If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Gloucester Cathedral

Gloucester Cathedral, begun 1089 Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris, Smarthistory, and Steven Zucker.

Want to join the conversation?

No posts yet.

Video transcript

- [Steven] We've taken the train up from London to see Gloucester Cathedral. - [Beth] We're standing in what is probably the most famous part of Gloucester cathedral. And that's the cloister. - [Steven] In the center of the cloister is a garth, an open garden and surrounding it is an enclosed walkway on all four sides. This is traditionally a place where monks would meditate and would circumambulate, they would walk along the passageways. But if I were a monk trying to clear my mind to let the spiritual in, I might be a little overwhelmed by what surrounds me. In all four passageways, there's the most spectacular architectural decoration. This is the birth of an architectural form that we call a fan vault. - [Beth] And fan vaults are typical of this very late phase of English Gothic architecture, that art historians call the Perpendicular. - [Steven] The Perpendicular is the last style in the progression of English Gothic. What we think happened is that Royal masons who had developed the style first in London were then brought here and here invented this extraordinary space that we're walking through. And these magnificent fan vaults. Let's go look at a couple of other examples of the Perpendicular here at Gloucester cathedral. - [Beth] We're standing now in the presbytery. - [Steven] So what we're seeing here is not building from scratch, but instead it's taking this new delicate style, the Perpendicular and applying it to the surface of the massive masonry that had come before. So we're seeing a kind of refurbishment of this church, a kind of renovation so that it didn't feel old fashioned anymore, so that it reflected the newest style. The style that had developed in London. - [Beth] By the early 1300s, this part of the church, which was built in the 12th century would have looked dark and heavy. And the Gothic architects wanted to flood the space of the cathedral with light. - [Steven] And they did. This room is filled with enormous windows, but towering over them all is a window that's the size of a tennis court. It's a wall of glass, an almost impossible achievement. This window cost a fortune. We think that the glass was imported from France, but the costliness didn't come from importing so much as the materials that were required to produce the glass. This would have taken a forest of trees to light the kilns that were necessary to make the glass. - [Beth] That stained glass represents a hierarchy. At the bottom we have the insignia of the nobility, the people who help to pay for this very expensive window. - [Steven] So these are Kings and lesser nobles. - [Beth] That represent temporal power, earthly power. Above that spiritual power, abbots and bishops. - [Steven] And in the middle frieze, we have saints. - [Beth] And then above that in the center, the Virgin Mary and Christ, and on either side of them, six apostles. - [Steven] And then above that, we see angels. As our eyes drawn upward, we're drawn towards the heavenly. - [Beth] The vaulting that we see above us would have originally been brightly painted. So even more glorious than it appears today. - [Steven] And this is a very complex web of stone. Relatively late in the development of the English Gothic we begin to see these web like surfaces in the vaulting, and that's because the English have introduced three additional types of ribs. You have a center ridge rib, which runs along the roof line. - [Beth] And here we have one in the center and one on either side. So three parallel ribs run straight down the center, leading our eye to the glass. - [Steven] But we also have tierceron, which are additional decorative ribs that are attached to the peers. And then finally we have the small linking ribs, which are called lierne. - [Beth] And these lovely, elegant, thin colonettes that begin almost at floor level and bring our eye all the way up to the vaulting where that complex ribbing is decorated with bosses. Some of which are floral and some of which show us angel's singing and playing musical industry. - [Steven] When ribbed vaulting was first introduced, it was a structural system, but here it has become decorative. We're at the east end of the church, but we can actually walk into another building that's even further east. This is the latest construction that took place at the cathedral. It's called the Lady Chapel. - [Beth] Lady Chapels are named for the Virgin Mary, My Lady. - [Steven] We've walked into the Lady Chapel and light is overwhelming. This is a building that seems impossible to be made out of stone. - [Beth] There are walls of colored glass. Some of it dates to a later period, but as light floods in it creates flickers of colors on the stone itself. This is a space that seems truly miraculous. Let's go now to the western part of the church, the nave. So we can get a sense of what it was that those 14th century architects wanted to cover up. - [Steven] We've walked to the front of the church, to the nave, this large open space surrounded on either side by an aisle. And it is so different from that later perpendicular Gothic. - [Beth] It's true that here, instead of seeing slender bundled colonettes that rise from nearly the floor up to the vaulting, we have big, heavy, wide cylinders for columns that help support the vaulting. And those are not decorated. But if you look up between them to the arches, we see rolls of molding. We see zigzag patterns, chevrons. We see this interest in embellishing these round arches, which are so typical of Anglo Norman or Romanesque architecture. - [Steven] Those chevrons are everywhere in this room, just above the arches you see a string course that runs the entire length of the nave. And it's made out of a double chevron. Above that in the triforium you can see double arches and chevrons there. And so there is this desire to decorate. - [Beth] Here we are in the early 12th century, soon after William the conqueror comes from France and invades England, and the architects are just figuring out stone architecture. How do you support a large, wide stone vault? You need big, heavy columns to support the roof and the structure above. So in the 1200s, they built the vault that we see today in what we call the early English Gothic style. And typical of the English Gothic are these vaults whose ribs spring from corbels that are located between the nave arches and in between the arches of the triforium where we also see a darker colored stone called purbeck marble. All of this is so typical of this early English Gothic style. - [Steven] And to make it even more complicated. We have yet another style here. As we look across the nave towards the south aisle, we look at these wonderful stained glass windows, which are ornamented with hundreds of ball flowers. This is yet another style of English Gothic, which is known as the Decorated style. And so in this room, we're overwhelmed with the weight of the oldest style of the Anglo Norman. We see the Early English Gothic above us in the vaulting, and then we see the Decorated Gothic in the south aisle. And then if we look eastward, we can see the Perpendicular. This church is overwhelming in its beauty, but it's also a history lesson of the architecture of medieval England. - [Beth] We could even go further back than that because there was an Anglo-Saxon church on this location before the Norman invasion, before 1066. - [Steven] And we could even go further back than the Anglo-Saxon because the church was built in part on the foundation of ancient Roman walls from the period when the Roman empire occupied this part of Britain. And it's so important to remember that the relatively spare interior that we see today does not reflect the opulence of these spaces before the reformation. It's a little bit hard sometimes to imagine what these spaces looked like. There is one candlestick in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London that came from this cathedral. It can give us just a sense of how spectacular the objects that furnished the space originally were. - [Beth] In many ways, we are inside history at Gloucester cathedral.