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Cathedral Stones Tell Their Simple, Sacred Stories


by Martial Rose and Julia Hedgecoe published in England by Herbert Press London 144 pp., hardback 24.99 paperback 14.99 published in the United States by Thames and Hudson $19.95

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It is often said that the medieval cathedrals of Western Europe were profusely decorated with images - stained glass, carvings, wall-paintings - because the worshippers were largely illiterate. They could not read. Nor could they understand spoken Latin. They needed to be told the story of the world, from creation to Revelation, pictorially.

In many Gothic cathedrals, however, there are carvings that are merely decorative (suggesting a love of display and opulence rather than doctrine), or that depict Biblical (and apocryphal) events - but do it inaccessibly.

The "misericords" - wooden carvings under small seats in the choir stalls - were virtual secrets, well away from general gaze, and literally hidden from the monks who sat perched above them as they worshiped. The underside of a seat is not exactly a prominent position for ecclesiastical teachings. (Many of these delightful carvings show recognition of this by depicting scenes that have little or no connection with piety: domestic events, odd animals, fantasies, folk tales, and so forth.)

Something similarly out of range occurs with the carved-stone roof bosses, or keystones, that feature prolifically in the vaulting of cloisters, naves, transepts, and chapels in Gothic cathedrals. These keystones were an essential structural part of stone vaulting, holding the ribs in place. Although a rough preparation might precede their being lifted into place, they were carved and finished while attached to the ceiling.

Medieval historian Martial Rose, in his fascinating new introduction to the roof bosses that multiply marvelously in England's Norwich Cathedral, observes that these carvings are so high above the ground that their "story detail is indecipherable by the human eye." (The exceptions are those in the comparatively low-roofed cloisters and a part of the cathedral called the Bauchun Chapel.)

An enigma exists, then, in the fact that these Norwich carvings, unlike those in other cathedrals, tell stories. According to Rose, the Norwich bosses are unique because "the majority of them tell a story: ... they often form sequences, even great cycles, of narrative." The narratives of the 14 bays of Norwich's nave are from the Old and New Testaments. The patriarchs of the Old - including, for example, Noah and Moses - are seen as precursors of Christ in the New.

But if the roof carvings cannot be seen, to whom are their stories being told? Why was such craftsmanship expended on them, and such planning given to their content and narrative? Rose writes: "The most lofty work is as carefully carved and skillfully finished as any at a lower level."

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The best he offers by way of an answer to this mystery is to propose that this care and skill reflect "not just a feeling of self-respect on the part of the sculptor, but a belief that his work was an essential part of the whole building of the church which was for the worship and praise of God." It seems that communication was not the primary purpose.

And yet, as shown in the book's selection of close-up color photographs (the highly effective work of Julia Hedgecoe), these painted carvings are highly communicative and dramatic. They convey feeling and thought as well as describing, in the cramped space of a few inches, events of sacred and profound moment.

Rose points to one happy outcome of their remoteness in the cathedral: They may well have been saved from the wholesale demolition of images in ecclesiastical buildings during the Protestant Reformation (beginning in the 1500s) and later.

THE paint work of these wonderful carvings is inseparably part of them. Rose talks about the expressiveness of the color in some of the carvings. Yet he also makes it clear that "we can have little assurance that the colors seen today match those originally employed in the Middle Ages." A Victorian dean of the cathedral removed a brown wash covering the nave's bosses (the two on this page are from the nave), and he recorded the colors "thus exposed." Rose thinks it "probable" that he recorded the original coloring. But successive repaintings, some rather overusing gold leaf, may have distorted the paint work. Nevertheless, as Noah's Ark and Moses in the Bulrushes show, the color we see today is inescapably part of the delight of these carvings.

Rose's final chapter discusses connections between medieval drama performed by the guilds on feast days - the "mystery plays" that told Bible stories with a mixture of solemnity and high comedy - and the carved roof bosses in the cathedral. The same craftsmen who worked on the fabric of the building would have made the costumes and props for the outdoor performances, and would also have performed them. The way the carvings show the heart of an event with striking directness surely depicts ordinary people of the time acting in plays.

Given the vast number of bosses in Norwich Cathedral (1,106 of them), this book, which is much reduced from its original intention, reproduces and discusses only a fraction. The text, in fact, too frequently and frustratingly, describes bosses that are not illustrated. One can only hope this fine effort is so successful that adequate funding becomes available to produce a much fuller volume. In the meantime, this lovely book provides a splendid opportunity to see some of Hedgecoe's "hundreds of photographs" (as the cover blurb puts it), and to read cogent explanations of the historical context that made such art possible.

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