Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Broughton, Oxfordshire


Tracery

In compensation for the gloomy picture in the previous post, here’s a more sunny image from earlier this year. It’s the parish church of Broughton, Oxfordshire, near to Broughton Castle, about which I posted back in April. I chose this picture partly because of the sunshine and partly because of the window tracery.

The use of window tracery, the intricate stonework in the heads of Gothic windows, was one way in which the masons of the Middle Ages could put an individual decorative stamp on their churches. Tracery developed steadily during the medieval period. In the 13th century it was usually made up of quite simple patterns, with standard elements such as circles or quatrefoils repeated in a symmetrical fashion. By the 14th century, though, tracery had got much more elaborate. 14th- century windows are often a riot of multiple curves, with stonework making exotic shapes and designs reaching sometimes dazzling complexity. It’s no wonder that the Victorians, classifying medieval architectural styles, called this kind of Gothic “Decorated”.

These two windows at Broughton have outstanding tracery of the early-14th century, one ornately geometrical the other curvilinear in the classic Decorated style. The window on the left is a beautiful bit of geometry raised to the level of art. The circle at the top is divided by two triangles to form a six-pointed star, the points of which are themselves small triangles arranged around a central hexagon. But none of these shapes is left plain – they’re adorned with little stone flourishes called cusps, which break up al the straight lines.

In the top of the right-hand window there are hardly any straight lines at all: everything looks as if it’s about to melt. Every line curves restlessly this way and that, producing in the head of the window a collection of shapes ranging from ellipses and squashed circles to forms that look like flames or tears. The whole design threatens to fall apart, but it doesn’t, because the layout of the tracery is symmetrical and everything is held together by the emphatic overall pointed shape of the window.

We know nothing about the people who built this church, but perhaps they were brought here, or attracted here, nearly 700 years ago by the rich family living in the neighbouring castle. They brought with them skills in geometry and pattern-making together with great visual flair, Add warm morning sun and you have a treat indeed.

8 comments:

Peter Ashley said...

Super pic, and, I have to say, one of the best descriptions of church windows I've read. Signed: N.Pevsner.

Philip Wilkinson said...

PA/NP: Thank you so much for the unsolicited testimonial. I try, but I have to say, I then read the work of Ian Nairn and realise it's pointless - he did it all, ten times better than the rest of us.

ChrisP said...

I arther like Nairn's work too - he was never afraid to leap to judgement, something that Pevsner found so annoying he took the Pevsner name off Nairn's volume on Surrey.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Chris: Nairn, on the other hand, found the discipline of writing descriptions in the prescribed BoE style too restricting. The two men were very different in background, education, temperament, the lot. It's a tribute to both of them that they managed to collaborate at all. Pevsner's usefulness to the world is self-evident. Nairn has gone off the radar these days, but there's still much to enlighten the reader in, for example, Nairn's London, even if it's 40+ years out of date. It's a shame he didn't write more books before the corrosive effects of alcohol set in.

Dianne said...

A great post and now I can put a name to that intricate lace stonework at the top of Gothic windows "window tracery" and it even sounds beautiful!!

"Adelaide and Beyond"

Philip Wilkinson said...

Dianne: Thank you. I'll look out for more tracery for future posts.

Thud said...

I love tracery in all its forms and after attempts at some homemade tracery i appreciate the skills involved even more.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thud: It must be challenging to make. Hats off to you for making the effort.