Empiricists and Emperors: York Minster
April 29, 2012 2 Comments
By Rob Packer
They were perfectly practical and ingenious men; they worked experimentally; if their buildings were strong enough, there they stood; if they were too strong, they also stood; but if they were too weak, they gave way, and they put props and built the next stronger. That was their science and very good practical science it was too.
Professor Willis, quoted in
H. Batsford and C. Fry, The Cathedrals of England, 1934
Cricking my neck back to stare up through the empty void of the tower at the central crossings of York Minster (60m) and Lincoln Cathedral (83m), a question started to nag at me, recurring and reconstructing itself. How did they create these enormous naves more than half a millennium ago and raise these shafts of whiteness that ascend vertically to be seen from villages miles away?
I imagined mediaeval builders with vertigo as they fixed carved angels to its outside wall of York Minster’s tower or golden bosses to its ceiling; or ones at Lincoln as they dared to create the tallest building in the world. I had expected the answer to be combination of pride and religious belief, similar to Gaudí’s comment on his impossibly intricate details at the tips of the Sagrada Família: “The angels will see it”. What I hadn’t expected was Professor Willis’ interpretation of construction as an empirical process: the implications—that that limestone could come tumbling earthwards as happened at York in 1407—are terrifying.
At first glance, these Gothic cathedrals and the centuries they took to build seem the epitome of solidity and permanence. But the skyward openness of York Minster’s windows, arches and towers conceal fragility. As well as the 1407 tower’s collapse, a fire destroyed part of the roof in 1984—I was too young to remember the fire but vaguely remember a competition on Blue Peter, a British children’s television programme, to design some of the restored ceiling bosses. And as we walked around, we talked about the restoration work on one stained glass window, which I was told had been millimetres from collapsing completely; and the current work on another, which is covered by the “largest high-res graphic in the world” (the size of a tennis court).
Nothing lasts forever.
As we left blinking into the dusklight to see the minster’s profile from the top of York’s city walls, we passed a statue of Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor, who was proclaimed emperor in York, then one of the most important settlements in Britain. Maybe I’ve been numbed by the bombastic, but ultimately spurious, claims to glory, but this modestly sized bronze statue with (now stolen) plaque surprised me: surely, I cynically thought, there’s ample opportunity here for York to recast itself as cradle of religion and saviour city of the world?
Angels in the choir:
Head stops in the chapter house:
Stained glass waiting to be put in the East Window:
The choir screen:
The Five Sisters: