In preparation for a paper I am taking this term on Romanesque Art and Architecture, I travelled up to Durham for a weekend to see some of the finest surviving examples of Norman architecture in Britain.
We started at the castle, now an amalgam of architectural styles due to years of modifications and extensions. It is now the home of students of University College – a very grand setting for student digs! Beneath the castle is a Norman chamber – most likely a chapel (though this is debated). The quirky capitals feature animals, plants, figures, and vignettes from stories such as the story of St Eustace. Eustace was a Roman general, who whilst hunting a stag in a forest, saw a vision of the crucifix between the animal’s antlers, and instantly converted to Christianity. By alluding to this story in the chapel, whoever built it was sending a message to the laity that Christianity was accessible, and paradise was within reach of all who believed in Christ.
The nearby cathedral is a spectacular feat of Medieval engineering. It is a hugely impressive space, with ornate decoration and some of the first rib vaulting in Europe. Principally it was built to house the shrine of St Cuthbert, whose body was brought from Lindisfarne, a holy island attached to the coast of Northumberland by a causeway, and cut off at high tide. The Cathedral also houses the tomb of the Venerable Bede, a doctor of the Roman Catholic church and a hugely important early theological historian.
The cathedral is of great artistic importance as the earliest surviving example of stone vaulting on such a large scale. The development of the stone vault can be seen within the architectural scheme itself, from the semi-circular arches, to the pointed arches which allowed stonemasons to build higher, spreading the weight and strain of the stone more efficiently.
Some of the marble used for the columns is beautifully patterned with ancient corals. These scattered fossils incased within the stone pre-date the dinosaurs! Also worth noting are the beautiful stained glass windows throughout the cathedral – some contemporary interpretations of Biblical narrative, others stunning Medieval stories. A window close to the great entrance commemorates the night Durham was saved from bombings during the Second World War. Hitler had planned on destroying much of Durham during a large attack on the north of England, but that night a grey mist descended and shrouded the city, preventing the bombs from dropping.
Our final view of Durham comprised of a long walk along the river bank opposite the cathedral on a chilly but beautifully sunny Sunday morning. The path gave a spectacular view of the cathedral on the edge of the hill, silhouetted against the bright blue skyline, and emphasized the achievements of 12th-century builders in such a grand feat of engineering.
To anyone who hasn’t been, Durham is definitely worth a visit – its a lovely town of winding passages, cobbled hills and bridges, as well as stunning historic architecture and examples of medieval art, stonework, stained glass and manuscripts.
Images courtesy of http://www.durhamworldheritagesite.com/ and http://www.durhamcathedral.co.uk