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More c1200 thoughts

February 2, 2010 Leave a comment

… Of course, the new distancing of altar from congregation in the ec13 might itself have fuelled the demand for more accessible altars and led to the founding of more memorial masses, thus driving the putting up of the aisles. If that’s the case it’s the second, usually N aisle that is the most interesting side effect, as that’s the one that usually appears an add-on (…if it *is* an add-on… ). Or is it also a universal swing towards the creation of Lady chapel aisles, more traditionally on the N than the S, a kind of parish church equivalent ofthe axial Lady chapels but again in its way even more remarkable because widespread and apparently grouped quite closely in time? Of course, one would in any case put up/design in the S aisle first as that is where the entrances are.

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The c1200 parish church problem

February 1, 2010 2 comments

It strikes me with greater and greater force that the coming of Gothic is but an element in what makes the (broadly defined) 20 yrs either side of 1200 so remarkable. There is also a crystallisation of a series of attributes for the ‘great church’ which include some pretty radical reactions from previous norms: abandonment of the apse, abandonment of both galleries and crypts: these are big changes, and the resulting ‘great church’ canon would remain more or less unchanged until the Reformation.

And then there is the scale of the changes in parish churches, which if anything are even greater. This is hard to quantify, but surely a very signficant percentage of these buildings had been re/constructed in the previous 50+ years or so – say, c1120-c1160, that is, not so very long – only for the vast majority to have their chancels enlarged and apses in the process demolished, and then two aisles added within a couple of decades of each other.

I’ve been reading Peter Draper for elucidation, and he’s right, the aisles – surely the most counter-intuitive of these changes (though the universal flattening of the E wall is equally remarkable in its way) – must  reflect new levels of demand for altar space: more priests in the average parish (no altar should have more than one mass a day), more memorial masses; though the evidence is lacking.

What he doesn’t seem to emphasise is the revolutionary scale of the change over such a short period, especially as such a very great many of these churches seem to build one aisle only to rest a few years and then decide to build another. I would love to quantify these statements.

And all of this hand in glove with a new style; and if this is a mini-building boom does it also help explain the relative stasis of style itself from the first decade of the C13 for several decades: as with Perp (but not with Romanesque?) a building boom that was so widespread and at such a ‘low’ level may have encouraged the adoption of an architectural ‘standard’ that could be replicated in many places; perhaps especially if liturgical correctness is one of the motivators of the era.

It’s a very good standard, too, and like Perp emphasizes decorum over ostentation: a graceful and appropriate and easy-to-reproduce setting for sacred events. The sense that Lateran IV is as much a reaction to powerful currents as a catlyst for them is everywhere here.

What Draper does emphasize, and he’s quite right and why hadn’t one thought of it before, is that the installation of standard, pre-designed stone altar fittings is part of this building boom. If there were sedilia and piscinae before this, they were rare as anything; now they were put in in such numbers that an amazingly high number of good c1200/1240 egs were put in and subsequently never replaced.

Likewise, grand s doors and grand fonts are often an emphasis, only here the features themselves are not new: what is new is the rejection of the Romanesque fad for figure scuplture on them.  Yet here the picture is less emphatic: showpiece fonts and doors seem to have been the only *essential* stone furnishings of the C12 church, and where very often kept throughout the many changes of ensuing centuries, the doors on occasion even being moved outwards when new aisles were constructed. So the fact that their c1200ish equivalents are bereft of figure sculpture – geometrical patterns, stiff leaf, en delit shafting, rich moulding is the norm – is not a rejection of the past in the same way that the death of the apse is. Nor are they as widespread – churches with two c1200 apses and 1200 features in the e end often retain magnificent C12 doors, fonts, even chancel arches?…

More anon, I’m sure…

Portsmouth

January 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Ugly, unbeautiful, raw, yet emphatically Not Heritage: Pompey, where no self-respecting young man needs a jacket, even when its snowing, and the few historic remains stand separated from functioning shipyards by armed guards, or silent and unvisited, or alone in playing fields and car parks carved from bombsites.

Yet, rather unexpectedly Portsmouth is home to three medieval religious buildings of real formal interest. Each has a high status patron, yet none is a great church, offering insights into how new ideas might play out in lesser churches; they are well dated, and within a crucial, gothic-creating, era-defining, century.

Sitting alone in a corner of 3rd-century Portchester castle is the church of St Mary, built for a short-lived Augustinian Priory (another grand castle-chapel-community), presumably immediately after founding in 1133 (though it seems a church was already there: VCH). The community moved to Southwick where the estates of the former monastic house remain in quasi-feudal hands.

