in Medieval English Studies (The Medieval English Studies Association
of Korea) Vol. 9 No. 1 (June 2001) pages 155 - 188
am grateful to Professor Michael Alexander (who lives in Wells and
serves as a guide in the Cathedral) for pointing out a number of
inaccuracies in the original text. The online text below has been
corrected according to his indications.
The way in which space is defined, contained, directed and mastered in a building has long been recognized as a paradigm for a great variety of human activities, so that music, literature, scientific systems, gardens and landscapes, paintings, and the multiple heavens of many religious cosmologies all have acquired their “architectonics.” It is hardly a new idea to suggest that memory and the interpretation of meaning are only possible when patterns have been established that impose a form of systematic, “semiotic” order, an architecture. Without such formal patterns, without organized systems, nothing relates to anything, nothing “stands up.” Such patterns are at times too simply perceived as essentially aesthetic affairs, intended primarily to please the eye or senses, as in music or landscape gardening. Yet it requires little thought to realize that there is much more to be said.
Buildings are built for a variety of reasons; the outer form and interior layout, as well as the materials employed and style of applied ornamentation, all invite the analytic observer to “read” carefully. There are clearly a variety of very different readings possible of a work, be it of literature or of architecture, whether it be examined in itself or in terms of its mechanics, or its social and historic contexts. The same work was not perceived in the same way, not evoked in the same terms, not “understood” with the same frameworks in every century. The mechanical engineer explaining why a building does not fall down has a very different tale to tell from the historian commenting on the society that built it and neither can explain what makes people find a given building beautiful.
In the case of buildings that survive from a distant past, readings become more complex since the meaning which the builders perceived as they were erecting them, and the signifiers which guided early responses, will most probably not have survived intact the passage of centuries. New perceptions, new evaluations, other sensitivities will have affected not only responses to what exists but also the way what existed has been preserved and transformed, and is today perceived. Revolutions and disasters will also have left very visible erasures.
The adjective “Gothic” was originally applied to buildings of the medieval period in the sense of “barbaric” or even “savage” because the codes of meaning dictating their forms and appearance had been lost during the multiple changes of the 16th and 17th centuries. The great variety of forms employed and the absence of a dominant symmetry or obvious mathematical concord had become deeply disturbing, threatening even. Where there was no perceivable system or order, the very bases of society were threatened since without system there could be no authorized hierarchy of meanings.
It is hard to say why the medieval skill in reading diversity should have so abruptly vanished, why meaning came to be recognized only through the simplest of regular patterns. Classicism later yielded to Romanticism, with its rediscovery of the perverse, the unique, the irregular, the multiple, and the ambiguous. It is hardly surprising that this permitted a re-assimilation of the medieval, although the Romantic way of reading medieval relics would surely have “meant” little or nothing to medieval minds.
A recent study of the way very different kinds of text are combined in medieval manuscripts, and in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (by Carter Revard in Medium Aevum Vol. LXIX No. 2 (2000) pages 261-78), has drawn new attention to the diversity of the contents of many medieval books, suggesting that the “anthology” typified in England by the Auchinleck Manuscript should not be seen as a haphazard miscellany or omnium-gatherum, in which one reader would enjoy Sir Orfeo, another the Life of St. Catherine, and yet another a scatological fabliau, each ignoring the other contents. Instead, it is suggested, the medieval reader moved easily and happily between such very diverse material and the contrasts enabled a more complex reading of each work than would have been possible if the different kinds of work had been contained in separate volumes.
Great diversity in close proximity was, it might seem, a distinctive characteristic of many aspects of medieval life and thought; it is therefore hardly surprising that the mechanical oversimplifications of Scholasticism were supremely challenged by Cusanus (Nicolas of Cusa) in his recognition that meaning (and therefore truth) could best be found and formulated by what he termed coincidentia oppositorum (coincidence of contraries), a form of language often known as “paradox.” An affirmation of interpretation or value is not negated but (we might say) “nuanced” or deepened by being set in close proximity with what seems a far different and virtually opposite affirmation. Equally, if not necessarily similarly, the “Knight’s Tale” gains deeper meaning by being directly followed in the Canterbury Tales by the “Miller’s Tale.” The Harley Lyrics contain secular songs and religious songs in very close proximity; today we usually distinguish strongly between the two and are at a loss to “explain” the apparent combinations. There is every likelihood that the medieval compilers knew exactly what they were doing and why. Contradictions did not, perhaps, constitute a stumbling-block for them; contrasts at every level were a means of coming closer to a proximity of truth or of fuller meaning.
It could be argued that a similar architectonics of enriching difference may be perceived in the great architectural complexes that make up many English cathedrals. A particularly remarkable example of this can be found in the cathedral at Wells (Somerset). This cathedral begins to intrigue its “readers” by the way in which its very existence challenges most expectations. Its location is not a socially significant urban centre; neither is the site one hallowed by particular religious associations. No martyrs died here, no great saint lived here. The fundamental questions, “Why was this built? Why was this built in this way? Why was this built here?” are rendered more cogent by the lack of any obvious answers. The scale of the buildings is never overpowering and it is perhaps this touch of humility that makes Wells so popular. In many ways it and Southwell are the most domestic and humanly attractive medieval cathedrals. Yet it was one of England’s most senior dioceses for centuries. Power was located here, where today day-tourists run.
The complex set of medieval buildings that exists at Wells perhaps first invites close study by the way it has not been much affected by the processes of later history. The city of Wells still only counts about 10,000 inhabitants, which is of course far higher than its medieval population, but much closer to it than most other cathedral cities are to theirs. The cathedral has only a quite small “green” rather than the large, gentrified “close” found at Salisbury. Yet in his A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724 - 6), Daniel Defoe could write: “This is a neat, clean city, and the clergy, in particular, live very handsomely. Here are no less than seven-and-twenty prebends, and nineteen canons, belonging to this church, beside a dean, a chancellor, a precentor, and three archdeacons; a number which very few cathedrals in England have, beside this.” This is reflected in the presence beside the Cathedral of the deanery and various prebendal houses.
The site contains the foundations of the Saxon church beneath the present Cloisters, with the present cathedral to the north-east of it, the present Cathedral, which is the space requiring the most complex reading with, on the outside, the towers and the great West Front conceived as a screen covered with sculpture and, inside, the usual nave, transepts, quire, and a later Lady Chapel at the east end, the Chapter House raised on an undercroft to the north, a Cloister to the south. In addition, the site includes a moated Bishop’s Palace a few yards south of the cloister, and to the north of the Chapter House a collection of medieval houses (remodeled later), that was designed to be, and in part still is, the home of the Vicars Choral (the adult choir members). This Vicars' Close has been said to be the oldest planned street in Europe, although it should probably be seen as a variety of quadrangle. At the bottom of the Close is a stairway which leads to the Dining Hall. That is linked to the Cathedral by a covered bridge that arrives at the head of the stairway leading to the Chapter House.
Such a complex structure of buildings proposes a variety of potential narratives for interpretation, intrinsic and extrinsic. The initial tale, chronological, is mainly learned from documentary sources and represents the simplest way of reading the site. The fact of there being a settlement at Wells is perhaps best explained by the around 2,500 gallons an hour of water rising in the three springs now within the confines of the Bishop’s Palace, and that give the place its name. They would certainly have been considered mysterious, perhaps even sacred; they also offered a regular source of driving power to water mills. As a place of habitation, Wells is surely ancient; Roman remains have been found.
The histories say that the first church at Wells is believed to have been built by King Ina of the West Saxons between 695 and 707, beside the three springs, and dedicated to St. Andrew. St. Andrew’s church was a “secular” church, not a monastery, with a small group of priests living there as a college of canons. It only became a cathedral in 909, when the see of Wells was formed. Following the death of Bishop Asser, the former diocese of Sherborne was divided into three parts: Sherborne (for Dorset), Wells (for Somerset), and Crediton (for Devon) and the first Bishop of Wells, Helm (Athelm? Helhelm? the records differ), was appointed by King Edward the Elder. During the following century no less than four bishops were transferred from Wells to Canterbury. The church at Wells seems to have been very poor; the last Saxon Bishop Giso built new accommodation for the resident canons and increased their income by obtaining new grants of land from both Edward the Confessor and William the Conqueror.
However, in 1088 the bishop’s throne (cathedra) was transferred from Wells to Bath on the nomination, by William Rufus, of the first Norman Bishop of the diocese, John De Vilula (John of Tours), after the death of Bishop Giso. On receiving the title to Bath Abbey and its lands at that time, he assumed the title Bishop of Bath, and the church at Wells seems to have fallen into decay. Robert of Lewes, his successor (1136-1166), is said to have repaired damaged buildings in Wells and he perhaps even began a Norman?style building before Bishop Reginald de Bohun (Bishop of Bath 1174-91) pulled down the old Cathedral and began building the current one around 1180, or perhaps even before that.
Essentially, after 1088 there was a sharp conflict between the monks at Bath and the canons of Wells as to which had the right to elect the bishop. The canons waged a campaign designed to persuade the Pope to restore the privilege to Wells and it was agreed at the time of Robert of Lewes that they and the monks of Bath should elect the new bishop together, and that there should be a cathedra in both churches. It was an odd situation, for the bishops continued to use the title “Bishop of Bath,” while erecting a much more magnificent cathedral church at Wells. Thus Jocelin Troteman de Welles (bishop 1206-42), himself a native of Wells, was known as Bishop of Bath and Glastonbury until 1219, when he gave up all claim to Glastonbury and styled himself Bishop of Bath. But though he omitted Wells from his title, he continued the rebuilding of the cathedral -- most probably he was responsible for the West Front -- increased the number of canons from thirty-five to fifty, and founded a grammar school. When he died, the monks at Bath broke the agreement and alone elected one of their number to be bishop. This nomination was approved by the king and the pope but Wells protested and Pope Innocent IV finally reaffirmed, in 1245, that the election should be held alternately in either city, that the bishop should have a throne in both churches, and should be styled Bishop "of Bath and Wells". This date marks the definite restoration of full cathedral status to Wells; the election arrangement continued until the Reformation, when the monastery at Bath was dissolved, and the subsequent occupants of the see have retained the double title until today.
