1328-42 the main body of the cathedral was completed with the west front marking the last major construction work. The decision was made to modify the Norman west front rather than rebuild it in its entirety and so much of the 12th century masonry was left standing, largely obscured now beneath the 14th century additions. It's known that the central doorway was being built in 1330 and that the west gable was completed in 1342.

The west front was initially designed by Thomas of Witney, a remarkable medieval craftsman responsible not only for the cathedral's completion but also the design of a sequence of magnificent early 14th century fittings in the choir for Bishop Stapledon. These included the 60ft-high bishop's throne, the pulpitum, the sedilia and the reredos behind the High Altar. The reredos was destroyed during the Reformation but the rest remain, described by Pevsner & Cherry as "a group which cannot be paralleled in any other English cathedral".

The west front is now dominated by two features right: the west window and the colossal image screen containing large statues of kings, prophets and angels, described on the cathedral's website as "one of the great architectural features of Medieval England".

The two lower tiers of sculptures are mostly from the mid 14th century. The upper tier i.e. everything above the main doorway largely dates to c1460-80, over a hundred years after the two lower tiers had been completed.

Of particular interest is the fact that the image screen was an afterthought. Vertical joints between the image screen and the west wall of the cathedral show that the image screen was never part of the west front's original architectural design. Thomas of Witney died c1342 and the image screen is believed to have been the conception of his successor, William Joy.

So what was Thomas of Witney's original design for the west front? No-one knows for certain but to get a little closer to his conception it's necessary to try and remove the image screen completely to show what is known to lie behind it. The image below gives a rough impression of the west front with the image screen digitally removed. It's based on a reconstruction by Exeter archaeologists Stuart Blaylock and John Allan and attempts to give some idea of how Witney intended to finish the cathedral.

Witney's original design for the west front easily divides into five parts. At the top of the cathedral is the apex of the roof with a traceried window and a niche for a statue of St Peter. Behind this window lies the top of the vault which runs the entire length of the cathedral. Immediately below, separated by a crenellated parapet, is the magnificent west window framed with shallow pilaster buttresses . Either side of the west window are perhaps the cathedral's most peculiar external feature: two stone screens with raking crenellations which continue the sloping angle of the roof line. Each screen conceals a stair turret at their outer end and are decorated with blind arcades with Gothic canopies. Below each screen is a small traceried window. These windows give light into the north and south aisles, one for each aisle, but are almost completely obscured by the later image screen.

The lowest level, detail above, appeared to consist of five arches: three large arches under the west window and two smaller ones to the north and the south. The smaller ones are doorways into the cathedral. It seems that these have always been in use since the west front was constructed in the 1330s and are still used today for entering and leaving the building. The central arch is the Great West Door and this too has been in use since its construction. Either side of the west door were two blind arches of the same size. The blind arch to the right in the reconstruction is still visible today in the chantry chapel of Bishop Grandisson who died in 1369.

The chantry chapel was constructed between the outer face of the west wall of the cathedral and the front of the image screen. The chapel's little windows are visible in the photos of the image screen already shown. One of Thomas of Witney's large blind arches is now preserved as the eastern wall of the chapel left. (The smaller arch in the photo dates to the chapel's construction and is unrelated to Witney's original design for the west front.)

Witney's other blind arch hasn't been seen since it was covered over by the image screen in the 1340s but it is presumed to exist. It seems that these blind arches were never intended to be anything other than decorative features.

The arrangement of these arches before the later construction of the image screen is about all that is known with any certainty of Thomas of Witney's original scheme for the lowest part of the west front. The upper parts, like the great west window, the two aisles windows and the gable end, have remained as he intended.

It's not known exactly when it was decided to add the image screen or how far work had progressed on Witney's original architectural scheme before it was begun, although it probably had been completed. Most of the west wall covered by the image screen is now inaccessible and it's not known what else might lay beneath it. It's also possible that Witney was involved in the early design of the image screen prior to his death.

The reconstruction, with just two blind arches and the three doorways, looks very austere in comparison with the later image screen. Perhaps Thomas of Witney would've added other decorative features, maybe niches for statues, but it's more likely that he intended to leave the lower level plain. This had the effect of dramatising the upper portions of the west front, especially the scale of the great west window and the blind arches and canopies on the two projecting screens.