It’s cruciform, shorn of one transept, both transept chapels, and the original east end. Grand west front. Blank remains of wall arcading in the chancel, and, intriguingly, in the surviving transept. Transept E window, like the yet-grander west front, disported with recently-invented chevron, here given a further twist by having its inner order stretched and ended with a flat geometric circlet. The chancel has the wall shafts for a vault, more remarkably the transept does, too, but this cannot have been completed if the current height of the east-chapel arch is right: a mark of the move of the canons elsewhere? Hall like simple nave, big round headed windows, enormous fine crossing arches with big volute capitals, and one of those great show-off C12 fonts, the kind of fitting that never needs replacing, with exhausting flourishes of land-clearing interlace imprisoning struggling beasts and figures. A splayed naked human handled oddly in the nether-regions, like the so-called sheena-na-gig at Winterbourne Basset, Wilts.

Sixty years and an aesthetic away, the east end of my main quarry, one of a series of rule-breaking local churches in planned port-cities; in status not-quite parish churches (the parish church in each case already existed, so these were institutional cuckoos-in-nests made necessary by townmaking) but in architecture not-quite cathedrals: New Shoreham has another (Old Shoreham church nearby), and St Mary Redcliffe in its original form was a third (shared parochial status with Bedminster). All around the same date, all up to the minute emerging gothic, all, as far as on can tell, intended to be vaulted throughout and with ambitious elevations: ie qualities that were then ambitious in cathedrals, let alone not-quite-parish-churches. But then the rulebook of architectural hierarchies is at this moment being redrafted.

Why does the little east end of St Thomas’ ‘chapel’ (founded c1180- east end functioning by 1188; lands from one John de Gisors, of whom one would like to know more, working with Southwick priory, see above), the climax of Portsmouth’s weird, airy, C17/18/19 two-nave cathedral, move so? Is it the openness of the original design, with two arches in the arcade tied by a single arcing semicircle? The sparseness of the low Anglican furnishings? Or the way the wide, much later nave/choir to its west permits it to be viewed as if from the outside, like a toy? In any case, you can see why builders of this era might have thought these for-them perilously thin arches and heavy vaults might have needed new kinds of support, even if the walls remain thick and the windows bigger than heretofore, but by no means enormous. Great single columns of Purbeck; mature stiff leaf and immature water-plant-like forms side by side; the mighty enclosing arches push the gallery up into a pronounced clerestory-level wall passage: is this the latest thing in ripping up the old ways, or an avoidance of lese majeste? Likewise the flat east end, a single great arch containing a low lancet an odd resolution of the ‘Lady chapel problem’: what’s all that about? All this is packed with dating thoughts: the foliage remains this immature for decades, or matures early, depending on how one sees it; and here too are stepped lancets, already in a minor church in the decade of Wells, a decade before Lincoln or Rochester. Indeed while the elevation is heteredox by the standards of the 1120s or 1220s, the vocabulary is entirely what-would-become canonical EE.

The thoughts continue in the Royal Garrison church nearby, ‘God’s House at Portsmouth’ a hospital pure and simple unless someone can publish (VCH doesn’t) evidence of its much-vaunted pilgrimage connections. Big though. Boring Dec nave (I don’t mean it’s boring; this is shorthand for a particularly undemonstrative brand of Dec that is rarely noted), now roofless; tiny two-bay chancel is Peter des Roches, ‘recently built’ in 1214 (VCH), and so same patron and date as, for example, St Mary Ouverie; not to mention the decade-or-so-old Winchester retroquire. If the windows can be trusted the stepped lancets sometimes have cusps, or are grouped tightly under single arches, or have good plate tracery: interestingly early signs of the ideas that would be tracery, given that simple displays of enormous lancets are the norm in even the most ambitious projects well into the 1230s. The usual crisp classicality of the emerging ‘episcopal style’ (or is it a Southern style? Or somehow an Elias de Dereham style? The debate rages on… ) in spite of some slightly second-rate carved bosses and corbels, and again both real stiff leaf and not-yet-taboo variants side by side. By 1220 stiff leaf is the *only* foliage and the EE canon is set. And the usual sudden I-am-following-my-logic-rigorously scholastic eccentricities, a decade before Salisbury, such as the way the enclosing moulding of the east windowX suddenly steps outwards to follow the different trajectory of the vault’s wall-ribs.  

And most pointed of all, at a period I normally think of as rather restless, how much of the vocab is in place in a comparatively unimportant building in 1180, only tightened and refined 30yrs later.

These are the three: but Portsmouth is also a happy hunting ground for religious buildings of the C18 and C19: just for example the strange, rambling, chapel like St George’s church in X; St Agatha’s, ‘cathedral of the car parks’ with its extraordinary Heywood Sumner decorative scheme and now run by a more-Anglo-Catholic-than-thou community: next stop Hambledon Hill; the later phases of St Thomas itself; and of course the Victory, which is to all intents and purposes presented as some kind of sacred site.

Parish church problems

December 31, 2009 Leave a comment

I probably should have had my mind on higher things during the Christingle service in our local parish church, but it only takes a few waterholding bases and a hint of reticulation in the east window to make my mind wander…

This, it must be stressed, is a very ordinary building; over-restored, and entirely lacking in really notable features. Yet it struck me that the church exemplifies a whole series of problems that are common to a great many parish churches. It may be that these problems are beyond solution, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying to address them. Each relates in important ways to the wider project of understanding medieval architecture; each applies to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of standing buildings across this country (… and how one would love to know whether and how they can be mapped onto comparable buildings in other countries).

So, what are these ‘parish church problems’, at least as they currently present themselves to me?

1) Origins Our village has a (partly) pre-Conquest name; the church stands on a pronounced rise that might suggest a long period of activity on the site before it was constructed. The oldest dateable part of the building is late C12, late in the 2-300-year period of parish creation; and one could make a good argument for our parish having been carved from a much larger parish or minster territory whose epicentre was in another village two miles to the south. So when was a religious building first created on this site? Where there preceding Christian sites elsewhere in the vicinity? What kind of structures, architecturally, preceded the current one?

2) Site The precise location of parish churches vis a vis other elements in the landscape, especially centres of settlement and power, can change radically, making a superficial analysis of the modern landscape a poor guide to that in which the building was created and developed. This is particularly true of our church, which is distinctive, if by no means unique, in one way: it stood adjacent to a small priory whose mother house lay in Normandy. And there is much about its site that raises questions. The presume site of the priory cuts the church off from the village; indeed the village’s primary feature may be the wide curve of the priory site, which today contains nothing but the manor house and its gardens, rather cut off from the main focuses of settlement in the modern village itself. And the church is even further from the village. So was its main function originally monastic? And did that emphasis change when the priory was dissolved, in the early fifteenth century? These are pretty specific issues, it must be admitted, and in many ways the most interesting aspect of the building, but the general question of sites and their developments remains of potential interest in almost every location.

3) Development over time By this I don’t mind the simple fact of development, which is a given; more the patterns of it. When was the greatest parish church building boom? The mid C12? The late C15? How do the patterns of when and where resources were devoted to parish churches relate to the comparable patterns for great churches? The latter, at least can be reconstructed – I do so in my book – but establishing a comparable picture for parish churches is rather more of a challenge, given the lack of documentation, and the extent to which one phase of development tends to obscure another. Something like this can, however, be done for my church: an apparent new-build of the later C12, resulting in a nave, two narrow aisles, and a square-ended chancel; the tower is unknown. A substantial refurbishment in the C14, possibly including a tower, and a wholesale updating of the chancel: possibly only, however: the one completely diagnostic surviving feature, the east window, may be C19. And then a Perp-ification: all the other surviving windows, all the parapets, a clerestory, widened aisles, a porch, a tower: the result is a building whose bones precede the C15 but which visually is externally entirely of that century. The timing in our churches case is particularly interesting vis a vis the dissolution of connections with its mother house – which was replaced by an English Royal college; yet the architecture that results is no different from many standard parochial churches.

4) The late C12 a particularly interesting subset of this. It is of course a period of the greatest significance in great churches: this is when galleries and crypts and apses are abandoned, when east ends and axial Lady chapels begin to be created everywhere, and when gothic emerges. Comparably radical developments are hinted at at parish churches: a great many new east ends here, too; but what is one to make of the countless buildings that contain two arcades, one (often the north?) a decade or two later than the other, or perhaps just more plainly detailed, and built contemporaneously and with little mutual co-ordination?

5) Dull Decorated a particularly undemonstrative brand of C14 architecture is frequently encountered. Formulaic tracery: reticulated, or triple lancets cusped and placed under an arch. Arches with simple detailing: little more than double-chamfered mouldings, sometimes given a wide wave; the only firm clue to date is the lack of capitals, and the fact that a C15 attempt at the same thing would feature different arch profiles (for example). This overlooked brand of Decorated is disturbingly common – my churche’s chancel arch and tower arch both fit the bill, and arguably the much-redone windows and simple sedilia in the chancel, too. It is also hard to date confidently, raises worrying questions about style – can one really be sure it is C14 at all? – and undermines received wisdom about the aims and concerns of architecture between the death of stiff leaf and the birth of the panel.

6) Understanding Perp Dull Decorated exists in a context where there are a great many other models for how architecture can be. Early English is only ‘fixed’ for a couple of decades. By contrast the Perp ‘makeovers’ that so many churches – including mine – underwent can be extraordinarily formulaic. There are, for example, a couple of Perp/reticulated tracery types (and associated detailing) that can be seen replicated in countless churches across the country. Is the date range for these really a wide as it seems, ie late C14-Reformation? If so, where does the burden of change really lie, and is the apparent dominance of Perp really as great as it seems, or merely a side-effect of architectural repetition over a long period?