Presumably the original quire was the first portion of the new church to be built but it was later extended and much remodeled, virtually rebuilt. The transepts, the six eastern bays of the nave, and the north porch were completed step by step: the Choir 1175-84; the Transepts 1184-1205; the Eastern Nave 1205-10. The main building, without any towers as yet, was probably completed by 1239 when the church was consecrated.
Early in the 14th century, work began on the Chapter House, which is unusual in being raised on an undercroft for no obvious reason. This required a stone stairway to be built to give access from inside the Cathedral, and its branching sweep of curving, worn steps is one of the most famous beauties of Wells. The Chapter House was complete by 1319 at the latest and even before that year work had begun on an octagonal Lady Chapel, apparently conceived at first as a separate building standing to the east of the chancel. In the 1330s, however, before building had gone very far, it was decided to build a new presbytery (sanctuary) occupying the ground between the old choir and the new Lady Chapel and organically linked to the latter. The new presbytery, like all the new work, was richly ornate and crowned with highly decorative vaulting.
This meant that a considerable open space was created behind the new High Altar, a retrochoir which in many cathedrals was occupied by the shrine of a saint. The income deriving from pilgrims drawn by such shrines was considerable and Wells may have intended the space to be occupied by the shrine of Bishop della Marchia, who had died in 1302 and whose canonization was actively canvassed. However, the cause did not succeed and Wells, having been built as a cathedral without a cathedra, now found itself with a shrine-less retrochoir.
The masons of Wells must have been very busy, for by 1321 the cathedral’s central tower had risen to full height, resting on the crossing pillars built over a century before. Clearly the pillars had not been expected to bear such a heavy burden, or perhaps the demolition of the original chancel destabilized the mechanics of the building. The western pillars under the tower soon began to show signs of sinking and in 1338 the masons began to insert “strainer arches” (also called “scissor arches”) inside the southern, western, and northern arches of the crossing to prevent the tower from collapsing. This was completed by 1348 and may have replaced some earlier supporting structures. The severely functional design of the inserted arches, each sustaining a corresponding inverted arch, with hollowed circles of stone at the intersections to reduce the total weight, provokes very different reactions. Some admire, some deplore, but at least they have kept the tower standing.
At the same time, work must have been advancing to the north, where the houses for the Vicars Choral were being constructed. Their Hall was completed in 1348, although the stone bridge now linking it to the Chapter House stairway only dates from the mid-16th century. The Black Death may have caused a short interruption in the building projects, but in 1365 a new stage began, with the slow construction of the two western towers that had been intended in the original design, the ornate sculptured screen wrapping round their extended base. The work was slow; it seems to have taken seventy years to complete. Almost as soon as the rather austere western towers were complete (they have never had pinnacles) an ambitious program was undertaken in about 1440 to remodel the now stable central tower in a much more ornate style, with multiple pinnacles, elaborate traceries, parapets, statues. This was the prompted by the need to repair damage caused when the spire originally crowning the tower burned down. Inside the cathedral, a fan vault was inserted above the crossing at the same time, as if to show how sure they were of the building’s stability.
Bishop Bekynton (1443 - 1465) was a good bishop, a distinguished diplomat and a prolific builder. It was he who built all four gateways still in use, houses along the market place, almshouses for the poor and a complete water system for the city, piped underground from the wells in his palace garden. He even left money in his will to heighten the chimneys in Vicars' Close so that the smoke from winter fires could be carried far into the sky and not affect the men's voices. The virtual rebuilding of the original 13th-century Cloister to the south side in 1508 brought the building history to a close. There was no monastery here, unlike at Gloucester, and the cloister was largely ornamental. It also protected processions that might be called to emerge from the cathedral then return to it; it therefore follows the normal pattern for secular cathedrals, and does not run along the wall of the church. unlike Salisbury, which was built imitating the monastic structures of Westminster Abbey.
One originality, that the city of Wells shares with Southwell, lies in the fact that the dignity associated with being a cathedral city was not accompanied by a corresponding economic and social development of the town. These two cathedral cities have been left behind in the process of industrialization, and have never become major centers of commerce, or of wealth, or population. At the start of the 20th century, the population of Wells was only 4000.
The most intriguing aspect of Wells, perhaps to be explained simply by the date of its construction, is its intensely innovative position in architectural history. The choir and transepts were complete, as noted above, by the end of the 12th century, the nave by 1210, yet there is no trace anywhere at Wells of a semicircular “romanesque” arch. Every arch, arcade, and window is pointed. The story of the pointed arch (the hallmark of “Gothic” architecture) probably begins at Saint Denis, just north of Paris, around 1150, then develops in Notre Dame de Paris, where building began in 1163. It came to England when the choir of Canterbury Cathedral burned down in 1174 and had to be rebuilt, only a year after the canonization of Thomas a Becket. William of Sens introduced the early French Gothic style in all its solid heaviness, with round or octagonal pillars, corinthian-style capitals, and sexpartite vaults, in his rebuilding which was complete by 1185.