One curious feature of the west front is a remnant of some decoration on the south west buttress next to the image screen. This decoration consists of several crenellations carved with a quatrefoil motif set against the wall. One of these can be seen in the photo right. Beneath is part of a stone string course and both the crenellations and string course continue around the corner of the buttress. This could be a fragment of the cloisters, an on-going building project for much of the 14th century and it's thought that the same motif ran across the west wall of the cloisters. It could also be related to Thomas of Witney's west front. In the reconstruction of the west front I extended the stone string course across the entire facade of the cathedral. Attempts at doing the same with the crenellations/quatrefoils looked a mess so I abandoned the idea!

Thomas of Witney's original scheme didn't last long. Either shortly before his death around 1342 or just afterwards Bishop Grandisson decided to abandon the simplicity of the earlier design of the lower level of the west front in favour of an elaborate image screen filled with statues.

It's been suggested that he might've been inspired by the painted portal of Lausanne Cathedral which was completed c1220 as some of Grandisson's relatives were from the area and held the Bishopric of Lausanne. It's just as likely that Grandisson had visited Wells Cathedral and seen the west front covered with statuary.

Another source of inspiration might well have been Bishop Stapledon's now-lost reredos at Exeter which was decorated with up to fifty-four separate statues and covered in 12,400 sheets of gold foil.

The first phase of the image screen involved only two tiers of statues and was almost certainly the design of Willian Joy, Witney's successor as master mason. Construction of the screen began c1342 and lasted until 1348 when, according to Jon Cannon, "the project stopped in its tracks, half-finished, and William Joy was never heard of again; the Black Death had swept him away". When Grandisson died in 1369 his chantry chapel above right, wedged between Witney's old west front and Joy's new image screen, must've been complete. The chapel was dedicated to St Radegund. There's evidence that statues were still being carved and placed within the two tiers of the image screen in the 1370s.

The reconstruction below shows how the cathedral's west front might've looked c1400, after the first phase of the image screen had been completed. However it should be remembered that the statues were originally brightly painted (something I haven't yet got around to trying to reconstruct!). The 14th century screen consisted of two tiers of statues, with intrument-playing angels on the lowest tier and seated knights and kings on the second tier. The knights and kings sat in canopied alcoves. The surviving images now constitute the largest collection of 14th century statuary in England. The image is also based on a similar reconstruction by Stuart Blaylock and John Allan. It's interesting to see that the lowest parts of the windows have been left visible. There was also perhaps a gable over the central doorway.

The west front remained like this for around one hundred years. At some point in the 15th century, probably around 1460, the decision was made to add a third tier to the image screen. This resulted in the truncation of the canopies over the heads of the 14th century kings and knights. Thirty five new statues were installed in the new tier including the twelve apostles, four evangelists, fourteen prophets, Christ, the Virgin Mary and God below. The images appear to have been mixed around a bit as there are now two 14th century statues on the top tier and a few 15th century figures in the middle tier. It's not known for certain when this was done.

One unfortunate result of the addition of the top tier was the obscuring of the great west window and, in the words of Stuart Blaylock, the addition of the screen "lends a stunted appearance" to Witney's original design. It certainly emphasises the width of a cathedral which was never particularly high in the first place but the collection of statues is one of Exeter Cathedral's greatest treasures.

The image right is just a slow-moving animation showing the successive changes made to the west front between c1342 and 1480.

Something else should be said about the two projecting screens either side of the west window. In the 19th century especially they came in for quite a bit of criticism. Thomas Moule let rip in 1838: "We know of no precedent for these sloping walls any where except in the west front of the superb marble Cathedral of Milan. The effect there is not good, and here it is still worse; it greatly diminishes the apparent height, destroys all proportion, and gives a character of heaviness and awkwardness to the whole of this facade". He goes on to wonder whether both the two side screens and the image screen were ever part of the original design. An architect in 1870 described the west front as "second to none in sheer ugliness of form and proportion...produced chiefly by continuing the gable proper over the aisles, so as to hide the flying buttresses and give a vulgar emphasis to the roof line". For him the west front was little more than "the simplest barn-end", "one huge gable of a breadth nearly equal to its total height".

