Sunday, 20 May 2012

The pelican in her piety

The pelican in her piety is another of those medieval symbols that needs to be 'read'. I got introduced to it in Norwich Cathedral - there are several good examples there.

The first thing you need to know is that the pelican doesn't always look much like a pelican (except in Victorian medievalising work. The Victorians had good pelicans to copy from, notably those in St James's Park). The pelican quite often looks more like an eagle. In fact, that's logical, since the pelican is pecking her breast to feed her fledglings on her own blood. It would be difficult for a real pelican to do that - but easy for a bird of prey, with a more rapacious, hooked beak.

Secondly, the pelican is usually sitting on her nest, with her chicks around her. You'll see her pecking her breast, and if she's in colour you will see the drops of blood. She is a self-sacrificing parent, ready to hurt herself so that her chicks can live.

That makes her a symbol of Christ atoning for the sins of the world. Her blood is Christ's blood, shed for mankind. In the hymn 'Adoro te devote', Thomas Aquinas calls Christ 'the loving pelican', before asking to be cleansed in his blood. The pelican also crops up in bestiaries, never the most accurate naturalist texts but extremely useful for explaining medieval symbology.  The pelican can also, more generally, represent the virtue of charity.

You may find pelicans on the arms of colleges (both Cambridge and Oxford colleges of Corpus Christi, to which the pelican, as a sign of the Body of Christ, is obviously relevant), and occasionally on pubs. But they're more often to be found in ecclesiastical contexts (of course, the colleges originally were religious institutions); on bench ends at Swavesey church, Cambridgeshire, and Hexham Abbey; on the lectern of Norwich cathedral (without the chicks); on roof bosses (Norwich, again, Widdecombe church, Southwark cathedral).

Think the pelican lectern in Norwich cathedral is actually an eagle? Take a better look, and you can see the blood swelling out of the wound the bird has made with its beak. And there's another little pelican on one spandrel of the west door.

The Victorians loved the pelican - it was one of the symbols that got picked up in the Gothic revival and by the Oxford Movement at the same time - and you will see Victorian pelicans all over the place; on tombstones, for example, and on tiles, and in stained glass, where the subject often neatly fits a roundel.

Other birds and beasts have their meanings too - dogs, for instance, often symbolise fidelity, so female effigies which have a little lapdog under their feet on medieval tombs aren't naturalistic portraits of a lady with a pet dog, but praising her faithfulness.Not all animals have simple meanings - the lion may appear as a symbol of strength and fortitude, but may also appear as a devouring beast; in Italy, the columns of Romanesque church porches are often supported by lions which maul or chew on human bodies, symbols of the carnivorous, bestial appetite which must be resisted and overcome. (Or, of course, a lion might appear in other contexts; with wings, he is the symbol of St Mark, or of Venice; four lions sitting around or under a young man generally show Daniel in the lions' den. It all depends on the context.)

You don't need to know these meanings to be able to see a Gothic cathedral and appreciate its architecture, of course, nor to appreciate the beauty of a page of illuminated manuscript. But to see the cathedral as it was intended, as a sort of encyclopaedia of God's creation, with every created thing in its place, and to see it as a construct of meaning, as well as stone, you need to be able to read it - and that means learning the alphabet of symbols, of which the pelican is just one part.

The Three Living and the Three Dead

Understanding medieval art and architecture is not easy. The terms of reference - the visual shorthand - used by medieval culture are no longer ours. The Reformation made big changes in Protestant countries, but even Catholic iconography has changed. Many of the symbols well known in the Middle Ages have been forgotten. So to interpret what you see in medieval art, sometimes it's necessary to study the symbols before looking at the art.

The Three Living and the Three Dead is a narrative, found in a 15th century English manuscript as 'the three dead kings', but going back to the thirteenth century. Three kings go hunting (hunting is always seen as a sign of worldliness, if not of actual sin). In the depths of the forest, they meet three walking corpses, who turn out to be their ancestors, and advise them to mend their ways and turn to God.