The pointed arch had arrived in England, then, only a few years before building began at Wells. But if we attempt to “read” the architecture of the transepts and nave of Wells Cathedral, we find ourselves confronted with a language totally different from the French style imported to Canterbury, one that is intensely innovative. It is in a way hard to realize just how radical the change is, because when we see Wells we are reminded of Lincoln, Salisbury, and Southwell. But Wells came first.
Until now, our reading of Wells Cathedral has been very strongly chronological, historical, and documentary, not to say “academic.” Yet for most people, such a reading is secondary both in time (it is usually developed after a visit) and in importance (one’s personal responses count for more). In any direct experience of such a constructed space, as in the reading of any text, the eyes play a major role. Looking in this case cannot be separated from walking; our experience of Wells must be itinerant, mobile; the method of reading a building while walking around within it and outside it involves a process of peregrination and circumambulation. In the course of this pilgrimage, the eyes supply the changing images that the mind is invited to make sense of, to interpret and respond to, to “understand.”
Now is perhaps the moment to suggest that modern ways of seeing and reading may not be sufficiently sophisticated to deal adequately with the experience of a space such as Wells Cathedral. The beginning and end of most peoples’ readings of buildings as well as of landscapes, and of books, is innocently aesthetic, very superficial in fact. In the best cases, it hardly goes beyond exclamations of “How lovely / pretty / beautiful!” and out come the cameras. Modernity has made tourists of us all and there is almost no way of circumventing the fact.
It is usually, then, as visiting tourists that people approach the medieval gate known in typically picturesque English fashion as “Penniless Porch,” that gives access to the Green to the west of the Cathedral. Outside is a very English scene of a High Street with shops, the modern version of a street market, and the resources required by the heritage industry. At this point we already experience a pattern that is going to become familiar. The upper portions of the Cathedral are visible before us, but the direct view at street level is blocked by the row of buildings surrounding the Green. As we pass through the narrow gate, what was hidden becomes visible. Each of these acts of passage, or penetration, leads on to further patterns of concealment and discovery.
Familiarity breeds thoughtlessness, and it is probably easier to realize certain dimensions of this area of experience from a distance than when actually on the spot. The structure facing the visitor across the very English grass of the Green is vested with the dignity of age and possesses a definite ‘thusness.’ It is not often that visitors stop in their tracks and demand to know what that great mass of stone is doing there, why it was built, why it remains and is being restored at great cost, why it has that shape, those towers, that ornamentation, what it signifies. Yet these are the questions we have to ask if we hope to arrive at any kind of deeper understanding. Perhaps, though, the tourists are wise; it is not sure that we can provide answers worthy of the questions. Gawping, gazing, admiring, and wondering may suffice as a reading in themselves.
The great spread of the West Front of Wells is certainly designed to stimulate questions about meaning. There is nothing like it anywhere else, in England or elsewhere. Lincoln Cathedral offers the nearest parallel. Far wider than the building behind it, 147 feet wide, it has niches for 340 statues of which 150 were life-size or larger (some accounts offer higher figures: 500 niches, 200 surviving ststues). Inevitably, the iconoclasm of previous centuries has wrought a certain havoc on the lower levels, where empty niches predominate, but still more than half the original total remain. Recently a few that were suffering from advanced age have been replaced by copies and the topmost figure of Christ in Majesty that was badly smashed by gunfire during Monmouth’s rebellion in 1685 was replaced in 1986 by a modern statue, with decorative twirls (symbolic of cherubim) occupying the place once occupied by John the Baptist and the Virgin.
The architecturally aware, and all trained structuralists, will take note of the very strong formal structure that characterizes the West Front and analyze its main features. They will note that vertically the front is divided into three sections -- the central section rising to the very ornate central gable, and the two lateral sections that culminate in the towers. Each section is strongly marked by, but not contained within, two boldly projecting buttresses. Dominating the vertical design, however, is the horizontal division into three zones, stressed by the two very powerful “string courses” ? the lowest stage has a strong foundation of plain stone interrupted only by the three doors, the two side doors being strikingly insignificant; above that stands a single row of arcades with boldly projecting gables; the second zone holds the three central lancet windows and the corresponding plain stone surfaces sustaining the towers. Rising up each of the buttresses and between the central windows is a set of two gabled niches under a third gable. Beneath the upper string course runs an uninterrupted arcade containing intricately carved scenes. Above, the central gable is strongly framed by the two very plain towers, the south tower in particular stressing the contrast by not having the ornate canopied niches the adorn the buttresses of the north tower.
What emerges from this? First, that the design of the West Front must have been the subject of very particular attention; second, that it is unlike most other European cathedrals’ west front in being almost completely unrelated to the profile of the nave and aisles extending behind it. The design declares that this facade is important in itself and should be read carefully. It is not just a wall keeping out the rain. The fact that the entire surface was originally brightly painted only stresses the significance the builders attached to it. But what was that significance? When the work was complete, who would have been able to read it fully? Would its meaning and message have been evident to anyone? Should we apply a kind of symbolic meaning to the multiple threes and talk about the Trinity? Should we compare the symmetry of the design to that of classical architecture? or of the facade of Notre Dame de Paris? What reading would emerge from that? Perhaps the design should be compared to that of Bulgug-sa and seen as an image of hierarchical, cosmic order?
