Lincoln Cathedral

Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Lincoln, begun 1088, Lincoln, England
Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re standing on the top of a steep hill, next to a castle, in front of Lincoln Cathedral.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:12] What’s so fun about Lincoln Cathedral is that it shows us the development of architecture, beginning with the Anglo-Norman Romanesque, through the early English Gothic, through to the Decorated Period of Gothic. It shows us this in a way that makes it very easy to see, and is incredibly beautiful.

[0:28] We’re standing in front of the west facade, which is overwhelming in its size.

Dr. Zucker: [0:34] You assume that this incredible width represents the width of the cathedral within, but typical of English Gothic churches, this is really a screen. What’s interesting is that there’s still a fragment of the original church in this west front.

Dr. Harris: [0:47] The original church was built in the Anglo-Romanesque style brought over by William the Conqueror from Normandy, from the north of France.

[0:55] We see that especially in the lowest levels of the facade, where we see these big round arches that are highly decorated with chevron and other patterning. This is typically Anglo-Norman Romanesque.

Dr. Zucker: [1:07] We’ve walked up the central portal, and I’m struck by just how uniquely English the decoration is.

Beth: [1:13] Well, it reminds me of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. We see interlacing patterns and animals and figurative compositions, including Adam and Eve. Most interesting are the faces and tongues that wrap around the column closest to the doorway.

Dr. Zucker: [1:29] And that arches over the central doorway and down the other side. Look at the double-headed serpent or dragon at the top of the arch. It reminds you of the Vikings, who had such an impact.

Beth: [1:39] This interest in the decorative is something that carries through in so much Gothic art and architecture in England.

Dr. Zucker: [1:45] The west front is enormous and towers above this ancient stonework.

Beth: [1:50] The remainder of the west front dates to the early English Gothic period. We’ve backed up as much as we can so we can try to take in the enormity of the west facade.

[2:00] If we move above those rounded Romanesque arches that form the oldest part of the facade, we see motifs that carry through the interior, including overlapping arcades and an explosion of lancet shapes. This is a very Gothic shape.

Dr. Zucker: [2:17] Rising above that are two towers that are so massive and so tall that they dwarf even the huge scale of the screen.

Beth: [2:25] For all its height, we’re looking at a church facade that emphasizes its width and not its height. Some art historians have seen the influence of ancient Roman architecture in the three massive round arches that take up so much of this facade.

[2:39] But there’s also so much else to see here. Colonnettes separated by crockets. I see ball flowers. I see tiny heads. There’s so much to see on the outside and so much to see of these decorative elements when we go inside the cathedral.

Dr. Zucker: [2:55] Let’s go in.

Dr. Harris: [2:55] Like so many medieval cathedrals, Lincoln Cathedral was built over several building campaigns. We’ve walked through the nave to an area at the east end of the church called St. Hugh’s Choir, named after St. Hugh, who was the bishop during the rebuilding in the 13th century and whose relics, whose remains, are buried here.

Dr. Zucker: [3:15] When the church was rebuilt, what is now known as St. Hugh’s Choir was the most sacred part of the church and the easternmost part of the church. The church has since expanded in both directions.

[3:27] But because, with the exception of parts of the west front, this is now the oldest part of Lincoln Cathedral, it’s a great place for us to start.

Dr. Harris: [3:34] This looks so early English Gothic. Particularly in its use of Purbeck marble, that is, a kind of brownish-grey stone that came from the island of Purbeck.

[3:44] Often used in Gothic architecture here in England and makes for this lovely contrast in tone.

Dr. Zucker: [3:49] With the limestone that’s used throughout the rest of the cathedral. This is a typical Gothic elevation. It’s made up of three parts.

[3:56] The lowest part is an arcade, above that a gallery, which has a walkway within it. Then the clerestory with quite large windows, made possible by these flying buttresses on the exterior of the church, which brings the enormous weight of the stone vaulting above outside and helps to brace the building’s lateral thrust.

Dr. Harris: [4:13] Typically for English Gothic architecture, we notice that the clerestory is set back so there’s a passageway in front of it, though that passageway is much narrower than the gallery below.

[4:24] Also typically for English Gothic architecture, we have a sense of the width of the wall. We see that especially in the gallery, where we have these rolls of molding that create the pointed arches and these bundles of colonnettes that carry the sub-arches within.

Dr. Zucker: [4:40] Also distinctly early English Gothic is the fact that the rib vaults don’t begin at floor level. Instead, they spring from corbels midway up the facade.

Dr. Harris: [4:49] What St. Hugh’s Choir is known for is the vaulting. This vault has the nickname of a crazy vault. It does indeed feel crazy. It feels irrational.

[5:00] Normally, we have a groin vault, where we can clearly see the intersecting barrel vaults picked out by ribs that form clear diagonals that give us a sense of the structure of the vault. But here, the ribs seem mismatched.

Dr. Zucker: [5:15] When we walk into a medieval cathedral, we expect a great degree of symmetry, but here there’s an alternation that is unnerving, but it’s also elegant, and to my eye, a kind of quintessentially Gothic experimentation.

Dr. Harris: [5:28] Normally in a Gothic church you can read the segments of space, but here, because of the craziness of the ribs, one can’t read space. Space becomes much more illegible, much more irrational.

