Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Exeter Cathedral: Bishop Stapledon's Lost Reredos

The early 14th century reredos which stood behind the high altar at Exeter Cathedral must be counted as one of greatest lost masterpieces of medieval England. The photo above is a rather feeble attempt by me to reconstruct what it might've looked like c1400, after the Great East Window had been replaced by Robert Lyen and Robert Lesyngham at the end of the 14th century. The photo below right shows the Neville screen at Durham Cathedral which gets mentioned a little further on.

We know that the reredos was constructed in the early 1320s, the brainchild of Bishop Walter de Stapledon. In 1313 Stapledon invited Thomas of Witney to design a canopy for the bishop's throne to install in the cathedral's newly-completed choir. Presumably under Stapledon's direction, the resulting piece of woodwork became what is probably the largest piece of medieval furniture still in existence, towering nearly 60ft (18m) high and covered in intricate detail.

In 1316 Witney arrived from Winchester to take up the post of master mason at Exeter and drew up designs to complete the choir fittings. This included the creation of the sedilia (a stone structure with three seats near the high altar), the pulpitum (a massive stone screen between the choir and the nave) and the reredos behind the high altar. The throne canopy, sedilia and pulpitum still survive and according to Pevsner & Cherry "cannot be parallelled in any other English cathedral". There is no reason to doubt that the reredos was any less spectacular than the other fittings designed by Thomas of Witney for Bishop Stapledon. The photo below left shows part of the tomb of Hugh Despenser at Tewkesbury which might've drawn inspiration from the Exeter reredos.

Work started c.1316 and the reredos was largely complete by 1325. Such was its scale that it even had its own set of accounts which, when combined with the archaeological evidence, at least give some idea of what the reredos might've looked like.

The reredos consisted of a large stone screen which stood directly behind the high altar. It extended across the full width of the choir. The sedilia and the tomb of Bishop Stapledon stood at the ends of the reredos and the sedilia at least was probably conceived as part of the overall composition.

The reredos was at least as high as the sill of the east window and the tops of the pinnacles probably went up even further. The bottom of the screen was made of solid stone inset into which were three doors. These doors were lockable and led into a vestry immediately behind the altar. The upper parts of the screen were almost certainly open and contained canopied niches for statues.

According to Jon Cannon, the reredos "originally contained up to forty-eight separate statues arranged between three delicate tabernacles [i.e. decorated niches], and 12,800 sheets of gold foil were used in its decoration". The niches would've contained miniature stone vaults. There was certainly a statue of the Virgin Mary and Child, St. Peter and St. Paul as well as a lily of metal foil. The statues probably represented apostles, prophets and angels all of would've been painted in bright colours.

Veronica Sekules has stated that: "At this date, between 1316 and 1325, such a grand structure, free-standing behind the altar and closing it off completely from the area behind, is exceptional and possibly unique. Very few comparable English 14th-century examples are known".

One of these examples is the Neville screen which stands behind the high altar at Durham Cathedral, described by Henry and Hulbert as "the nearest comparable screen" to the reredos at Exeter and upon which I based the reconstruction. The Neville screen was built c.1380 and so is around fifty years later than the Exeter reredos.

Given the differences in the date it's possible that the reredos not only influenced the open work pinnacle design of the Neville screen but was also the inspiration for other 14th century structures, such as the tomb of Edward II at Gloucester and the tomb of Hugh Despenser at Tewkesbury.

Apart from the canopy over the bishop's throne, the other structure which might give some insight into the appearance of the reredos is the sedilia at Exeter left, designed by Thomas of Witney at the same time as the reredos. "It is very likely that from the design of the sedilia we can to some extent extrapolate the design of the reredos" (Veronica Sekules). The sedilia ranks as one of the finest examples of its kind in the country.

The photo above right shows the rear of the sidilia as seen from the south choir aisle (it's difficult to get a good photo from the front as it's set back in one of the arcade arches and the area in front of the high altar is roped off). It is a structure of breathtaking beauty. The quality of the carving is superb and the forms achieved within the triangular arches alone are works of art in their own right. It is possibly a finer, more subtle, more delicate and inventive achievement even than Witney's slightly earlier throne canopy. Stapledon must've been delighted with it. If the vastly larger reredos was remotely similar, which is in all probability it was, it indicates the huge magnitude of the loss. And that was just the stone framework which was in turn adorned with nearly forty-eight carved and painted statues.