The corpses say: "As you are even so was I, and as I am so shall you be." They warn the kings of their mortality; they are a memento mori write large. (That's something that particularly resonates in 15th century culture, with its concentration on mortality; this is the date at which we find the early cadaver tombs - tombs with an effigy of the living person on top, and a corpse shown below - and at which memorial brasses often show the deceased in his shroud.)

You don't often see this legend represented in sculpture, but it's a common theme of wall paintings. For instance the Camposanto in Pisa includes this story - with one of the living holding his nose at the stench of the rotting corpses - within the Judgement mural. Several Norfolk churches also apparently have instances of this theme, though I haven't seen them - something I should remedy soon!

So whenever you see three corpses, and three living figures, whether the corpses are lying in their coffins or dancing about, it's probably a reference to this legend. It's intended as a reminder of our mortality, but more than that, it's intended to make us think seriously about living a good life. After all, the story implies, you never know when you might meet death.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Architecture 101

I was brought up church-crawling. I remember visiting churches in Essex, Norfolk, Suffolk, and then further afield - I did a few crawls with the Church Monuments Society as an undergraduate - and I've now supplemented it with what I suppose you'd have to call temple-crawling and mosque-crawling as my travels have taken me around the world.

When you spend half your childhood learning the difference between Norman, Early English and Perpendicular architecture, it's quite easy to forget that many people don't have that advantage. So for those not gifted with parents or teachers who got them started, here's a very basic primer for Western European architecture, from the early days to today. I've attached the names of just a couple of really excellent examples.

