Arch rivals?

Norwich Cathedral from the River Wensum on Fye Bridge Street (© Samuel Mather Photography)

Norwich Cathedral from the River Wensum on Fye Bridge Street (© Samuel Mather Photography)

I travelled east this weekend to see another of Norman’s great triumphs, Norwich Cathedral. As I watched the East Anglian landscape pass by from the train window, I remembered I’d forgotten Pancake Day this year.

Now, you’ll remember that Norman began work on Ely around 1090. By 1094 word of his building prowess had reached Norwich (news travels slowly in the provinces) and Bishop Herbert de Losinga.  A wealthy man, Herb sought to commission Norm before he’d honored his contract with Bishop Simeon o’ the Fens. A loyal and steadfast man, Norman was unsure at first about running two projects of such scale simultaneously. However, our Illustrious Warrior (for this is what ‘Herbert’ means), faced with the prospect of Losing a[1] builder of such quality, pulled out all the stops and won this particular battle by offering to throw in an East Anglian Trains season ticket. This proved a deal breaker for Norman.

As I approached from the northwest over the river Wensum, it struck me how lithe and acicular the cathedral appears from the outside. Its stone spire sits atop a slender, precise tower. Norman towers were prone to collapse, so it is a credit to, well, Norman, that the structural integrity of the crossing tower at Norwich has stayed resolute, unlike the one he built at Ely (or Hereford for that matter, but let’s not race ahead). In the words of Alec Clifton-Taylor, author of The Cathedrals of England (a book upon which I had happened in an Oxfam shop en route – oh, auspicious sign!):

With its stiff patterns of arcades, circles and lozenges, [the tower] would seem to have been designed by a mathematician rather than an artist.

Kudos to Norman, a veritable JOAT…![2]

The south transept and the tower from the cloisters (© Samuel Mather Photography)

The cloisters

On arrival I head in via the cloisters where I can’t avoid offering advice to a friendly looking lady who is clearly battling with a digital SLR. She seems to welcome it and notes it down, lest she forgets.[3] (Did you know that I’m a photographer as well as a cathedral enthusiast?) The cloisters were finally finished in 1430 having been started in 1297 – their completion was significantly delayed by the Black Death which hit Norwich particularly hard. The cloisters afford a fine view of the south transept and the tower. I take my time to appreciate this before heading into the nave.

The nave from the entry to the choir (© Samuel Mather Photography)

The nave.

Remarkable immediately is the corpulence of this body of the church. The columns of each arch rival those of Ely in depth. I’d say they are even burlier (I calculate 8 feet) which perhaps contributes to the ceiling – a 16th century stone vault here at Norwich, rather than the painted, wooden roof at Ely – seeming lower; the space broader. I conclude, sitting down now, that the nave at Norwich is Brian Moore to Ely’s Martin Johnson.

Those few mid-afternoon souls milling about in the nave depart and, suddenly, silence pervades. A familiar solace descends and my thoughts turn to symbolism of a less asinine kind… Norwich took 49 years to build – a lifetime, and more, for builders working in the 12th century. Where the sun rises, the building started – the Presbytery, standing in the east end of the cathedral, symbolizes the space in which earth is raised to heaven, and heaven is brought down to earth. The nave and west front was completed in the years leading up to 1145. The story captured in these beautifully rendered blocks of limestone is both literal and metaphorical, prosaic and celestial, and is one whose subject is that of a journey from life to death; from birth to earth.

I’m surprised to find myself asking why cathedrals require services at all: is the conception and realization of such magnitude, and the lives and symbols inherent in each of their constituent parts, not spectacular enough? I opine that the impressive spectacle of services negates the very contemplation that cathedrals inspire. But then I remember that I am a doubter, despite the resolution and intractability of the buildings that I revere, my faith wavers. Proselytizing services seek to bring knaves like me from the nave – a symbol of earthly creation – to the symbolic unity of the Presbytery and the Holy Eucharist celebrated there. I’m happy where and as I am, I conclude, for now.

Suddenly, feedback from a microphone and a disembodied voice fractures the silence and my thoughts. It’s a warm welcome to Norwich from the Chaplain followed by some familiar words. As the Lord’s Prayer bounces around the nave, I close my notebook, gather my belongings and head onwards towards my next cathedral, via the pub.

The Knave at Norwich  (© Samuel Mather Photography)

The Knave at Norwich (© Samuel Mather Photography)


[1] You spotted that one, right?

[2] Jack of all trades!

[3] Ooh, another footnote! I advised her to raise the ISO and widen the aperture in order to increase the shutter speed when shooting in low light. Either that or use a tripod if you’re going to shoot at 200 ISO in poorly lit cloisters! There you go; now you know.

One thought on “Arch rivals?

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