The sedilia has been much restored, particularly by George Gilbert Scott in the 1870s when he inserted around 1400 pieces of stone, and after some war damage in 1942. But its medieval form has survived largely intact and it is stunning, each seat crowned with a star-vaulted, seven-sided canopy on top of which is a three-sided ogee-arched canopy crowned with crocketed pinnacles.

Stapledon's largesse didn't end with just providing significant funds for the reredos. He also funded a silver altar table which was in place in front of the reredos by 1327. When John Leland visited Exeter in the late 1530s he reported that "Bishop Stapledon made also the riche fronte of stonework at the high altar in the Cathedral church of Exeter and also made the riche silver table in the middle of it".

During the Reformation this retable was allegedly hidden within the walls of the Chancellor's House in the Cathedral Close. True or not, the retable doesn't exist today and presumably ended its days melted down and in the coffers of the Tudor court. The Reformation also saw the reredos stripped of all its idolatrous images. Only one small fragment of the statues might still survive, a figure of a king which was perhaps relocated inside the tomb of Bishop Stapledon. Stapledon was beheaded by a mob close to St. Paul's in London in 1326, his body was later returned to Exeter by Isabella of France.

A second fragment above right could've been relocated to the north wall of St Andrew's Chapel. The masonry consists of three gable arches with ogee arches underneath. The design is very similar to the arches at the back of the sedilia. It's possible that these are just a few of the niche canopies from Stapledon's reredos but the fragment could equally have come from the reredos in the Lady Chapel or elsewhere in the cathedral.

Otherwise the great reredos is only present by its absence. The photo left shows one of the arches in the north arcade of the choir, or presbytery. High up on the arch are some scars in the masonry which remain to indicate the minimum height of Stapledon's reredos. Comparison with the chairs on the floor illustrate just how enormous it was.

The back of the stone framework appears to have survived the Reformation up to the height of the east window. It was plastered over in 1638 and painted with a trompe l'oiel perspective. In 1818 the painting and remains of the reredos were demolished. A report in the 'Exeter Flying Post' of that year announced that "on Monday the Cathedral was shut up for the commencing of the new works, of taking down the altar screen, supposed to have been erected in the early part of the seventeenth century, on the scite of the more antient altar of the age of Bishop Stapledon. The screen, now to be removed, is a plain surface, painted in a style of mixed Gothic and Grecian". The report clearly believed that the Stapledon reredos couldn't have been as high as the remaining masonry suggested but hindsight has shown otherwise. The painting and the remaining part of the screen was demolished and that was the end of Bishop Stapledon's reredos.

The reconstruction of the reredos above is highly conjectural and is probably wrong on pretty much everything! I only managed to fit on about half the total complement of statues. It's really just designed to try and convey something of the screen's former magnificence and show how it must've dominated the choir. If anything it was even larger than depicted in the reconstruction. The only thing that is perhaps fairly accurately demonstrated is how the reredos worked in conjunction with the east window to create a vast expanse of iconography at the eastern end of the cathedral. When the reredos was completed the entire east wall would've been filled with colour images, whether in stone or glass. The same view below shows what a devastating impact the Reformation had on English medieval art.


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.


Thursday, 16 May 2013

Exeter Cathedral: The Image Screen

The image screen at Exeter Cathedral is one of the city's greatest treasures. Its vast array of medieval sculpture is of national importance and it contains England's biggest facade of 14th century statuary. Its history and iconography are exceptionally complex so the following account is really little more than a summary!

A general overview of the evolution of the west front and the creation of the image screen can be found here. The screen covers around a third of the cathedral's west front, took over a century to complete and went through at least one major modification.

The screen was an afterthought, added to the west front after the main construction work of the present cathedral was completed in the early 1340s. The screen's architect was almost certainly William Joy who had succeeded Thomas of Witney as the cathedral's master mason.

The construction of the screen can be divided into three convenient phases. The first lasted from around 1342 until 1348. The second probably occurred mostly in the 1370s. The final phase is less easy to date but c1460 seems most likely.

