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Salisbury Cathedral

Salisbury Cathedral, Salisbury, England, begun 1220. Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris.

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Video transcript

We're in Salisbury Cathedral in southwest England. This is an early Gothic church. In England, we divide the Gothic into three periods: the Early Gothic, the Decorated Gothic, and Perpendicular. Here we're at an early moment in the development of the Gothic style here in England. In France, you could imagine the great cathedral of Amiens being built at the same time, but this is so clearly not a French cathedral. This is a typical English cathedral in its layout and in its scale. It's enormous, but it doesn't reach the heights of the French cathedrals during the high Gothic period. That's not to say this is a low ceiling. The volt towers above us and so it really is just lower in comparison. One of the ways that the architect emphasized that horizontality is by the use of a stone that we call Purbeck marble, and it's this dark grayish-brown color and it's used to articulate some of the horizontal members that draw our eye down. You can see that especially if you look at the interior elevation above the nave arcade on the second level which we call the gallery. We see typical Gothic decorative motifs like quatrefoils and pointed arches, but in Purbeck, we see these bundled columns that have a depth and energy to them. They emphasize the linear; it's as if the entire church is outlined with slender columnar forms. We have the slender columns in the knave that are surrounded by smaller columns that are slightly detached, but then the pointed arch itself is so deep with this rolled molding that emphasizes the depth of the wall. We also see it in the dimensionality of the wide gallery and even above that in the depth of the clerestory where there's a narrow passage between the exterior glass and the interior space of the nave. This was all once brightly painted so what we're looking at is rolls of stone. Each roll would have been picked out in different colors and so it would have even seemed more veneer, I think. We should start perhaps by just noting that we have a typical Gothic elevation of a nave arcade with pointed arches and above that the gallery, and above that a clerestory, and then typical ribbed four-part groin vaults. Salisbury Cathedral was built very quickly. The main part of the church was built within 38 years which means there's a continuity, a kind of consistency. The cloister was added later and then the tower was raised higher and the spire was added. Because that tower and spire is so heavy, the architects added strainer archers to help support that weight. Not only are English cathedrals known for these very long plans, in fact, so long that they often have at the east end an additional choir known as a retrochoir. And you have a second transept. Which allows for additional chapels which are often not found along the nave. One of the other ways that the architect emphasized the horizontal, as opposed to the vertical, is that we don't have colonettes that rise from the floor to articulate the ribbed groin vault. Instead, the ribs of the vault spring from these corbels. What's fun is right at the base of each of those is a sculpted head. It emphasizes this interest in the decorative that is such a characteristic of English cathedral architecture. I'm looking too at the gallery level where the two pointed arches meet and these decorative ball flowers. Like all English churches, this one has gone through substantial changes. The choir screen that separated the church in two, the laypeople in the west end of the church, from the most sacred part, the east end. We're lucky that a piece of that choir screen survives. It's beautifully decorated with painted angels in the spandrels and gabled niches that would have once held statues. And some wonderful examples of ball flowers. You had mentioned that this church was originally painted in different colors to articulate the architecture. In the vaults high above us, above the choir, in the eastern section of the church, there were roundels of paintings that historians believe reflected the liturgy that was performed in the church below. Those original Gothic paintings were covered over with whitewash, but we know that they included images of prophets and a sybil of angels of Christ in majesty. This church is filled with so much 19th-century stained glass. Originally, most of the stained glass was grisaille, that is, tones of gray. We can see some of that in the south transepts. Much of the Victorian stained glass does include biblical stories and figures. There are two especially beautiful windows by the great Victorian artist Edward Burne-Jones. These are two lancet windows that are occupied mostly by these interlacing vines and leaves. The four angels are brilliantly colored. One is green with these incredibly elaborate yellow wings. We have a brilliant blue angel, and both of those angels hold staffs. On the right, we have two angels that hold harps and are both in brilliant red. It's lovely to see these Burne- Jones windows here at Salisbury Cathedral. We've walked outside. The outside is so different from French Gothic cathedrals of the same period. At Amiens, begun the same year as this church, you have a massive porch with deep portals that draw you in. Here we see three doorways. I'm struck by how modestly scaled those doorways are. Here, the west front is larger than the church behind it. Now, the figurative sculpture that we're seeing today in the niches, the vast majority of it is modern. It's from the 19th century and we're not even sure how much sculpture was originally here in the 13th century when the church was built. If you look closely at the screen of figures just above the central doorway, there are small openings and there's a passageway behind this that we believe was used for people to sing from during Liturgical festivals that took place outside the west front of the church. The conceit would be that the sculpted figures that we see were actually singing to the crowd below. Salisbury Cathedral, this early English Gothic style church will have an enormous impact on buildings that are constructed later as the English Gothic style develops. Looking at the church, centered in this large close, the church's grounds, it's impossible not to think of the early 19th-century painter John Constable and his multiple paintings of this church. Well, the church does sit in a field and rises steeply up from that, and Constable gives us that impression so well in the spire that reaches up towards the heavens and the sense of man's yearning for the divine is very much present.