Where do you begin when you have to write about a cathedral? Each chapel, every corner, every nook and cranny is replete with art and history. The sensory input is so much that all you can do is walk and attempt to catch the aura of the place and snippets of information as you marvel at how much of the past is preserved in wood, stone and colour. For me, outside is a good place to start. Apart from places like Lincoln where the outside is overwhelming as what lies within the walls. It gives a chance to get a feel for the place and seems to put what you will find into context.
Not that we had a lot of choice… the mayor-making was taking its time and, until they were finished, we were left with the refectory and the exterior to play with. The refectory is a lovely space, with high, clear glass windows overlooking the cloisters. It now holds a cafe and an art exhibition was in progress while we were there, but instead of mangling the ancient architecture, a floating, self-contained mezzanine has been installed that barely touches the old walls. It does spoil the proportions of the lofty space… but it is a practical and not unattractive compromise that allows modern usage of an otherwise impractical height. It also serves tea and, while several of the party lingered over that welcome beverage, I wandered off to look at the walls.
Not just the cathedral walls, but the remnants of the old town walls built by the Norman lords not long after the Conquest. The walled enclosure dates back to at least the 12th century, and the contours of the earthworks still remain visible. The tower that now houses the bells was added a century later and was once the consistory court of the bishops and also houses the bishops’ dungeon. The gatehouse and taller south tower came a hundred years after that.
The first religious community here was founded by St David himself. The saintly bishop died in 589, which makes this one of the oldest known religious sites of Christianity in Britain. Between 645 and 1097 the monks faced the incursions of raiders, seeing their brothers and bishops killed, one after the other. A beautifully carved stone that marries the older, Celtic art with the newer, Roman iconography is now housed in the gate-tower, that once marked the grave of the sons of Bishop Abraham, Hedd and Isaac, who were killed by the Vikings in 1080.
You can see the antiquity of the place… but only at close quarters. The lower courses of the walls show their earliest origins in places. It has seen much destruction during the past thousand years. The cathedral building itself was begun in 1181. In 1220, the new tower collapsed and less than thirty years later, an earthquake caused further damage. Relics of St David and St Justinian were inhumed in jewelled shrines… until in 1538 Bishop Barlow, seeing their veneration as superstition, had the relics removed and the shrines stripped of their riches. For the next few hundred years, successive bishops added chapels, improvements and extensions, making the building reflect its importance at the heart of the religious and political life of the area…until the forces of Oliver Cromwell devastated the building during the years of the Commonwealth of England.
It was not until 1783 that John Nash, best known in his later role as architect to the Prince Regent, was commissioned to restore and rebuild the cathedral. He re-used medieval traceries for his great west front and the cathedral rose again. Even this was not the end of its troubles. Nash’s work was not up to standard and began to deteriorate rapidly. It was to be George Gilbert Scott who would finally restore the building in the 19th century; born in a vicarage not far from my home and whose work we have seen at so many places we have visited.
The great west front now looks back to an older age, wearing the same style as the Norman archways of the north and south doors. It is a curious thing to see the shapes and symbols copied. From one perspective, their uneroded state gives a glimpse of what the older stonework may have looked like…yet it is as if a child has tried to copy one of the Old Masters. The form is there… but no more than that. the soul is missing, the understanding of the symbolism not present….or, if present, it is an intellectual comprehension rather than the knowing of the heart. The carvings do not speak, they merely show.
After the wonders of the carved doorway and corbels of Kilpeck just a few days before, the contrast is stark. Beautifully executed by their craftsmen, they lack heart. They tell no stories, inspire no affirmation. There is no life, no joy and no humour in the reproduction of these symbols., just the posturing of form that mimics a fluid expression of faith.
The 12th century south door and its northerly counterpart are completely different from the west front. In spite of centuries of weathering, they are alive with movement, detail and expression. The contrast between the old and the new makes me wonder about how we have chosen to live, pursuing the outward forms of integration and conformity, while leaving little place for joy. In the organised forms of religion, we now see mostly the rigidity of ritual. Through the years that we have been wandering ancient sites and visiting the holy places of our forefathers, we have seen how the representations of an inclusive reverence for nature and the life of both body and soul, have given way gradually to a culture of sin and the need for repentance, illustrated by many of the medieval wall paintings depicting hell and damnation in no uncertain terms and with graphic detail for the sinner to contemplate.
I do not subscribe to the doctrine of eternal condemnation for sin. Of the saints whose stories we know form their own writings, few have entered into beatitude without struggling with their very human demons. We do not see the whole story of humanity, so cannot see how our little fragment of the tale fits into the whole, taking its unique place in the completion of a greater picture than we can perceive. We do not always see the good that may come from the seemingly bad, even if it serves only as a contrast by which we can appreciate the difference between light and shade, rigidity and movement. We make mistakes, take a wrong path, commit harm and it is from having made such choices that we can choose to learn and grow. We do repent. Not in the mundane sense of the word, where we admit guilt and say we are sorry, but in the true sense of turning ourselves around with a change of heart and mind. A change of consciousness. Like the cathedral, we live an uneasy peace, ever poised on the edge of change, but like the cathedral, the light shines within, opening the doors to a promise of beauty.