Phase I - c.1342 to 1348

William Joy designed the image screen in the early 1340s as two tiers of statues set within a series of ornate architectural canopies stretching across the entire face of the cathedral's west front.

The screen was also to contain the chantry chapel of John Grandisson, the bishop responsible for commissioning the screen in the first place. Three porches were also included in the design: a large central porch over the ceremonial entrance into the cathedral and two smaller porches over the aisle doors to either side, all of which were to be fitted with exterior sculpture.

Details about the exact progression of the screen are unknown. The stone framework was probably constructed first, likened by Jon Cannon to "a massive piece of stone furniture built against a pre-existing wall", and once this was completed the niches were presumably filled with statues as and when they were finished. The photo above right shows one of the better survivals among the demi-angels which form the lowest tier of the screen.

The mason responsible for the sculpture dating from c1342 to 1348 is anonymous. The statues were almost certainly the output of one master mason whose Westcountry workshop specialised in figure work. Stylistic similarities have been found between the mid 14th century image screen statues at Exeter and those on the slightly later Jesse Tree reredos at Christchurch Priory in Dorset. Other examples of his work do survive at Exeter, for example the Annunciation and Nativity scenes inside the south porch and the spandrels around the central porch.

All of the surviving medieval statues are carved from limestone extracted from the immense quarry caves at Beer in Devon. A superb material for carving, the limestone is unfortunately also susceptible to erosion which partially accounts for the poor condition of most of the remaining 14th and 15th century figures.

The lowest tier of Joy's screen features twenty-five demi-angels i.e. half an angel depicted from the waist upwards. Many of the angels are depicted playing musical instruments as they emerge from crenellated pedestals like medieval chimney sweeps.

Sadly, given their position on the lowest level of the screen, the angels have suffered particularly badly and in most instances are little more than shapeless blobs of limestone. Many are missing heads and arms but in a number of cases the wings, set further back and with each feather exquisitely carved, have survived to show something of the original quality. They would all originally have been clothed in folded drapery.

Of the twenty-five angels presumably installed in the 1340s twenty-three still remain on the screen. One was replaced c1755 and another by John Kendall in the early 19th century. A third angel above left, beautifully carved by Simon Verity, replaced a weathered lump of stone in the 1980s. It gives a good indication of the once ethereal beauty of the medieval originals.

The second tier of William Joy's original design contained niches for twenty-five full-length figures. Ten of the statues installed in the 1340s still survive today. All but two of them are depicted as a seated king or crowned elder. The two exceptions are chainmail-clad knights, one of which is shown above with a little dog tumbling at his feet. Joy also probably planned for two demi-figures of kings above the north and south porches (only the south porch's demi-figures survive today. The other two might never have been carved).

The photo right shows one of the superb figures carved at this time. Like some of the other second tier figures, the seated king has his legs crossed as a sign of dignity and authority, a motif which appears in contemporary statues on the west fronts of the cathedrals at Lichfield and Lincoln. According to Pevsner and Cherry, the "style of the Exeter figures is characteristic of c.1330-1350: stiffly tortuous attitudes, convoluted tubular folds of drapery, and rather long, solemn faces." It must be these figures which were disparagingly described in 'The Architect' in 1870 as being "afflicted with an energy quite too enormous to describe".

The photo below shows three more of the statues from the 1340s, including the second of the two knights. The head of the right-most king might be a replacement as the crown and features look remarkably well-preserved. Fine detail can still be seen on the knight's right leg.

The pedestals upon which the kings rest each spring from a central pillar rising behind the angels on the first tier. As it rises the pillar branches into three capitals, richly carved with foliage, the flat tops of which form the pedestals for the kings.

One aspect of the 1340s statues which has largely been lost through erosion is their intricate surface detail. The photo left shows a tremendous piece of carving from the 1340s, one of the two demi-figures above the south porch. It has fortunately survived in better condition than many of the more exposed figures. It's possible to see the lofty solemnity of the king's expression, the detailing on the crown and the corkscrew curls of the beard and flowing hair. A delicate band of vine leaves is finely etched across the front of the king's mantle. The two knights show a similar level of detailing e.g. rosettes attached the armour, finely carved patterns on the sleeves, individual links of chainmail, etc.