At this point in a visit, a child tends to raise awkward questions: “Who are all those people and what are they meant to be doing up there?” Precisely. It is all very well to talk about parallels with Chartres Cathedral, and make disparaging comparisons of the relatively inferior skill of the English sculptors, as some aestheticizing critics do. A more important question is what this system of signs signifies today, if anything ? and can we really say what it was intended to signify originally? The unfortunate parent or guide will have to spend some time in the library, where it may well appear that experts disagree about the identity of many figures and therefore about the precise overall patterns intended.
Not that all is obscure. At the foundation level we find, especially around the corner to the north, surviving statues of the Church’s foundation ? Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles. In the central region we find the saints of the “Church Militant” -- to the north, martyrs and to the south confessors. Among the martyrs are kings and virgins; the confessors seem to be mostly bishops and abbots; all high class people, we note. In the frieze running along the top of the central section we see the dead being raised for the Last Judgment. Christ thrones in glory at the top, above the now glorified Apostles, representing the final glory of the “Church Triumphant.”
However, it is easier to say that than to say why such a complex (and costly) design was found necessary. What or who was it for? More broadly, it is very difficult to find precise explanations as to why a cathedral has to be built as such a huge stone edifice with elaborate towers and transepts, beyond the obvious fact that there was an inherited Europe-wide convention of considerable antiquity to that effect. Equally obviously, in the Middle Ages, only churches and castles were built like that, so that we cannot exclude considerations of power, privilege, money and class from our reading. The specifically religious reading, that might also be proposed here, had better come at the end of the discussion.
If we remain at the secular level, it is important to remember that the whole building history of Wells can only be explained by a constant and increasing supply of money. The summary of local history so far offered has failed to account for that. We need to recall that by the 14th century Wells was the largest town in Somerset. It had a substantial textile industry based on wool from the sheep of the Mendip Hills looming above it. Already in the 11th century, the Doomsday book records the Bishop as having extensive estates throughout Somerset. In 1201 the first royal charter was granted by King John, awarding Wells the status of a free borough. The Cathedral and Bishops Palace lay outside the borough, in an independant area known as St Andrews Liberty. Even while the canons were still completing work on the Cathedral, just down the road the citizens of Wells were able to erect their own parish church of St. Cuthbert’s by 1430, the largest parish church in Somerset. Wells Cathedral can be seen as one of the largest of the “wool churches,” those many large church buildings scattered across the western and eastern Midlands where wool made fortunes in the 14th and 15th centuries.
We have so far remained on the outside of the building. Like other English cathedrals, the west front does not invite entry, for even the central door is not very large, the lateral doors are tiny, and everything suggests that these doors were not usually open. Instead, the main approach seems to have been through the north porch. Only solemn processions of dignitaries on special occasions would have made the dramatic passage through the west front’s central door directly into the nave. Visitors now may gain access through one of the side doors and so share that privileged experience of sudden penetration and passage. The first glimpse of a great building is always a powerful experience. The nave of Wells now stands revealed, behind the complexities of the highly symbolic west front.
It is possible to read the nave of Wells as one of the great pioneering experiments in architectural design; the piers are a rich cluster of twenty-four shafts, with capitals in what was to become a typically English form, known as “stiff-leaf.” Above them, the steeply pointed arches continue with the same complex moulding as the piers below. Then comes a surprise. Above the tops of the arches runs an uninterrupted horizontal line of stone, on which the triforium stands. Nothing connects the rapid rhythm of the triforium’s row of narrow arches inside arches to that of the much bolder arcade below, or interrupts the flow of the arches along the nave. Above them, the windows of the clerestory and the springing ribs of the vault reassert the slower rhythm found at ground level. Thus in the nave at Wells we already find the predominance of horizontal over vertical that was to characterize almost all English Gothic design: not upward but forward is the message this nave gives.
This first “experiential” reading is made more complex, however, by the chronological history. The strong eastward, horizontal drive of the nave’s language leads the visitor’s eye straight into the “eyes” formed by the circular elements of the scissor arches. This was not part of the original plan, of course, for those were only added much later. Yet even if they were not there, the eye would be stopped at the crossing by the solid screen enclosing the choir, on top of which there is now a massive organ. Like almost all English cathedrals, and unlike those of France, Wells was not built on an open plan providing a clear vista through from the west door to the High Altar. Instead, the nave serves to guide the eye to a double perspective. At ground level, the rood screen prevents any glimpse of the space beyond, while at clerestory level the vista is unbroken and the vaults of the choir can be seen, as well as the tracery of the east window, reminding us that the tale is only partially interrupted, that the essential is there, waiting to be discovered.
In the present form of the Cathedral, this double experience, with the choir hidden and revealed at the same time, is accentuated by the fact that what lies beyond the crossing has been rebuilt and expanded in a far more ornate and sophisticated style. The motion proposed by the nave is a straight line from west to east. Once at the crossing, vistas open up to south and north into the transepts but these vistas, as in many cathedrals, are somehow disquieting because each transept is organized with an east-west orientation, with altars along the east walls, and the north-south space has little or no significance.
