Friday, April 4, 2008

Bristol Cathedral


The great modernist architect Le Corbusier wrote a book called Quand les cathédrales étaient blanches (When the Cathedrals Were White). In other words, when they were new. Le Corbusier liked things that were new and white and most people think that whiteness is the natural state of old cathedrals, their stone chastely expressing their structure. But actually medieval cathedrals were painted in glowing colours, their interiors resembling jewel boxes or manuals of heraldry. Go inside the wonderful Sainte Chapelle, the royal chapel in Paris, a vast kaleidoscopic casket of painted stone and stained glass, and you get the idea.

Ancient English churches and cathedrals on the whole have lost their ancient coloured interiors, but here at Bristol, a little bit of the colour has been restored. The picture shows part of the 14th-century reredos – that’s the decorated wall behind the altar – in the Eastern Lady Chapel of the cathedral. This part of the building was constructed between 1298 and 1330, and the reredos is a classic 14th-century piece of stone carving. The curvaceous double-curved ogee arches, the circular flowers, the little pinnacles and the other intricate details are all typical of the highly ornate style that the Victorians appropriately christened Decorated. In 1935 the reredos was restored and the restorers repainted it using evidence from remains of the medieval paint so that it displays something like its original colour. When the cathedrals were red, green, gold…

7 comments:

Thud said...

I like the austerity of old churches even if artificial but it would be good to see more restored to something approaching their original multicoloured glory.

Peter Ashley said...

Painting went on outside too, I think. Tattershall Castle in Lincolnshire was apparently painted bright red, just to scare the wits out of anybody approaching it across the marshes.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Yes, painting certainly went on outside. For example, when the West Front of Wells Cathedral was restored, traces of medieval paint and gold leaf were found on many of its surviving original statues.

Chris Wild said...

On a similar "bright medieval painting" tip, the North Cray medieval house at the Weald and Downland house has its timbers painted very red, which is very authentic and very odd.

Philip Wilkinson said...

The Weald and Downland is a fascinating place, and I too remember being shocked by the red timbers of the North Cray house. In Central Europe, a traditional treatment for external timbers is still something called "ox blood", which presumably contains ox blood and which is a reddish shade of black.

mat said...

I am a sculptor interested in the idea of colour being an integral part of the exteriors of english sacred architecture and sculpture. I have been drawn to this after travels in India particularly, where I regularly encountered flamboyant use of colour on temple sculpture and architecture. I have since been told that ancient greek temples and their sculpture would also have been brightly coloured.Is there anywhere that I could find photographic examples of this english colouring?

Philip Wilkinson said...

Mat - I don't know of any photographic evidence of significant amounts of colour from the exteriors of English churches or cathedrals. The trouble is that nearly all the colour has either been worn away or obliterated by iconoclasts in the 17th century or by restorers in the 19th. If you look hard at some of the statues on the West front of Wells cathedral, you can find little fragments of colour and I should think this also applies to other cathedrals. But in many cases not even the statues survive. Scholars have done reconstruction drawings, based on what we know from these little bits of colour plus evidence from medieval manuscripts and interior colour schemes. For example in Jon Cannon's recent book CATHEDRAL there's a coloured drawing of part of the front of Exeter Cathedral showing what it probably looked like.