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Durham Cathedral

Durham Cathedral (Durham, England), begun c. 1093. Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris.

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Video transcript

(piano music plays) - [Steven] We're in Durham Cathedral at the top of a hill in north eastern England. This is one of the great early cathedrals. - [Beth] And it's built less than three decades after the Norman Conquest, that is, after William the Conqueror crossed the channel with his army and invaded and took over England in a rather brutal invasion and replaced the old order of Anglo-Saxon England for this new Norman order, and built many churches, among the first of which is Durham Cathedral. - [Steven] This location is at a bend in a river that is naturally fortified by a steep slope, and the cathedral is built, as is the castle next to it at this high point, and it was built to contain the relics of an extremely important English saint, St Cuthbert. - [Beth] Cuthbert lived for a time on an island just off the east coast of England in an area that was then called Northumbria. That island is called Lindisfarne and you may have heard of it because one of the most beautiful of all early medieval illuminated manuscripts, the Lindisfarne Gospels, was produced at the monastery at Lindisfarne. - [Steven] And was made to honor St Cuthbert and was transported with the remains of the saint from the island to this more protected area at a time when vikings were threatening the coast. - [Beth] It may seem odd to be carrying around the body of a saint but the body, the relics of Saint Cuthbert were incredibly important, they performed miracles and in fact a shrine was built for Saint Cuthbert. It was gilded, it was covered in jewels. - [Steven] Cuthbert developed a following that extended across the nation and even in the continent. England had been taken by the Normans and was politically associated with that northern part of what we now call France. - [Beth] Normandy, and that's where the Duke of Normandy who invaded England in 1066 came from. - [Steven] And he brought with him not only his own bishops, not only his own nobility, but also building techniques from the continent. And so there was a continuity between Norman churches such as this one and the Norman churches that we see in northern France, which is why we call this style Anglo-Norman. English history is complicated. We have native peoples here that were conquered by the Romans who then left in the early fifth century. The political vacuum was then filled by invaders from what is now southern Denmark and northern Germany, peoples that we call the Angles and the Saxons, or the Anglo-Saxons. - [Beth] And then Anglo-Saxon England is supplanted by Norman England and this is one of the first Anglo-Norman churches, and we feel the ancientness of this building. It is heavy, it feels fortified, and in that way we know that we're standing in a Romanesque church. - [Steven] This was some of the earliest large scale architecture to take place since the Romans had left, and we call it Romanesque because this architecture was dependent on the technology that the Romans had originally used, that is the round arch. - [Beth] One of the things that one notices immediately was how decorative the surfaces are, that is a key feature of Anglo-Norman Romanesque that differentiates it from what was going on on the French continent. - [Steven] We're standing in the nave and we're surrounded by these massive piers that hold up the heavy vaulting above us, and there are basically two types of piers that alternate. One is a simple cylindrical pier, and the other is a more complex and larger compound pier that has attached columns. - [Beth] And the cylindrical piers are the ones that carry this amazing linear decoration. When we walk in from the west and we see fluted columns. As we make our way east towards the holiest end of the church we see cylindrical piers decorated with chevrons, these zig-zag shapes. And then we come upon lozenge shapes, and in each case really deeply cut creating dark shadows that were likely originally painted. - [Steven] And if you look closely you'll notice that ingeniously the stonemasons created a kind of mass production, each stone is identical to another and yet when they fit together they create these continuous patterns. - [Beth] And this is a testament to the increasing skill of stonemasons during the Romanesque period. - [Steven] As we move eastward we see massive spiral columns which reflect that spiral columns at St Peters in Rome, surrounding the tomb of St Peter. Here the columns are closer to the tomb of St Cuthbert, creating a correspondence between Cuthbert and Peter. - [Beth] Also the dimensions of this church are very close to the dimensions of Old St Peter's. And that was a very common thing in medieval architecture, to emulate important precedents like St Peter's or important churches in Jerusalem. - [Steven] The inter-elevation is three-part. Above the nave arcade is this broad, heavy gallery. - [Beth] I'm struck by the depth of the archway and the rolls of molding that lead our eye up to that gallery and we can see that in some cases that molding is decorated with that chevron zig-zag pattern in these wonderfully complex ways. - [Steven] And we see that chevron zig-zag everywhere in this church. It creates the most lively pattern that activates the surfaces of stones. - [Beth] Now the church is relatively dark as most Romanesque churches are. We can see a clerestory which is rather small and interestingly those windows are slightly inset, again we have a sense of the depth of the wall. - [Steven] There is in fact a narrow walkway that moves just in front of those windows. - [Beth] So this idea of emphasizing the depth of the wall, this interesting decorative carving, these are all things that art historians sees carrying through after the Romanesque into the English Gothic. - [Steven] And one of my favorite decorative aspects of the church can be seen in the aisles. We see these doubled attached columns with these interlacing arches just above. It's almost musical. - [Beth] We have to imagine these painted in reds and greens and yellows so they would have really stood out. Art historians believe that these might be influenced by the art of Islamic Spain. - [Steven] For example, in the great mosque at Cordoba we see interlacing similar to this. An aspect of this church that fascinates art historians is the vaulting, because here we see the precocious early use of ribbed vaulting. - [Beth] Ribbed vaulting does in some form go back to the ancient Romans, but it's use here is very important because we know what's going to follow in the Gothic. Before stone vaulting, churches had been covered with wood, sometimes even flat wood ceilings. And so not only was stone vaulting more fireproof, it allowed for a shaping of space that was far more decorative. - [Beth] If we follow the lines of the vault, we notice that it leads our eye down a shaft which is attached to the compound pier, and so you have this unifying of the nave from the ground all the way up through and across the transverse arch that takes to the other side of the nave. This unification of space is something that will become very important in the Gothic era. - [Steven] We've entered the galilee. This was built after the main church was completed and architecturally it's a completely different space. - [Beth] Here instead of those very massive heavy cylindrical columns or those massive compound piers, we have sets of four columns joined together that feel very light and the space feels very open. - [Steven] And that was possible because this part of the church does not have heavy stone vaulting. Instead we have a wooden roof and so the architect could afford to use these delicate slender columns. - [Beth] And they carry arches that are decorated again with these incredibly deep and complex chevron patterns. - [Steven] But here because the ceiling is lower, they're closer to us and they really activate the space, the entire space almost feels electrified. - [Beth] And there is significant wall space above the arches and much of that was, it seems covered with paintings, some of them just barely survive along one of the aisles. - [Steven] We think this is the first galilee attached to a church in England. - [Beth] And we know that these spaces were used as gathering places, perhaps at the start of a liturgical procession, and the word galilee is a reference to Christ's entry in Jerusalem, because when he entered Jerusalem he came first from Galilee. So we've left Durham Cathedral and heading back to the train station, taking the view of both the cathedral and the castle and the river that surrounds them, and we're reminded of St Cuthbert himself who chose this very strategic location. - [Steven] At least according to legend, as his remains were being carried on a cart, the cart stopped not far from here. - [Beth] As though this was directed by the saint himself. - [Steven] And then thanks to a vision that had to do with a brown cow, this sacred spot was found. - [Beth] I'm so glad this Norman castle and cathedral have stood the test of time. (piano music plays)