Once past the crossing, however, the division of space becomes more complex. Here social and sacral roles come into play. The right to pass through the doors of the screen would have originally been limited and usually still is. Those with official roles take that route and experience that dramatic transition into a reserved, privileged space, their gaze now rising to the High Altar where they find the earlier divided perspective repeated in an amplified form, for above the altar an arcade opens to a view of the Lady Chapel’s east window. Above that again is a row of canopied niches with statues, a kind of elevated reredos. Finally, above that again spreads the magnificent east window, its tracery echoing that of the Lady Chapel’s east window seen below it, filling the whole space beneath the vault, which is of great complexity.
The east window, which has retained its original stained glass, repeats the challenge of the west front. It is the challenge involved in reading any complex structure of religious iconography. Those with a guide book are given the information that this is a “Jesse window” though probably few today understand the significance of the term. Like the west front, this window is an affirmation of the meaning of history. At the lowest level lies Jesse, the father of King David, the ancestor of Jesus. Out of his loins grows a tree (we still speak of genealogical “trees”) bearing various other members of the family, and with Christ as the ultimate signifier of the entire pattern as the central figure of the whole design. Yet most visitors will probably prefer the guide-book’s alternative name ? “the Golden Window” ? for then they need only observe the general effect of the light shining through the ancient glass, react admiringly, and pass on without trying to read the deeper messages.
The choir and presbytery are the liturgical heart of the Cathedral, and therefore form the central point around which its structure radiates. That is expressed in the way the High Altar with the wall behind it prevents further physical progress eastward. The choir can be entered most meaningfully through the rood screen; but pilgrims and tourists are usually obliged to pass along the north choir aisle, viewing the Chapter House undercroft, going up the stairway into the Chapter House, then on to the Lady Chapel, and back down the south choir aisle, out into the cloisters.
The large, elaborately ornamented Chapter House is a conventional feature of medieval English cathedrals; that of Wells is much admired for the branching stairway leading up to it, and for the way the vault springs like a stone palm-tree from the central pillar. Yet here too, meaning remains elusive. Obviously this is a very uncomfortable place for business meetings; yet in a secular church run by canons, that is the main function of a chapter house, which really only makes sense in a monastery, as the room where the entire community gathers every day to hear lectures and organize its life. Perhaps the splendour of the Wells Chapter House, and others too, has something to do with asserting the power and dignity of the canons who, when it was built, were the electors of the bishop in a quite real sense, as we have seen. Today, such spaces have virtually no function; they are simply there, to be visited.
Likewise the Lady Chapel. Devotion to the Virgin Mary is not strong today, even in the Catholic Church; for those who run a big Cathedral, it is often useful to have a smaller space for daily services but that was not its original destination. The Lady Chapel at Wells is a lovely building, a remarkable piece of architecture, but from our point of view it is above all remarkable for the way the stained glass in most of its huge windows has become a paradigm of the loss of original meaning that this paper explores. The windows seem originally all to have contained figures of saints under tall canopies but at a sad point point in its history, the 14th-century glass forming the figures of saints was smashed by iconoclastic puritans. Early in the 20th century, Dean Armitage Robinson tried to reassemble the masses of fragments discovered by digging outside, but most had to be composed into a completely haphazard design. The kaleidoscopic effect is extraordinarily beautiful, and very strange, with recognizable fragments of human figures scattered here and there. In such a case, the original signs have effectively lost their form, but without a corresponding loss of visual beauty. Only the glass of the east window has been replaced by a 19th-century design.
The architectural spaces of the cathedral’s interior give way to another exterior experience in the three-sided cloister; here the style is of the 15th century, the straight lines of the perpendicular tracery and rather mathematical design of the vaulting are a strong contrast with the much more luscious ornamentation of the interior and even of the central tower seen from the southern walk of the cloister. Such a cloister provokes less questions than the other spaces, perhaps because it has less ambition to be a significant space. It seems clearly designed to serve as a covered walkway and a spot for quiet lingering; then as now. Which is nice.
The narrative has thus far concentrated on the big picture, the articulation of the large spaces, the main divisions of the building. Another narrative lies within the spaces, however, one written in often minute detail and in many ways even more intriguing because difficult to organize into broad patterns. Wells, like several other English Cathedrals of which Southwell is the most obvious example, is full of small-scale sculptures inviting the visitor to start out on a game of hide-and-seek ? figures of all kinds can be discovered hiding in the leaves of capitals, serving as corbels, interrupting string-courses, ornamenting canopies and tabernacle work. As if that were not enough, concealed on the undersides of the hinged wooden seats of the choir are a full set of “misericords” ? ledges on which to perch while supposedly standing, carved like corbels with a variety of scenes and forms, often clearly comic and perhaps in some cases satirical. The question posed by this invasion of vitality ? the forms may be human, animal, monstrous, angelic, regal, or comic, they are mostly grinning ? is the same as that posed by the similar ornaments found in the margins and illuminations of certain manuscripts: why did the artists bother? It seems most unlikely that Wells Cathedral was built with the modern tourist in mind! .