These carved kings bring us to the great catastrophe of the 14th century: the Black Death. In 1348 work on the image screen was abruptly halted and it seems that William Joy was one of the plague's victims. Of the twenty-five planned second tier figures perhaps only eleven or twelve had been completed when the Black Death came to Exeter.

 Phase II - c.1348 to c.1380

It's not known exactly when work restarted but following Bishop Grandisson's death in 1369 he was interred in his chantry chapel, which must've been structurally complete. The chapel was dedicated to St. Radegund, an unusual choice as only a small handful of chantry chapels and parish churches were dedicated to her.

Unfortunately the tomb of one of Exeter's most significant bishops was destroyed during the 16th century. In 1599 John Hooker recorded that Grandisson's tomb "was of late pulled up, the ashes scattered abroad, and the bones bestowed no man knoweth where." The chapel itself was also vandalised, the iconoclasts savaging the carved stone altar piece which today is little more than a mauled lump of limestone.

One survival in the chapel however is a spectacular, rectangular boss of a life-sized Christ. Although greatly retooled it is probably the work of the master mason responsible for the above-mentioned kings and angels. Unfortunately the chapel isn't generally open the public. The photo above right shows the exterior of the chapel. Apart from the mid 14th century statue to the left most of the stone work has been heavily restored.

Grandisson never lived to see his image screen completed. It's possible that as many as fifteen niches on the second tier of the image screen remained without statues at the time of the Black Death and the screen probably remained like this until the 1370s. And then suddenly there's what seems to be a flurry of activity. Between 1375 and 1376 there are records of payments being made to John Pratt, "ymaginator", for work at the front of the cathedral. Pratt's work almost certainly involved creating statues for the empty niches on the second tier.

Seven of the statues from the 1370s survive on the second tier. Three of them are shown above. The statues follow the earlier figures in as far as they show seated kings but stylistically they are much different. The lively informality of the figures from the 1340s has been replaced with rather staid poses, much simpler drapery and less characterful expressions.

Five of the 1370s figures are at the north end of the screen and are probably associated with the construction of the north porch.

The north porch was (re)constructed c1377 to the design of the cathedral's latest master mason, Robert Lesyngham. Lesyngham was also responsible for reconstructing the great east window in the 1380s and alternating/rebuilding the cloisters.

The north porch has a little fan-vaulted ceiling, a cutting edge architectural innovation at the time. The porch is probably the earliest surviving example of Perpendicular Gothic architecture in Devon. On the exterior is an ogee arch above which, set into Perpendicular blind tracery, are four little niches left. The three surviving statues in the niches probably date to the 1370s and represent the four Cardinal Virtues conquering Vice. Justice, Fortitude and Prudence are still in situ, crushing little figures of Vice under their feet, but Temperance conquering Vice has disappeared completely.

Unfortunately it seems likely that the image screen as it was intended to appear in the 14th century hasn't survived intact as there is archaeological evidence for a gable over the central doorway. Avril Henry has suggested that this gable contained more statues showing God enthroned. At least one of these statues appears to have been recycled when additions were made to the image screen in the 15th century and the central gable was demolished.

The image right shows one of the statues which might've once stood in the gable above the cathedral's central door. It was carved in the 1340s at the same time as many of the kings on the second tier. Stylistically it is very similar, although this one is shown standing and not sitting. It has been tentatively identified as Melchisedech holding a covered chalice.

The image below is designed to give some indication of what the two-tier image screen might've looked like c.1380, before additions were made in the mid 15th century and when all the statues had been painted in bright colours (the hypothetical central gable isn't included in the reconstruction). Many of the kings once held metal sceptres. The polychromy is based on a reconstruction by Eddie Sinclair showing the screen's painted appearance at the end of the medieval period. During the conservation work in the 1980s microscopic particles of medieval paint were discovered attached to the stonework and from these it was possible to recreate the vibrancy of the screen's original appearance.

Phase III - c.1460
It's a possibility that the initial scheme set out by William Joy and Bishop Grandisson in the 1340s was never fully completed and some of the niches of the two-tier image screen remained empty into the 15th century. Either way, the screen appeared to remain relatively static for approximately eighty years from the 1380s onwards until a third tier was added. The exact date of the addition is unknown but it's believed to have been c1460-c1470. The reason for the addition of the third tier is also unknown but it probably resulted in a desire to change the entire screen's iconography. The new tier contained a further thirty-five niches for thirty-five more statues.

