Winchester Cathedral has become a significant place for me, as I’m researching my third-year thesis on the carvings in the quire. I knew I wanted to write my thesis on the natural world in Gothic art, and the Winchester carvings perfectly fitted my project. When I visited this summer, it was the first time I had been outside my local area since the national lockdown began, and the first time I had seen any art in the flesh for months, which made it feel extra special. It was the final day of the scorching heatwave, the day before the storms came in, but the cool stone of the cathedral walls made the space into a sanctuary from the burning sun. Wandering round the vast, gaping space of the nave and getting lost in the stories of the past was the perfect antidote to the months I had spent being cooped up, working from home, only experiencing art from my laptop screen. Here are five stories from the cathedral history that captured my imagination.
The Cult of Saint Swithun
The small archway in the photograph above, below the row of icons, dates from the mid-12th century and is known as the ‘Holy Hole’. Pilgrims who had travelled from near and far to Winchester to experience the relics of Saint Swithun would complete their journey by crawling through this three-metre tunnel to come close to the bones of the saint. Apparently, there are still soot marks on the tunnel ceiling left from years of lit tapers guiding the devotees through the darkness. Swithun was Bishop of Winchester in the 9th century and advisor to King Aethelwulf, the father of Alfred the Great. Two miraculous stories are associated with him: firstly, that he miraculously restored a market woman’s broken eggs and secondly, that when his body was moved from the outside to the inside of the old Saxon minster, it rained solidly for forty days and forty nights, making him the patron saint of drought (perhaps it was fitting that I visited Winchester during a heatwave..)
The Winchester Bible
Undoubtedly one of the greatest treasures of the cathedral is the Winchester Bible – a four volume 12th century manuscript adorned with exquisite Romanesque initials. It took five years to complete and was written out by a single scribe under the commission of Henry of Blois, the grandson of William the Conqueror. The scale of the operation (this is the largest surviving English manuscript from this period) is evidenced in the fact it took the skins of 250 calves to produce the amount of vellum needed. Many of the miniatures and initials are unfinished, meaning that this book is a valuable resource for art historians thinking about the processes by which manuscripts were created. You can see the manuscripts for yourself in the Kings and Scribes exhibition in the cathedral, and even under dim lighting and through glass, the illuminations are as fresh and vivid as they were 800 years ago, the colours singing, the interlaced patterns wriggling under your gaze. I love the abstraction of Romanesque art; the way that figures are often set within unreal landscapes or against a backdrop of pure gold, and the way that narratives are contained within looping spirals of foliate design, trailing down the page.
The quire is an intimate space, closed off from the rest of the cathedral. It was where the monks would sing the daily offices, beginning in the very early hours of the morning, so was arguably the beating heart of the cathedral. The quire stalls were made in the early 14th century and are the best preserved in England, surviving the iconoclasm of the English Civil War because of their secular nature. The quire is a menagerie of animals both familiar and strange, as well as writhing foliage and plant life and the famous cavorting Green Men. Dragons and monkeys peer out at you from among the fictive leaves and beneath the choir stalls funny gurning faces grin and giggle. It’s a masterpiece of the Gothic imagination. How the monks interacted with this imagery, and how these interactions constituted a broader medieval relationship with the natural world, is the topic of my thesis. I’m interested in how we can think about Gothic art ecologically, just as we can take a feminist, psychological or anthropological perspective. Eco-theory is often applied to the art of our own age, with its anxieties about environmental breakdown. How can we use this ecological thinking to reconstruct a relationship to nature that is now lost to us? I’m particularly interested in the animals at Winchester, and the place of animals in the medieval mind. I read a wonderful essay recently about this topic by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen*, who described medieval animals as “intimate aliens”: inherently different to the anthropocentric, spiritual medieval human made in the image of God, yet uncomfortably familiar in their bodily instincts, playing into the medieval anxiety around temptation, sensuality and sin.
*Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, ‘Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages’ in Engaging with Nature: Essays on the Natural World in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (2008)
The West Window
The West Window at Winchester Cathedral looks like a modern avant-garde design but was actually re-assembled from fragments of the original medieval glass. During the English Civil War, Parliamentarian troops had destroyed the glass during an episode of citywide looting, where a combination of financial grievances (the soldiers hadn’t been paid) and a Puritan mistrust of religious images led to violent iconoclasm. In 1660, when the English royalty was restored, the window was re-born from its ashes. It became a mosaic-like jumble of medieval design, with abstracted figures peering out from the past. It’s mindboggling to think how each piece of broken glass was carefully fitted back into the window.
Accidents, fires, collapses, incompletion and bureaucratic squabbles are as much a part of the history of cathedrals as are artistic creation, architectural innovation and engineering breakthroughs. The awful fire at Notre Dame last year, and the perpetual incompleteness of the Sagrada Familia are evidence that this story continues today. Winchester’s story involves destruction as well as creation: the original Saxon church here was demolished by the Normans to make way for a much grander building in the 11th century. In the early 20th century, the cathedral was in serious danger – not from the ambitious architectural tastes of a new ruling elite, but rather from its own structural weakness. The walls and roof were threatening to collapse in on themselves, as the cathedral was actually sinking into the earth. New, modern foundations were desperately needed, but this was no mean feat, as it required digging enormous trenches to fill with concrete. As these rapidly flooded with water as the workmen dug, a local rescue diver, William Walker, was called in in 1906. He spent the next 6 years diving through muddy, pitch-black water to fill the trenches with bags of concrete, all while wearing a primitive diving suit weighing over 90 kilograms. Walker was one of the victims of the 1918 flu pandemic (which is especially poignant in our current situation), but his legacy lives on in the survival of this ancient cathedral.
All photographs my own
All information taken from the Winchester Cathedral guidebook and website