In the North Transept, the joy of visiting children of all ages, the Cathedral boasts of the oldest working clock face in England ? the clock was made in about 1390. The original clock mechanism is still working, too, but not in Wells; it was taken to the Science Museum in London and replaced in the late 19th century. Hourly, a figure of a bearded man in red (Jack Blandiver) sitting above and to the right of the clock, rings the clock's bells with hands hammering and feet kicking. A mini-castle is immediately over the dial. Four mounted knights come out. Two move to the left, the other two to the right. They revolve and at each revolution one knight is knocked backwards on his horse. This happens several times before the tournament is over for another quarter of an hour. Again, questions arise: What is that doing in a Cathedral? Beyond the folklore and the toy-town aspect, what message about time are the very complex system of dials and the mechanical figures giving? They are clearly destined for something far more complex than indicating when to begin a service. And what message about wealth or prestige would the installation of such an extraordinary machine have given?
Yet another narrative could be written on the basis of the sculptures associated with the cathedral’s splendid array of tombs, with rotting cadavers, alabaster reliefs, recumbent statues, and in the Cloisters the many memorial tablets tidied away from the nave in the early 19th century. In particular, arranged around the choir aisles is a series of rather archaic and curiously shallow stone sarcophagi. The modern tourist has guide-books and elegant signs to explain that these contain the bones of the Saxon bishops, exhumed from the earlier church and given this place of honor in the rebuilt choir. The nearest parallel would be the bones of the kings of Wessex placed in chests along the top of the stone parclose screen around the sanctuary in Winchester Cathedral. Medieval pilgrims would perhaps have understood their presence as an affirmation of historic continuity, perhaps even as a form of anti-Norman memorial.
The readings given privileged position so far have been broadly historical and chronological. A building such as Wells can be read chronologically quite easily, even without documentation, thanks to the great stylistic differences it offers. The nave is obviously very early “Early English” while the eastern sections exhibit all the characteristics of 14th-century “Decorated” style, moving toward “Perpendicular” in the presbytery and obviously quite late Perpendicular in the cloister. The scale of the building, although it is in many ways more “homely” and less blatantly “imposing” than Salisbury or Lincoln, is bound to invite readings which locate it in structures of economic power and social privilege. These are secular readings. Equally secular are readings which result in purely aesthetic responses, admiring or criticizing the architectural effects on the basis of their aesthetic effect.
The reading that has been given almost no thought so far is the one related to the building’s “sacred” identity. This is, after all, a church. At one level, its functionality is clearly related to the religious activities taking place within it. We have seen the way in which, structurally, stylistically, and aesthetically, the choir and presbytery form the heart of the building, the core of its structure, toward which everything leads and around which everything turns. The nave is nothing more than a big signpost and this is made clearer by an awareness that the nave in the Middle Ages would not have had chairs and was not designed to hold large crowds of worshipers. The general public would probably not have had much access to the cathedrals. Their naves, we know, were mostly used for solemn processions by the clergy and their substitutes, the vicars choral.
The dimensions of a cathedral, even one as intimate as Wells, relates it in modern minds with the aesthetics of the “sublime”. Wells is even found lacking by some on account of its modest proportions and largely horizontal stress. A cathedral is expected to “soar” in part because the vertical dimension is associated with spiritual “uplift,” the aspiration of the human heart toward the heavenly realms located mythologically “above.” The heart-lifting dimension of cathedral architecture is particularly associated in the English mind with the sound of choirboys’ voices. Any reading of Wells Cathedral would be incomplete without consideration of it as a framework for the human activity that it was originally designed to contain, sung worship.
The formal liturgies of the Middle Ages cannot now be reconstructed, except in the imagination. They were obviously a continuation of the intensely visual aspects this itinerary has made us aware of. The bright colours of the painted West front and the original interior decoration culminated in the once vividly painted choir and sanctuary, where stained glass, paintings, jewelled statues and reliquaries, formed the background for the coloured vestments, lamps and candles, and jewelled vessels used at the daily High Mass. That has been replaced by the more sober rites of the Church of England.
The time at which the Cathedral comes closest to offering its essential message now is probably during the almost daily celebration of Choral Evensong when the full choir sings. That is not intended to be a concert, even though those present are expected only to listen, not join in the singing, and some will surely attend with the same inner attitude as when attending a concert, only this one is free, and with no applause. The need for the choir to earn its keep by making CDs and giving concerts tends to blur the boundaries but the difference remains.
The entire architectural complex takes on a new dimension when it is no longer experienced in terms of light and vista, but in terms of resonance and echo. What echoes in a cathedral’s spaces are words related to a very particular message, the Christian Gospel. When the Cathedral is visited at other times, what echoes are footsteps, the voices of guides, and, by the imagination, memories of history. During the times when it is a frame for sung worship, it becomes the building it was first intended to be; other readings may be made, but none comes as close to the essence, touching even many non-believers. The challenge at this point is the same as that posed in discussions of how to read specifically religious poetry in a pluralistic world.
The Christian reading of Wells Cathedral is best made in the winter months, when visitors are rare. Apart from the officiants and choir, there may well be almost nobody present, at a service to the beauty of which obviously great care has been paid. The pragmatic may even try to calculate the cost of maintaining a school to supply the boys, of paying the organist, lighting the building, housing and paying the clergy. For what? To make five visitors happy? Obviously not. The verger would assure anyone who asked that the service would be sung even if no one were present, since the singing is not a concert for human listeners to enjoy or admire. It is the formal expression of the Church’s response to God’s love ? praise. Even if the choir-members are not very religious, they are being employed to sing to the glory of God.