Dr. Zucker: [5:41] This is the introduction of a tierceron, that is, of a secondary rib. This will have an enormous impact, not only in the rest of the cathedral here in Lincoln, but in cathedrals throughout the British Isles.

Dr. Harris: [5:51] We begin to have a linear decoration of the vaulting that is separate from the structure of the vaulting.

Dr. Zucker: [5:56] There’s a sense of rhythm, a kind of musicality here.

Dr. Harris: [5:59] We should also mention the ridge rib that goes down the very center. This is one of the earliest uses of the ridge rib, which will also be very common in English Gothic architecture.

Dr. Zucker: [6:08] Let’s take a look at the part of the building that was constructed next.

Dr. Harris: [6:12] Here in the nave, we see the same three-part elevation of the nave arcade, the gallery, and the clerestory, but here the clerestory is even taller. We see three lancet windows in each bay, and even more light floods into the church, and there’s so much decoration.

[6:28] We see quatrefoils, ball flowers at the capitals, we see floral motifs, even little faces.

Dr. Zucker: [6:35] We see piers that are made visually lighter because they’re surrounded by freestanding colonnettes.

Dr. Harris: [6:40] If we look up at the vault, we see the ridge rib running down the center. We see that for each bay; the ribs of the vaulting originate in the corbel and fan out, creating this lovely decorative fan-like pattern of tiercerons, these secondary ribs.

Dr. Zucker: [6:57] But here we also see an additional shorter rib, which is known as a lierne.

Dr. Harris: [7:01] All of these things, the tierceron, the ridge rib, the lierne, this is the vocabulary of English Gothic vaulting.

Dr. Zucker: [7:08] Just note how the intersections of each of those ribs is decorated by these wonderfully elaborate bosses.

[7:15] We’re walking from the nave back to the easternmost end of the church, and we’re surrounded by blind arcades.

Dr. Harris: [7:21] Lovely slender colonnettes decorated with chevrons and other patterns. But on the far side, these deep interlocking arcades.

Dr. Zucker: [7:29] They create a wonderful complex rhythm, and they’re decorated with ball flowers in the capitals, chevrons, and at least the outer of the arches is made up of a trefoil. Then, as if that’s not enough, there are also figural busts of angels and other saintly figures.

Dr. Harris: [7:43] We’re standing in what’s known as the Angel Choir. Now, it has this name because of all of the beautifully carved angels that we see in the spandrels.

Dr. Zucker: [7:51] This part of the church was added after St. Hugh’s Choir was completed, after the nave was completed. In fact, St. Hugh’s remains, which are quite sacred, were translated from what is now known as his choir to the Angel Choir.

Dr. Harris: [8:05] That ceremony was attended by King Edward I and 230 knights.

Dr. Zucker: [8:10] Here, we see an entirely new style in the development of English Gothic. The west front had remains of the original church in the Romanesque style, St. Hugh’s Choir and the nave reflecting early English Gothic. And here, the second phase of the English Gothic known as the Decorated.

Dr. Harris: [8:27] Everywhere we look are decorative surfaces, floral motifs, crockets.

Dr. Zucker: [8:33] Starting at the bottom, you have this beautiful alternation of limestone and Purbeck, but you also have piers that are made entirely of Purbeck marble.

Dr. Harris: [8:41] We have foliate capitals, arches that are decorated with a zigzag pattern that resembles chevron, and the corbels are themselves dense with foliage.

Dr. Zucker: [8:51] Even the ridge rib is decorated.

Dr. Harris: [8:54] I think all of the heavy-handedness of the decoration here is an indication of the spiritual value that was placed on this part of the church where St. Hugh’s relics resided. We have to also remember that much of this was likely painted and so even more highly decorative.

Dr. Zucker: [9:10] Let’s go back to the west transept, because there are two large rose windows, very unusual in English cathedrals. At the end of the north transept is a large rose window known as the Dean’s Eye. This is the older of the two.

Dr. Harris: [9:25] Here we see scenes from the Last Judgment.

Dr. Zucker: [9:28] This is known as plate tracery. That is, it seems as if the stone has been cut open to fit the glass.

Dr. Harris: [9:34] If we turn around, in the south transept we see a stained-glass window known as the Bishop’s Eye. This is from a later period, and you can see the development of stained-glass windows. Here we see a tracery known as bar tracery.

[9:48] Instead of a sense of puncturing the stone to allow for light to come through, we have a sense of the stained glass being held up by thin ribs; in this case, these beautiful fluid circular patterns that form two leaf-like shapes.

Dr. Zucker: [10:03] Now, unfortunately, the original glass that was held in place is gone. Old glass was collected and put back, but we don’t know if there were originally figural scenes, and if there were, what they would have represented.

Dr. Harris: [10:15] Here at Lincoln, we can see the development from the Anglo-Norman, through the early English Gothic, through the Decorated.

Dr. Zucker: [10:22] This staged development allows us to read the cathedral as a kind of textbook of the development of architectural styles, but more than that, this is simply a magnificent cathedral.

[10:32] [music]

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Lincoln Cathedral," in Smarthistory, July 19, 2017, accessed May 18, 2024,