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In praise of Wells Cathedral

Sorry for the gap between posts, the times they are dispiriting; I shall return to happier ones. The second step on that short medievalist tour I and two other scholars undertook last summer was Wells. Whereas I had a hook for the visit to Oxford Castle, I have none for Wells, indeed I barely have more of an organising principle for this post than “look at the architecture”; Wells’s medieval importance is later than I really know about and its surviving fabric, very much so. That fabric most famously comprises the cathedral. Its inside is as famous as its outside, especially the architecturally rather special scissor arch, which I’m afraid to me looked more like a very large squid made structurally integral to the nave than a vaulting technique, but each to their own… Interior photography is not allowed, however, and even if I had broken that prohibition as, evidently, did the photographer I just linked to, I wouldn’t put the pictures here and I doubt they would be as good as the ones the Cathedral would like you to buy anyway. So instead you have a variety of shots that illustrate how overwhelming the exterior is, and it’s enough, I think!

Courtyard of Wells Cathedral

Courtyard of Wells Cathedral

This is in fact a fully operational battle station place of worship, and indeed there are stories I could tell about conscientious vergers busy operating it and misunderstood suitcases, but I shall hide the embarrassment of the implicated and just distract with you more cathedral!

West front of Wells Cathedral

The famous west front

This building, in its more wrought bits, has something of the fractal about it; you move in more closely to examine ornament and discover it is itself ornamented, and so on.

North tower of the west front of Wells Cathedral

North tower of the west front

The overall decorative scheme is difficult to take in; one winds up trying to do it by pieces and then reassemble your impressions, but each recollection sleets over the last in a cascade of ornamental stonework. I don’t know how to make a building of this scale and complexity comprehensible as a single artwork. Apart from anything else, it is a huge canvas for the artists who put its decoration together. The four evangelists? Why stop there when you have room for all the disciples?

Statues of the disciples on the West Front of Wells Cathedral

And it gets down to really quite small scale. Here some local occupants give you a sense of the kind of size I mean.

Figures in arches in one of the internal corners of the West Front of Wells Cathedral

Vaulting in the so-called Penniless Porch of Wells Cathedral

Vaulting in the so-called Penniless Porch

Even the humblest bits of the complex are often what one might uncharitably call overdone; this, perhaps, one should call charitably overdone, as this is apparently where the handouts to beggars were made, but that vaulting must have let them known inescapably about the elevated status of those who did the handing out.

A slightly sadder aspect is that even this fabulous place didn’t entirely escape the various early modern destructions of ecclesiastical finery. It’s all still standing, but if you look at the west portal here it doesn’t take an art historian to spot that the two saints in conversation above the arch have suffered more than just erosion.

West portal of Wells Cathedral

The vandals in question here drew the line at defacing Mary, however.

Tympanum of west portal of Wells Cathedral

Is it still called a tympanum in Gothic? I’m so out of my depth here…

What I am saying is, basically, you ought to see this place at least once in your life, and I hope the weather is fine for you when you do.

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9 responses to “In praise of Wells Cathedral

  1. Totally agree, it is a fantastic work, but the size of the cathedral, and that huge west front, seem totally out of place for the size of this little Somerset city.

    • That is also true, and one of a fair few similar that could be mentioned of which St David’s is probably the most extreme. The cruellest suggestion of demography might be that the St Albans bishopric probably belongs in Watford! But Wells doesn’t even have the long Christian tradition to draw on, does it? A curiosity.

      • Allan McKinley

        Wells seems to be an eighth-century minster, so had some antiquity when it was made a bishopric c. 910. Major advantage over Glastonbury was that it was accessible – the twelfth-century episcopal takeover of Glastonbury never made it a cathedral presumably due to difficulties of access…

        • Ah, OK, I stand corrected, sorry Wells but quite frankly your signposting should be better!

          • Julia Barrow

            The Normans thought just as you did and Bishop John moved his episcopal throne to Bath Abbey (urban setting, and walled too). But the bishops of Bath didn’t lose sight of Wells and it was useful to them as a source of patronage for their clerks. Then in the thirteenth century Wells got put on an equal footing with Bath, hence Bath and Wells. (One French historian tried to translate the name – I wish I could remember where to find the reference).

  2. Steve Joyce

    but Glastonbury does……(nudge, nudge, wink, wink)

  3. Pingback: Tor-ism: medievalists in Glastonbury | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  4. Yes. The Tympanum is called just that in English Gothic. I guide at Salisbury Cathedral….you should visit!

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