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Salisbury Cathedral

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

Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Steven] We're in Salisbury Cathedral, in southwest England. This is an early Gothic church. - [Beth] In England, we divide the Gothic into three periods, the Early Gothic, the Decorated Gothic, and Perpendicular. And so 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 - [Steven] 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 that this is a low ceiling. The vault towers above us, and so it really is just lower in comparison. - [Beth] And one of the ways that the architect emphasized that horizontality, is by the use of a stone that we call Purbeck marble. And its this dark, grayish-brown color, and it's used to articulate some of the horizontal members that draw our eye down. - [Steven] You can see that especially if you look at the interior elevation above the nave arcade in the second level, which we call the gallery. - [Beth] We see typical Gothic decorative motifs, such as quatrefoils, and pointed arches, but in Purbeck, we see these bundled columns that have a depth and energy to them. - [Steven] And they emphasize the linear. It's as if the entire church is outlined with slender, columnar forms. - [Beth] Well, we have these slender columns in the nave that are surrounded by smaller columns that are slightly detached. But then, the pointed arch itself is so deep, with its rolled molding, that emphasizes the depth of the wall. - [Steven] But 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. - [Beth] This was all once brightly painted, so what we're looking at is rolls of stone. Each roll would've been picked out in different colors, and so, it would have even seemed more linear, I think. But we should start, perhaps, by just noting that we have a typical Gothic elevation, of a nave arcade with pointed arches, and above that, that gallery, and above that, a clerestory, and then typical, ribbed, four-part groin vaults. - [Steven] 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. - [Beth] And because that tower and spire is so heavy, the architects added strainer arches to help support that weight. - [Steven] 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. - [Beth] And have a second transept. - [Steven] Which allows for additional chapels, which are often not found along the nave. - [Beth] 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. But what's really fun, is right at the base of each of those is a sculpted head. - [Steven] It emphasizes this interest in the decorative that is such a characteristic of English cathedral architecture. - [Beth] And I'm looking, too, at the gallery level, where the two pointed arches meet, and these decorative ballflowers. - [Steven] 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. - [Beth] And we're lucky that a piece of that choir screen survives, and it's beautifully decorated with painted angels in the spandrels, and gabled niches that would've once held statues. - [Steven] And some wonderful examples of ballflowers. You had mentioned that this church was originally painted in different colors to articulate the architecture, but 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. - [Beth] Those original Gothic paintings were covered over, were white-washed, 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, but originally, most of the stained glass was grisaille, that it, tones of gray, and we can see some of that in the south transepts. But much of the Victorian stained glass does include Biblical stories and figures, and 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. - [Steven] But 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. - [Beth] It's lovely to see these Burne-Jones windows here at Salisbury Cathedral. - [Steven] 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. - [Beth] And here, we see three doorways. - [Steven] And I'm really struck by how modestly scaled those doorways are. And here, the west front, is larger than the church behind it. - [Beth] 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. - [Steven] 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. And 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. - [Beth] 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 toward the heavens, and the sense of man's yearning for the divine is very much present. (jazzy piano music)