Likewise the building. It can be read in very secular ways, in functional or mechanical ways, or viewed in purely aesthetic terms but in the end no such attempts to come to terms with all its complexities can fully satisfy. It was built to point toward and to celebrate God. Wells Cathedral is a very beautiful and uniquely well-preserved medieval construction. It can be enjoyed and admired, it can be criticized for being too small or too much restored, but to questions about why it was built and is still being preserved at such huge cost, no rational answers about its beauty, or about ecclesiastical privileges, or national heritage really satisfy, such criteria do not furnish adequate readings. It might be that the original, unknown, builders and planners could not have replied fully either. But surely they would have tried to explain that the outcome of their work was destined to be a sign sufficient unto itself, in Latin sacramentum. Signs are designed to be read, and to point to realities cot contained within them. But for that their language has to be known. The architectonics of Wells Cathedral point toward a meaning that cannot be fully expressed in terms of functionality, or even of aesthetic beauty.
One final set of traces, and readings, remains. One tourist-destined home page has this to say of the Green in front of the Cathedral :
adjacent to the west front of the Cathedral this large and peaceful lawn is mainly used as a picnic area, although during the summer months charity fairs and country dancing festivals are held here. Over the years it has fulfilled many functions including being used as a burial ground, a fact which is apparent during dry summers when the outlines of hundreds of graves can be seen in the grass. As well as being a perfect spot to stop and relax whilst in Wells, it provides access to the Old Deanery and the Wells Museum from the town centre. (http://home.clara.net/r.l.collins/sights/ )
Modern life goes on, with picnics and fairs and festivals, and tourism. Yet in the summer heat, even the grass begins to tell an older and more disturbing tale. Like the Cathedral, the ground on which it stands is inscribed with hidden signs demanding memory. The picnic sandwiches are eaten on top of graves, the remains of the dead lie silent below, forgotten until the traces emerge in the withering grass. They provoke more questions: who they were, when they lived, how they died, who wept for them. What then of our own mortality? The architectonics of Wells Cathedral do not in themselves provide any answers to any questions. They serve rather, like the literary and other texts we try to read, to raise questions about meaning and memories, questions to which there are no simple right answers. But up above, almost certainly unheeded and unread by the picnickers, the building speaks in its own language of stone. Along the top of the central section of the West Front runs an uninterrupted frieze, depicting the ultimate Christian hope, the Resurrection of the Dead.
may be the unifying key to the building’s language. The past is past,
the message goes, but will be future; death is grim but death will be undone;
death will indeed die, the praises of God are everlasting. The Cathedral
was always a place where the dead were buried and commemorated, but every
visitor notices how cheerful the impression made by every aspect of the
building is. Its beauty is not simply an aesthetic quality, it is a celebration
of life, not onlyof life in art and nature and now, but of life’s eternity
Clifton-Taylor, Alec. The Cathedrals of England. London: Thames and Hudson. 1986.
Carruthers, Mary J.. The Book of Memory : A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature). 1993.
Carruthers, Mary J.. The Craft of Thought : Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200 (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature, No 34). 2000.
A very full “preliminary bibliography” of printed studies of Wells Cathedral is available at
The following sites provide many pictures of and in some cases textual information about Wells and the Cathedral.
The following page is a full description, with many pictures, of the Wells choir misericords
The following page allows one to add the original colors to a drawing of the centre of the West Front
a Medieval Architectonics: Reading Wells Cathedral
Cathedral is the most complete of England’s medieval cathedrals. The articulation
of its different parts in time and space forms a kind of complex text that
can be read in a variety of ways. In similar ways, the multiple contents
of medieval manuscript miscellanies and anthologies, and The Canterbury
Tales, can be better read in relation with one another. An initial
reading of the building recomposes the historical narrative of its origins,
with different portions being built in different centuries in different
styles, within a particular social context. A second level of reading is
mainly aesthetic, that made by the attentive tourist. A final reading considers
the building as a specifically Christian work intended to communicate a
중세의 체계론을 인하여:
웰스 대성당은 중세 영국의 성당 중에서 가장 완벽하다. 시간과 공간 안에서 성당의 여러 부분의 조합은 다양한 방법으로 읽힐 수 있는 복잡한 텍스트를 형성한다. 비슷한 식으로, 중세의 필사 시문집이나 캔터베리 테일즈등의 다양한 내용은 서로 관련지어 읽을 때 더 깊게 이해 할 수 있다. 웰스 대성당에 대한 첫 번째 해석은 다른 형식으로 다른 세기에 세워진 다른 부분들로 그 특별한 사회적 맥락 안에서 그 유례에 대한 역사적 담화를 재구성한다. 두 번째 해석은 주로 미적인 것인데, 그것은 주의 깊은 여행자에 의해서 이루어진다. 최종적으로 웰스 대성당은 특별히 기독교적 의미를 전달하려는 기독교적 작품으로 해석된다.