We now know that the image screen was an afterthought, "a massive piece of stone furniture built against a pre-existing wall", as Jon Cannon says. But what about the side screens with their blind arcades?

The photo left shows the northern screen from the back as seen from the cathedral's north tower. Immediately behind it is one of the nave's flying buttresses.

The screens have no structural purpose as far as the west front is concerned. They do house a staircase though, and the stair turret is visible at the end of the screen in the photo, surmounted by a pinnacle.

For a long time it was believed that these screens might've been a later addition made by William Joy. According to Stuart Blaylock, in the 1980s "the hypothesis that the screen walls above the aisles belonged to a separate, later, phase of work" was "developed and tested". The stone around the screens was examined and "this theory was found not to be sustainable". Any differences in the stone was accounted for by the necessity of having a suitable material for carving the blind arcades on the screens. The screens appear to have been carved from Beer limestone, a softer, more malleable material than the Salcombe stone used in most of the west front. The south screen, along with the tracery in the west window and the gable window, was heavily restored between 1888 and 1904 and only the much-eroded north screen retains its medieval surface.

The side screens completely hide the flying buttresses between the west front and the transept towers when seen from the west, and this was presumably the intention of the medieval architect. The image below shows the west front with the two side screens removed revealing both the flying buttresses and the two transept towers. Whether it's an improvement or not is probably a matter of opinion!

There have been numerous alterations made to the west front since the 14th century. These include some vandalism to the statues in the 16th century (although thankfully most of them were spared), the replacement of various missing hands and heads on the statues, the replacement of the crenellations along the top of the image screen, reconstruction of the pinnacles, some refacing in new stone and a general erosion caused by the passing of over six centuries. But despite all of that the west front has retained its medieval integrity to a greater extent than many other English cathedrals.



Anonymous said...

I like the middle phase best- I'm not at all sure that I like the covering of the lower windows, and I'm not completely convinced by the utter plain-ness of the earliest image. Ideally with more modern glass technology I'd just extend all three windows to ground level and make them french doors at the bottom.

wolfpaw said...

I like the middle phase too. It seems like a good balance between the two! It's not certain that the first phase was quite as plain as I made it in the reconstruction. Maybe there were other decorative details planned and never completed or perhaps they were destroyed when the image screen was built. It does seem a little strange that a cathedral regarded as the epitome of Decorated Gothic architecture was originally planned to have such a plain lower level. Unfortunately we'll probably never know exactly what was planned or built in that first phase.

Thanks for the comment :)

Anonymous said...

I had not known that Bp. Grandisson's chantry was dedicated to the holy virgin S. Radegund. She was of course a princess and the earliest form of the image screen presented kings and knights. I am reminded of John Leyerle's observation that from the outside a rose window looks like Boethius's Wheel of Fortune, but from the inside like a Rose (recalling the Blessed Virgin). Might there have been a similar sense of progression at Exeter, viz. that the earlier stage of the image screen represented worldly holiness and the lost image screen on the High Altar reredos otherworldly holiness. That distinction would have been abandonned if the 15th century scheme was really centred (as some have suggested) on the Coronation of the Virgin (as in miniature in the early 16th century porch of S. Peter's Tiverton). Just a thought.

wolfpaw said...

That's a really interesting theory. If you don't mind I will include it as one possibility when I write about the image screen in more detail. It certainly makes sense to view the west front screen as a counterweight, both architecturally and symbolically, to Stapledon's reredos. If true then it means we only have one half of the key. I've wondered if the image screen, as left at the end of the 14th century, was iconographically complete. Such a progression from west front to reredos would complete the iconography without having to use religious figures on the west front itself (as far as I know, all of the explicitly religious exterior figures were added in the 15th century, something which I thought was puzzling).

Thanks for the comment!

Unknown said...

It is really interesting to me to see those pictures. Those structures have been preserved for such a long time, which is great. I have a friend that works in demolition in Calgary, and he is always saying that he dreads the day they have to demolish a historical site.

Anonymous said...

interested to read about Dix's field and its sorry history.
My reason for contacting you is that there was a bacteriological laboratory in no 7 around 1935, run by a Dr Thomas Lawson McEwan. I am interested in the history of such labs, but love the buildings shown in your blog.

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