  • Big, dark cave. All over.
  • Big, dark cave with some form of lighting, and paintings. Lascaux,Altamura.
  • Huts. Villanovan / Etruscan funerary urns sometimes modelled on the round hut, quite realistic.
  • Greek classical architecture. Pillars supporting roof allegedly modelled on tree trunks supporting the roof. Pediments (triangular gable). Arcades. Parthenon, temples at Paestum.
  • Romans. Discovery of really good cement - arches, domes. Great engineering - aqueducts, roads, bridges. Use of brick. Pantheon, Rome; aqueducts at Nimes, Merida, Segovia.
  • Early Christian - in both Rome and the East; the basilica (aisled hall, with arcade each side and apses - semicircular niches -at the ends). Mosaic. Churches at Ravenna, Rome.
  • Byzantine - development of style in the Eastern Empire; all based on the dome, development of centralised church plans - 'cross in square'. Churches of Aya Sofya, St Sergius & Bacchus, the Chora, in Istanbul (Constantinople): church of Dafni, Athens; churches of Thessaloniki. (Also in the Balkans - monasteries of Sopocani, Gracanica.)
  • Carolingian. After the Dark Ages, Charlemagne reinvents the Roman Empire and Roman architecture. Aachen, his palace chapel.
  • Romanesque. Round arches, tendency to be massive, thick-walled. Development of the cruciform church with central tower. Barrel vaults (like a tunnel) or wooden roofs. Three storey buildings - arcade, triforium passage, clerestory (highest window level). Use of decorative arcading. Norman castles - first stone built fortresses, around 1100. First stone built private houses since the Romans.Norwich cathedral and castle; churches of Caen, Normandy; great Rhineland cathedrals (Mainz, Speyer, Worms); Cluny, Autun, Vezelay. Churches of Palermo mix Norman and Arabic styles. In Italy, Florence cathedral baptistery; Pisa cathedral, tower and baptistery. In Spain, Santiago cathedral.  Stone houses in Chartres, Lincoln.
  • Gothic - kicks off with Saint-Denis, work of Abbot Suger, about 1130. Pointed arches, ribbed vaults, better engineering means thinner walls and higher buildings. Flying buttresses invented - allow wall to become almost all window, taking weight instead of wall. Great French cathedrals - Chartres, Laon, Bourges, Notre-Dame, Reims, Strasbourg. Sainte-Chapelle, Paris. In England Salisbury Cathedral. In Germany Ulm, Cologne. Not so common in Italy, and late in Spain. Later styles become more local - Perpendicular in England (King's College Chapel), Flamboyant in France, Isabelline and Manueline in Spain and Portugal - and more complicated, delicate, lacelike.
  • Renaissance - return to round arches, taking Roman architecture as a model - regularity, rationalism, mathematical proportions (Leonardo's man-in-circle-in-square). Starts in Italy, mixes with Gothic style as it spreads. Florence - San Lorenzo, Palazzo Ruccellai, Palazzo Medici. France - chateaux of Chambord, Anet; England - Inigo Jones's Queen's House Greenwich, and St Paul's, Covent Garden. Emergence of the idea of town planning - regular squares, circuses, long straight streets.
  • Mannerism - Renaissance basics but with a twist - Michaelangelo's Piazza on the Capitoline; Palazzo Te, Mantua; popular in Netherlands - Antwerp city hall.
  • Baroque - takes the same basics but goes to extremes - really huge (St Peter's) or tiny (Sant'Ivo, Rome). Drama, theatrical. Bernini, Borromini. Baroque cities - Turin, Valetta (Malta), Noto (Sicily). Spreads to German world - Karlskirche (Vienna), Asamkirche (Munich). In England, Hawksmoor (Christ Church, Spitalfields) and Vanbrugh (Blenheim Palace).
  • Palladian / Colonial - reaction against the baroque in England goes back to Renaissance ideals. The Adam brothers - country house style reduced to fit Georgian terraces; style exported to America as colonial. Part and parcel of a late 18c to early 20c trend that I call the
  • 'Neo' styles - neoclassicism/Empire style in France, neo-Gothic or Gothick or Gothic revival in England, Biedermeier in the north; nothing is new, but old styles are eclectically taken from and adapted to advances in engineering and construction (eg cast iron). In Barcelona, Modernisme (c1900) borrows from Japan, Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque.
  • Art nouveau/Jugendstil/Arts & Crafts - natural forms, flowing curves, colour. Most influential in decor, but also in architecture, around 1890-1910. Paris metro signs by Guimard; Secession building, Vienna; Casa Batllo, Barcelona. Beaux Arts style in the USA.
  • Art deco - 1920s and 1930s, rectilinear, 'streamlined', geometrical and self-consciously modern - Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Brussels; Rockefeller Center.
  • Modernism - simplicification, functionalism - "form follows function", elimination of decorative details.  New materials - chrome, glass, concrete. Sydney Opera House; Seagram Building, New York; Bauhaus Building, Dessau.
  • Post-modernism. Does to modernism what mannerism did to the Renaissance - witty reinterpretations  - AT&T Building, New York, is modernist skyscraper but with classical pediment on top. References to the past, to classical style.
  • Organic - difficult to say exactly what this style is, but when you look at some of Frank Gehry's work, or Zaha Hadid's, or the 'Peanut' building at the Weald and Downland museum in Sussex, (or the 'Gherkin' in London) you can see it's based on natural forms and organic curves, rather than on rigid rectangular forms. Increasingly common.
Wikipedia does all this in much more detail, but that's a good gallop through the ages!

By the way, one of my favourite books ever on architecture is Osbert Lancaster's very funny From Pillar to Post: English architecture without tears. It's highly recommended - it is a gentle romp, very specifically English, and with recognisable social types illustrating the social history of our architecture - the languid wimpy arty type, the no-nonsense retired colonel, and the vampy lady, turn up in age after age.

I have to say though that the title is wrong on one count. I cannot possibly read this wonderfully illustrated, but quite accurate, book without tears - of laughter.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Local history - reading the runes

I took my father out to lunch a while back. We managed to get to the Bristol Arms at Shotley Gate just in time for lunch - an excellent prawn curry washed down with some Adnam's Ghost Ship. Afterwards, we wandered the foreshore, looking at the port of Felixstowe on one side, and the town of Harwich on the other - Shotley is sited on a peninsula between the Stour and the Orwell, so that there's river pretty much all round, and it takes a while to get your bearings.