Thirty-two 15th century figures remain on the third tier of the image screen today. There are also two from the mid 14th century, including the hypothetical Melchisedech, and one from 1817. What was possibly a second version of St. James the Less by E. B. Stephens was added to what was then an empty niche in the 1860s.

The central group on the third tier originally consisted of the twelve apostles, in the middle of which and directly over the great west door was either the Virgin Mary/Christ or Christ/God. The figure representing the Virgin Mary/Christ was destroyed during the Reformation. It was mistakenly replaced in 1817 with a statue of Richard II! Either side of this central group are two of the Four Evangelists, St. Matthew and St. John on the north buttress and St. Luke and St. Mark on the south buttress. On the north and south flanks of the third tier are the prophets. Fifteen statues of the prophets survive from the mid 15th century. The image below shows a photo of the third tier statues on the image screen with labels showing how the figures are divided up. Click on it for a larger version!

Five of the twelve apostles are certainly identifiable. The photo above left shows a detail from the statue of St. Bartholomew holding his flayed skin (which rather gruesomely retains the inverted outline of his face). The three statues below depict from left to right: St. John holding a poisoned chalice and serpent; St. James the Great dressed as a pilgrim, holding a staff and with a scallop-shell on his hat; and possibly the medieval version of St James the Less holding a fuller's bow used in the manufacture of cloth.

The four figures below appear directly above the great west door. They depict from left to right: St. Peter; the rather poor statue of Richard II from 1817 which took the place of either the Virgin Mary or Christ; God or Christ (if it's supposed to Christ then it has a rather untraditional appearance); St. Paul holding a scabbard and wearing a pouch attached to his waist with a book in it. Beneath the two central figures are shields held by angels.

Only some of the apostles have been identified with much certainty. Unfortunately the prophets are largely unidentifiable. They would've once had scrolls with their names on but these are long gone. As sculpture, the prophets are aesthetically similar to the apostles with sharply defined, angular robes. Many of the prophets are also wearing hats.

The photo right shows two more of the apostle figures. The statue on the right is possibly St. Matthew holding a moneybox. The figure on the left is unidentified.

Dismissed as "dead and lumpy" by an architect in 1870, the 15th century statues don't have the enormous vigour of the mid 14th century kings below but their glowering countenances do possess an intense 'Old Testament' gravitas

What were probably empty niches on the second tier were also filled at this time. Chief among these are four figures representing the Four Doctors of the Church: Augustine, Ambrose, Gregory and Jerome. Two on each side of the screen, they stand in niches below the four evangelists whose gospels they explained.

All of the 15th century additions would also have been painted. The image below, again based on Eddie Sinclair's reconstruction, shows how the completed image screen might've looked c1500. It would've been a spectacular sight as the sun set in the west. Very little of the medieval paint survives. The red colour visible in some of the photos above is the remnant of red paint applied widely across the screen in the 17th century.

Major Restoration - 1805 to 1985

The statuary has decayed dramatically over the last two hundred years. A combination of a build-up of soot from coal fires and aggressive cleaning in the 20th century has resulted in a significant loss of detail. I think it was Edith Prideaux who, at the beginning of the 20th century, described going to the west front the morning after the city's annual bonfire had been lit next to the cathedral and seeing pieces of stone work which had flaked off through the intense heat.

The screen underwent significant restoration in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The crenellations and angels at the tops of the north and south sides of the screen were completely replaced between 1805 and 1829 by John Kendall (these have since been replaced again). Kendall also placed the statues of King Athelstan and Edward the Confessor on the buttresses above the screen, gave three of the Four Doctors new heads and refaced the bottom 3ft of the screen.

Twelve of the elaborate canopies above the central figures were replaced in 1838 along with the open parapet at the top of the central section.

In 1865 a statue of William the Conqueror by E. B. Stephens left replaced a mid 14th century statue on the second tier which had allegedly been destroyed when someone tried climbing the screen in the early 19th century. He also added what could've been a second statue of James the Less to the third tier. A large number of the remaining medieval canopies were replaced in a major restoration between 1899 and 1913, much to the fury of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings.

