The Chapter House of York Minster

With towering stained-glass windows and an open plan, the Chapter House of York Minster is an extraordinarily grand space.

York Minster (The Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Saint Peter), begun 1220, consecrated 1472; Chapter House completed by 1296. Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’ve just walked through York Minster, which is enormous and just phenomenally beautiful. But even this extraordinary building doesn’t prepare you for the Chapter House.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:15] The Chapter House is located off the north transept, and you enter it through a double doorway. In the middle of that is a trumeau showing the Virgin and Child. Now, a Chapter House was a place where the canons, the clergy, would regularly meet and do the business of running a cathedral.

[0:35] It was also sometimes used for more secular meetings. We know, for example, that Parliament met here.

Dr. Zucker: [0:41] What makes the Chapter House stand out is this enormous space that is spanned with no internal support whatsoever. In many octagonal Chapter Houses like this, there would be a large central column, but here, this space is completely open.

Dr. Harris: [1:00] That was clearly a priority. Art historians believe that originally a central pier was planned, and then they decided instead to go for this vast, uninterrupted space. And it makes sense. You’re having a meeting here. You need to see everyone who’s seated in the benches along the edges of the octagon.

[1:22] The other good thing about having wide-open space was that you could focus on the windows, and these are enormous. The windows are not just openings in the walls, but in a way, the walls themselves.

Dr. Zucker: [1:38] It was clearly an attempt when this minster was constructed to make it an extraordinarily grand space, one of the most important ecclesiastical spaces in all of Britain. That called for a dramatic architecture of extraordinary scale.

[1:54] They were able to pull this off because the vaults are not stone. They’re wood, which is much lighter and has much more tensile strength. It was also far more economical, and the same strategy was used in the Chapter House. Although at first glance, it seems as if we’re looking at a painted stone vault, we’re actually looking at wood. But there is a downside. Stone vaulting does help to protect against fire, and these vaults did burn.

Dr. Harris: [2:23] Many times, in fact, including in the mid-19th century. And so some of the vaults in York Minster were reconstructed in the 19th century. The same is true of this vault that we’re looking at in the Chapter House.

[2:37] Originally, the sculpture that we see around the sides would have been painted, some of it would have been gilded, and the vault above originally included some panel paintings.

Dr. Zucker: [2:48] We’re lucky that one of those figures survives.

Dr. Harris: [2:50] We’ve come down to the Undercroft, the museum beneath the Minster, hoping to find what remains of some of the panels that once decorated the vault of the Chapter House, and we found the figure of Synagoga. She is over life-size.

Dr. Zucker: [3:09] Synagoga is traditionally paired with Ecclesia, that is, a personification of the Christian church. Synagoga is a representation of the older Jewish tradition. She holds in her left hand the Ten Commandments, but of course this is being painted by Christians, not by Jews, and so we also see a crown falling off her head and her banner wrapped around her eyes as if it was a blindfold, a reference to the fact that she is blind to the truth of Christianity.

Dr. Harris: [3:40] The idea here is that she’s blinded by the old law, the Jewish Bible, which has been superseded by the New Testament, by the Christian Bible.

Dr. Zucker: [3:49] But she’s represented elegantly. We know that she was a queen, but her reign has been superseded. These figures become popular at a moment when western European Christians are trying to come to terms with the place of Judaism in their world.

Dr. Harris: [4:06] In fact, we know there was a significant Jewish community in York and that at the end of the 12th century there was a massacre of Jews here. What’s interesting to me as we look at these here in the Undercroft Museum is that the Victorians replaced a ceiling that had figurative images with forms that are purely decorative, but during the Gothic period, people sitting in that Chapter House could have looked up and seen these important narrative and symbolic figures.

[4:36] [music]

Explore an interactive map of York Minster

Synagoga and Ecclesia, Strasbourg Cathedral

Depicting Judaism in a medieval Christian ivory

Sarah Brown, “The Chapter House and Its Vestibule,” Stained Glass at York Minster (London: Scala Arts Publishers Inc., 2017), pp. 24–31.

Sarah Brown, York Minster: An Architectural History c. 1220–1500 (Swindon: English Heritage, 2003).

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "The Chapter House of York Minster," in Smarthistory, July 20, 2023, accessed June 14, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/york-minster-the-cathedral-and-metropolitical-church-of-saint-peter/.