Bristol Arms. Remember that.

We watched a Thames barge coming downriver; a great container ship heading for port; a little fishing boat steaming for the lock gates to Shotley marina. There's always something moving on the river. Oystercatchers were browsing the low-tide shoreline; we walked out along a spit of crushed seashell that hissed underfoot, and the birds rose to the air to move along the shore, settling again fifty yards away. Canada geese flew overhead. As we turned around and made our way back to Shotley Gate, the tide was coming in, silently and slowly; I wouldn't have realised, but when I looked for the little spit we'd been standing on, it was gone, only a little island remaining free of the water, perhaps not for much longer.

The village of Shotley itself is at the top of the hill, with Shotley Gate on the shore; you move from marina to farmland in five minutes' walk (or two minutes' drive). The port of Felixstowe with its massive cranes and bulky boxships seems marooned in a sea of green, an industrial landscape strangely out of sorts with the gentle farmland around it.

And the church, in fact, is nowhere near the village - it's stuck away in a tiny hamlet even further away from the river. It's an interesting church, part fifteenth century Gothic with a hammerbeam roof - rough ends to the timbers where the angels must have been hacked off in the Reformation - yet with an eighteenth-century classical chancel. Its tower, meanwhile, may once have been one of those wonderful East Anglian towers that stand tall and stately, dominating the estuary from its hill; but at some point it tumbled, and now it's short and stubby, ill-matched with the soaring clerestory.

Now I was looking for the royal arms over the chancel. There was a dark coat of arms there, but I didn't recognise them. Instead, the royal arms were hanging at the west of the church. So what was this coat of arms? I didn't recognise it at all.

The chancel is quite something. The east end has a Venetian window, finely classical, and the chancel arch too is a classical Roman form, in dark oak; all the furnishings are dark wood, too, though the standard of the carving is way below the standard of Grinling Gibbons. There are Moses and Aaron shown in their regalia on each side of the altar, rather provinicial but nonetheless attractive paintings; there's a plaster barrel vault, which somehow doesn't look quite straight; this is the triumph of sobriety, Protestantism, and good plain English architecture.

It turns out that the chancel was rebuilt by the rector, the Hon. Henry Aston. But he wasn't originally an Aston; he was a Hervey, and took his wife's name on his marriage. Now, Hervey is the family name of the Marquesses of Bristol, and despite the name of the peerage, they're relatively local - Ickworth Hall, Suffolk, having been their home till 1998.Guess who owned the right to nominate the rector? So the younger son of the first Earl of Bristol was given the job by his father. (Though on perusing the peerage, it seems to have been Charles Hervey who was rector here, not his brother, so there is some confusion in the sources; something's got garbled, as it so often does.)

Father shows me the next clue -  the tomb of John Hervey, 1840-1926, who was rector here for 56 years. His father, son of the first Marquess of Bristol, was first rector at Ickworth - well, naturally - and later, Bishop of Bath and Wells. (John was  his fourth child, and first son.)

Clued up, I start looking for more hints of the Hervey/Bristol connection. And there they are. A 1907 stained glass window which is a memorial to the third Marquess of Bristol - MP for West Suffolk, and Lord Lieutenant of the county.

Plenty of Herveys. That is, Bristols. And at this point, I remember the Bristol arms. Even though the pub is a mile or more away, down by the waterside, it has the same patronage as the church. The Herveys must have pretty much owned the village.

Shotley would still be a fascinating place if I didn't know about the Herveys. But when you read the runes, when you put the clues together, you see how the place has an added depth - you understand a little piece of history. (One reason that I am no fan of pub renamings such as the 'Woolie' in Norwich, which used to be, far more appropriately for a city where mercers and dyers made so much money, the Woolpack. Fortunately we have another Woolpack which still carries on the name.) It's one reason you'll often find me trying to read the Latin epitaphs in a country church, my lips moving as I make the effort of trying to remember whether this word is in the genitive or ablative case, and what locupletatus means.