Monday, December 21, 2009


Angel Choir

Lincoln is my favourite of all the English cathedrals – for its stunning hill-top setting (a site equalled only by that of Durham cathedral), its graceful silhouette, and its absorbing Gothic interior so packed with detail that there’s always something new to see no matter how often one visits. Much of the cathedral was built in the late-12th and early-13th centuries after the previous building had been severely damaged in an earthquake. The rebuilding took place under the auspices of a dynamic bishop, Hugh, now known as St Hugh of Avalon (Avalon being near Grenoble, where Hugh, who spent his early years as a Carthusian monk, was born). Between 1255 and 1280 there was another building campaign, this time extending the cathedral beyond the high altar to make a new east end, with space for a shrine containing the remains of the now canonized Hugh. This new space is known as the Angel Choir and is the part of the cathedral in the photograph above.

The Angel Choir is one of the most beautiful spaces in all architecture. Its proportions are very English – wide but not too high (a French cathedral would be higher in proportion to its width). The window tracery, with its geometrical patterns, is stunning. But the space gets its effect mainly from three other aspects of the design – the use of different coloured stones (light limestone contrasting with dark Purbeck marble), the linear rhythms set up by the multitude of vertical shafts and the mouldings of the arches, and the rich carved decoration (on the capitals, on corbels, up the sides of the windows, in the blind arcading beneath the windows, and elsewhere).

The angels that give the choir its name, incidentally, are high up, carved in the spandrels of the triforium arches – the row of small arches that look like dark unglazed windows above the main arcade. These angels are barely visible in the photograph, which, although grainy and from an old book, is better than any photograph I’ve taken of the place because it highlights the differing tones of the stonework and reproduces, as in all the best Gothic architecture, the magical play of light.

A footnote. My affection for Lincoln Cathedral is musical as well as architectural, because in the 16th century the great English composer William Byrd was organist there. Byrd wrote and published much music for the Anglican church, music that would have been heard in buildings such as Lincoln Cathedral. But he was himself a Catholic, and perhaps his most sublime works are settings of the text of the Mass that would have been sung by small gatherings of Catholics worshipping behind closed doors at a time when to follow the old faith was to risk persecution.

This performance of the Agnus Dei from Byrd’s Mass in Five Parts is by the Tallis Scholars, stellar performers of Renaissance choral music. The text ends, ‘Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem’. Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

Amen. And happy Christmas.


Neil said...

Lincoln Cathedral inspired one of the most extraordinary architectural descriptions in English literature, the visit of recently-married Anna and Will Brangwen to the cathedral in The Rainbow, by the most deeply unfashionable of all the great English writers, D. H. Lawrence. It's a highly-sexualised passage ('the far-off clinching and mating of arches, the leap and thrust of the stone'), describing 'his passionate intercourse with the cathedral'. You'd hardly get away with it today, and in 1915 the book was banned.

Philip Wilkinson said...

I'd quite forgotten about this passage (well, it's more than 30 years since I read The Rainbow), so thank you for reminding me of it. I think Lincoln and Lincolnshire must have meant a lot to Lawrence.The county had the nearest stretch of coast to his native Nottinghamshire, and there are memorable references to the Lincolnshire coast in Sons and Lovers, so it's interesting to find him responding in this fashion, with a similar vigour to the way in which he responded to the natural beauty of the coast.

By the way, there's also a Hardy poem that describes Gloucester Cathedral is slightly sexual terms, as you probably know. Curious.

Vinogirl said...

Mr. Wilkinson, great post...wish I could visit Lincoln this Yuletide.
Thanks, and a very merry Christmas.

Jon Dudley said...

Another Lawrence, aka Aircraftsman Shaw also mentions Lincoln Cathedral in 'The Mint' -
'I let in the clutch again, and eased Boanerges down the hill along the tram-lines through the dirty streets and up-hill to the aloof cathedral, where it stood in frigid perfection above the cowering close. No message of mercy in Lincoln. Our God is a jealous God: and man's very best offering will fall disdainfully short of worthiness, in the sight of Saint Hugh and his angels.'

Unbelievably I've never been to Lincoln, a gap in my experience I intend to remedy next year. From your description the cathedral sounds magnificent. Thank you.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Jon: Thanks for the quotation from The Mint, which I've not read. Interesting, isn't it, that TEL's view of the cathedral ('frigid perfection') is almost the opposite of DHL's. But then the two of them did have very different, and very personal, ways of looking at the world.

Jon Dudley said...

Yes, absolutely! Complete opposites. The passage from The Mint is the conclusion of a wonderfully written description of a fast motorcycle ride on his Brough Superior 'Boanerges'. But I digress...

Philip Wilkinson said...

Ah, yes, the Brough Superior, the most famous motor cycle in literary history, and a fine machine by all accounts, though I am no expert in these matters. 'Boanegres' means 'Son of Thunder' or some such, I believe, and being Biblical is a rightly Middle Eastern and noisy name.

Thud said...

Merry Christmas to you and all who visit here.

Bucks Retronaut said...

On my miserably unfulfilled wish list for experiences for 2009 is to hear Tallis`s motet "Spem in Alium" sung in a cathedral.I missed a performance of works of Vaughan Williams at Chichester which would have been good too.
So I`ll carry these over to 2010.
Many thanks for this, and your many other inspirational posts PW ,which have strengthened my resolve,for a decent drive over The Downs,
Happy Christmas to you all,not least JD, without whose influence I might not have found out that the sun always shines at Goodwood even when it`s hissing down ! Thanks,Chaps !

Philip Wilkinson said...

Bucks: I too would like to here 'Spem in Alium' sung in a cathedral. Incidentally, one of the best things I ever went to was a concert with Vaughan WIlliams' Tallis Fantasia played in Gloucester Cathedral, the place for which it was written. A perfect marriage of sound and space.

Thanks for all your comments. And Season's Greetings to you all.

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