Between 1978 and 1985 more stone work was replaced, including the canopies of the third tier on the southern part of the screen and the vertical shafts. This is when Simon Verity's angel was added. He was also commissioned to sculpt a new figure of St Peter, the cathedral's patron saint, which occupies a position high up on top of the west front's gable right.

Relatively little of the medieval exterior stone work now survives on the image screen, the main exceptions being the decorated porches and the statues, which have fortunately remained relatively untouched. It is surprising that only one statue, depicting the Virgin Mary/Christ, is known to have been destroyed during the Reformation, although it's possible that a statue on the second tier was also destroyed at this time. (Only the lower part of this statue still survives. Holding an orb, it could've shown either St. Radegund or a king.) The image below is an animated stereoscopic view of the image screen dating to c1865.


Unfortunately no-one knows for certain what the medieval statues on the screen actually mean. Trying to decipher the meaning hasn't been helped by the possible alteration to the original iconography which took place with the addition of the third tier in the 15th century.

It's possible that on the 14th century version of the image screen the kings on the second tier were the twenty-four elders mentioned as gathering around the throne of God in the Book of Revelation: "And round about the throne were four and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold". These elders were perhaps intended to be representatives of the Church. There are twenty-five niches on the second tier, one of which might've been for a statue of St. Radegund, leaving space for the twenty-four elders. But this interpretation is muddied by the presence of what were perhaps four demi-kings and two knights, although the knights might've served some allegorical function.

Other suggestions have included the Kings of the Old Testament, a peaen to medieval kingship or, perhaps less likely, the Kings of England. A Tree of Jesse showing the ancestors of Christ is yet another suggestion. According to Avril Henry, in this interpretation the statues on the second tier would be read from left to right, starting with Jesse and "reaching a kind of fruition in the 'Annunciation' and combined 'Nativity/Magi' within the south porch". But the lack of the characteristic stem framework showing the branches of the Tree or any distinguishing features on the statues themselves make this interpretation problematic.

Another possibility is that the screen was designed by Bishop Grandisson in the 1340s as an architectural and iconographical counterweight to the enormous reredos installed behind the cathedral's high altar by Bishop Stapledon and largely completed by 1325. The reredos contained fifty-four painted statues in niches within a stone screen and would've been similar in appearance to the image screen on the west front. The reredos was largely destroyed during the Reformation. Perhaps Grandisson intended his image screen to show a progression from the worldly authority of medieval kingship, which was itself believed to be derived from God, to the heavenly authority depicted on the reredos.

Without the key figures which probably occupied the gable above the central doorway the intended meaning of the 14th century kings will perhaps remain unknown. The photo above right shows the full three tiers of the image screen with mid 14th century angels and kings on the bottom two tiers and mid 15th century apostles at the top. The photo below left shows two of the prophets from c.1460.

It's not even known for certain that the iconography was complete at the end of the 14th century. It's possible that this only happened when the third tier was added in the 15th century. Or perhaps this addition scrapped Grandisson's 14th century meaning and recycled the iconography of the kings/elders for some entirely different purpose, the possible twenty-four elders reinterpreted as the ancestors of the Virgin Mary.

And it doesn't help that no-one is sure if the 15th century statue on the third tier destroyed during the Reformation depicted the Virgin Mary or Christ. If the latter then the screen might've depicted Christ in Majesty, surrounded by apostles and prophets. As Avril Henry states, "it's not impossible that the [15th century] central group formed a 'Trinity', the missing figure being Christ, while the surviving one (which is bearded) is the Father, the Dove of the Spirit having appeared somewhere in the group". If the missing statue was the Virgin Mary then the screen could've shown the Coronation of the Virgin, which seems to be a widely-accepted theory.

It's a puzzle, but the statues at least survive even if their precise meaning is obscure. They are inspected regularly as part of a conservation programme and are treated with a lime-based coating to prevent further significant deterioration. It's easy to take the image screen for granted when you live in the city for many years, but it really is a spectacular addition to the cathedral. The image below shows the statues on the image screen highlighted in four colours: red = c.1342-c1348; purple = c.1370-c.1380; green = c.1460-c.1480; yellow = post-medieval replacements.


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.

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