Saturday, March 14, 2009


Underneath the arches

This blog is mostly about small and little known buildings, the ones that most of us ignore as we hurtle around. But now and then I like to stop and look at the less obvious bits of more famous buildings, the parts that other visitors do not always reach. Today it’s the turn of Worcester Cathedral, a building mostly of the 13th and 14th centuries, its Gothic forms enjoying a beautiful site above the River Severn. But this Gothic building was actually constructed on the site of an earlier Norman cathedral, itself on the site of a Saxon church.

The Norman rebuild was carried out in the years after 1084 under the auspices of Wulfstan, a Saxon bishop who, unusually, had kept his see when the Normans conquered England in 1066. Various fragments of this Norman cathedral are incorporated in the later building, but one of the best is hidden away underground: the crypt.

Worcester’s crypt is lovely early Norman work of the 1080s. It consists of a small forest of some 50 round columns topped with simple capitals and supporting a groin- vaulted ceiling. The rows of columns define a rectangular space with an apsidal (semi-circular) end that would have been directly below the east end of the Norman cathedral, showing us that this building would have had an apse above ground too.

John Russell, in his book Shakespeare’s Country, compares this crypt to Istanbul’s wonderful ‘hall of a thousand columns’, the Byzantine water cistern so vast that it is like an entire subterranean cathedral. Although this is overegging it a bit, the crypt’s simple repeating patterns of columns and pale vaulted ceilings create a space of calm and special beauty. Crypts like this (there are similar ones at Canterbury, Gloucester, and Winchester) are not the best known parts of our cathedrals, but are well worth seeking out for their tranquil atmosphere and the pleasing regularity of their architecture. Above ground level there is nothing quite like them.


Peter Ashley said...

I really like Worcester Cathedral. A few years ago we visited it, and had the warmest welcome we'd received in any ecclesiastical establishment. And no security barriers and pay booths either. Hope it's still so.

Unknown said...

Whilst you're on the subject of the lesser known, Worcester Cathedral, like many churches an cathedrals has a group of hidden treasures, under the fobs of the choir stalls - misericords. Worcester Cathedral, has 42 of these beauties, 39 of which date from the 15th century, whilst the rest are Victorian replacements.

There are in excess of 200 churches, chapels and cathedrals in the UK alone, which have misericords, but by and large they sit there un-noticed and un-loved.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Peter: I must say I've been made to feel very welcome at all three of the 'western' cathedrals - Gloucester, Worcester, and Hereford.

Dominic: I quite agree about misericords. They're often wonderful bits of carving, embodying folklore, mythical and real beasts, and all kinds of other scenes. A shame they're occasionally roped off from view, though.

Ron Combo said...

Lovely illuminating post, grazie mille.

Philip Wilkinson said...

You're welcome, Ron, thank you. I'm very attached to these cathedral crypts, which so many visitors overlook - or perhaps squeamishly pass by, thinking that they might be ossuaries.