St Albans Cathedral

A cathedral is a hodgepodge of styles, designed to intimidate, perhaps, at best to inspire with awe. At St Albans, the Normans tore down the English cathedral to build their own. Nothing says “We are the masters now” quite like that. And different parts are from different ages: the brick tower, the stone nave, then the newer, faced stone porch, tediously symmetrical. You enter the west door then, unusually, climb stairs to walk down the “longest nave in England”. The important people are at the far end. This is intimidating.

It’s not the highest nave in England, because of the Norman arches in the north aisle. They cannot support the same height. Yet there are Gothic arches in the South aisle. I found that weird, ugly and unsettling when I first saw it. I wonder how the builders felt, when news filtered through to them of the new, fashionable Gothic arch.

The earliest of the mediaeval wall paintings dates from 1215.

All are faded, some almost unrecognisable.

So the curators have set projectors, which can indicate on the site what the original might have looked like. Between restoring with new pigment and covering over the original work, and leaving the faded originals, this is brilliant and beautiful. A touch on a tablet, and she is transformed.

This is “The Leaves of the Trees”, a touring artwork inspired by Covid.


This is the latest art added to the cathedral:

The shrine was broken up, and used as infil when the East end was walled off. When the wall was taken down, it was rediscovered. It has just been restored, with a new canopy. You can see the precise way it was broken, with pillars cracked and repaired in the same place. Here is the reredos.

That’s the best nourished dead Jesus I have seen. His head could be bowed in prayer, rather than death.

Here is the sculpture, which the priest would see, facing this altar:

It is Victorian restoration: the older screen was empty of statues. At the time, crucifixes were illegal in Church of England churches. The Reformers got at the older sculptures:

And here is a Chantry chapel, a bribe to God to get a rich man out of Purgatory early. What is so oppressive as religion enslaved to the interests of the rich.

2 thoughts on “St Albans Cathedral

  1. It’s very interesting to read this, as this is one cathedral I have a very different personal relationship to others. It was probably the first cathedral I visited as a child, and I have an odd fondness of it and it’s quirks. Of course, to me it will always be known as the abbey.

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    • My attitude is changing. I worshipped weekly until 2001 with Anglicans, and identified strongly as Anglican. So a cathedral was uncomplicated to me: a place of beauty, for worship. I blogged about them in 2014, Chester and Wells, and 2019, Peterborough, expressing that. This year I went to Ely and Norwich, and see them increasingly politically, as tools of repression and control, and expression of the ruling classes’ excess. Possibly I will be less adolescent and rebarbative about it later.

      I still love Coventry cathedral, a beautiful building expressing Christian values.

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