Wells Cathedral

Wells Cathedral, Wells, England, begun c. 1175. Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris. 

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:10] We’re in the small town of Wells in southwest England, looking at the Cathedral of St. Andrew, more commonly known as Wells Cathedral.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:00] For many people, the most spectacular part of Wells Cathedral is the west front.

Dr. Zucker: [0:18] It’s extremely unusual for an English cathedral to have this much figural sculpture.

Dr. Harris: [0:23] We’re used to having a large amount of figural sculpture on the facade of French Gothic churches — in the jambs, in the trumeau, in the tympana, in the archivolts — but here the doorways are quite small and that is not the main location for the sculpture. Sculpture occupies these canopied niches across the facade.

Dr. Zucker: [0:43] The result is this broad flat plane with lots of sculptures interrupted by six deeply protruding buttresses that have lots of sculptural niches on either side.

Dr. Harris: [0:58] In fact, the sculpture continues around the north and south sides of the building. This broad screen on the west facade is very typical of English Gothic churches, but it’s the amount of sculpture that’s unusual.

Dr. Zucker: [1:07] It really is broad. In fact, it’s approximately twice as wide as it is tall if you don’t count the towers.

Dr. Harris: [1:12] In many ways, this resembles a choir screen. Now, a choir screen separated the east and west ends of the church and acted as a boundary, but also as a backdrop for liturgical events, events relating to the services in the church.

Dr. Zucker: [1:28] We think that this functioned as a decorative and instructive backdrop for important feast days, especially around Easter.

Dr. Harris: [1:35] Palm Sunday especially. There was a procession that took place and the church would’ve been decorated with banners. We also have to remember that this facade was brightly painted. Parts of it were gilded, and the best part? There was music coming from the church facade itself.

Dr. Zucker: [1:53] If you look very closely, the four lower quatrefoils on either side of where the sculpture would’ve been, there are holes, and through those holes, singers’ voices could be heard. Those singers stood in a hidden gallery within the building.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] There was a second gallery even higher up where trumpeters played.

Dr. Zucker: [2:18] With its brightly painted facade with its banners and with its music, the church would’ve come alive. In typically English fashion, it’s begun to rain, let’s go inside.

[2:22] We’ve walked out of the increasingly heavy rain into the cathedral and into the nave.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] We have a typical three-part Gothic elevation with a nave arcade with pointed arches.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] These particular arches are quite narrow.

Dr. Harris: [2:38] They are also deep in that way that English Gothic architecture is. We have a series of rolled moldings that give us a sense of the depth of the wall.

Dr. Zucker: [2:47] Then above that, one of the most unique characteristics of the nave elevation, that is the gallery. This is a series of framed arches that are openings into a walkway. Here, there is such an emphasis on the rolled molding that the arches have narrowed to mere slits. When you look at them obliquely, the openings disappear entirely.

Dr. Harris: [3:03] But we see that characteristically English interest in decoration. Above those narrow-arched openings, we see carvings of foliage, animals, and then heads between the arches.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] We have corbels, from which spring four-part ribbed groin vaults.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] Even in those corbels, we see foliage.

Dr. Zucker: [3:28] Then, also very typical of early English Gothic, at the clerestory we see an additional passageway. There’s a real effort to again emphasize the thickness of the wall.

Dr. Harris: [3:33] Because the vault ribs spring from those corbels and not the compound piers below, when we look at the nave, there’s not an emphasis on the vertical as much as there is an emphasis on the horizontal, leading us toward the east end of the church. This is, again, typically English Gothic.

Dr. Zucker: [3:55] The great sense of density at the gallery level further disassociates the nave arcade from the gallery and again from the clerestory.

Dr. Harris: [4:03] We have a sense of three separate horizontal bands and we lose that sense of the vertical segmentation of space that we typically see in French Gothic churches.

Dr. Zucker: [4:13] Before we move past the nave, we have to address the single most unique, most powerful architectural element within the entire cathedral: what are known as scissor arches.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] We find these at all four entrances to the crossing.

Dr. Zucker: [4:22] Now, this was not originally intended when the church was first laid out.

Dr. Harris: [4:25] It was added after, when they were building the tower and they realized that the tower was putting such great weight on the crossing underneath and they needed something else to help support that weight.

Dr. Zucker: [4:37] Clearly, these are structural, but they’re also absolutely sculptural. They give a sense of dynamism to the space.

Dr. Harris: [4:43] The two oculi on either side of each of these strainer arches look like eyes. As I look toward the east end, I feel like I’m being peered back at. It’s uncanny.

Dr. Zucker: [4:55] The architect found a powerful but poetic solution to a structural problem. This is an important reminder that the Gothic was still in its infancy, that this was still very much a time of experimentation.

Dr. Harris: [5:11] We can see clearly, too, that this was a church, like most Gothic churches, that was built in stages. As we look through that scissor arch, we see these lovely fan vaults that date to the later Perpendicular period.

Dr. Zucker: [5:20] This particular church was built in several campaigns over three centuries. It’s a wonderful patchwork of different styles.

Dr. Harris: [5:26] What I notice when I look up at the capitals is that sometimes I see foliage, but often also figures and sometimes quite amusing ones. One of the most famous figures seems to be suffering from a toothache.

Dr. Zucker: [5:39] Art historians have likened this to illuminated manuscripts, where scribes would sometimes draw little vignettes in the margins that were fanciful and had little to do with the main body of text.

[5:51] We’ve walked up this gloriously beautiful set of 13th-century stairs that were worn by generations of men who would come to a large room known as a chapterhouse for a morning meeting.

Dr. Harris: [6:09] What we see here is typically English Decorated Gothic, especially when we look at the vaulting.

Dr. Zucker: [6:10] The center shaft radiates upward, almost like a palm with its spreading fronds. Look at those ribs. There are more than 30 that radiate from the central pier and they rise delicately up until they reach a perpendicular rib. At every intersection, there is this beautiful globe-like boss that is deeply undercut with a wide variety of types of foliage.

Dr. Harris: [6:38] In typically Gothic fashion, we see a very tall and wide clerestory, allowing a lot of light into this very small room, and traceried windows.

Dr. Zucker: [6:42] The large arch over the doorway has emphasized its width, its thickness through three courses of stone.

Dr. Harris: [6:54] The stone is varied because of the use of that darker Purbeck marble, so you have this sense of the alternation of light and dark as you look along the bottom arcade.

[7:00] Perhaps the most fun part of the chapterhouse is a row of faces right above the capitals of the arcade, and some art historians think these may be images of the men who attended the meetings here.

Dr. Zucker: [7:18] Whereas most of Wells is early English Gothic, with great experimentation and with revisions necessary in certain cases, such as the great scissor arches, by the time we get to the building of the chapterhouse, because of its elegance, because of its refinement, and because of its extraordinary engineering, we really have a sense that these architects understood the principles of the Gothic.

[7:34] The chapterhouse was built as a meeting room, but it is gloriously decorated and it functions as a microcosm of the synthesis of use and beauty that we find in the cathedral as a whole.

[0:00] [music]

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Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Wells Cathedral," in Smarthistory, July 18, 2017, accessed July 15, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/wells-cathedral/.