Monday, 30 May 2011

Medieval Magic & Happy Accidents at Wells Cathedral

There are some as will tell you that life in Medieval times was grim - That the people of long ago spent their short lives scrabbling about in the dirt obsessing about death. That is not true. As wall paintings like the three living and three dead at Northwell show us they did know death well enough, but it didn't rule their lives. They did not live in a time of instant gratification and planned for the future in a way lost to many of us today. Trees must be grown before the wood can be cut and shaped to build houses. And stone must be quarried, transported many miles and worked on for many years to build even the smallest of cathedrals.

St Andrews in Wells is such a cathedral and the first phase of building took over eighty years, which clearly shows the medieval mind was focused on the future. A relatively small cathedral that would be unremarkable if it were not for the west front which still has over 300 of its medieval statues. Statues that would have originally been brightly painted. Surely this fact alone argues against all those who look back to our grim past! But this huge collection of Saints, Kings, Bishops, Biblical Scenes, Apostles, Angels, the Virgin Mary and Christ himself hide an even better secret not even promoted on the Wells Cathedral website. For behind the statues on three tiers are portals the punch through the stone work to hidden passages within and on certain festive occasions like Palm Sunday the choir would sing out on the lower two tiers, whilst trumpets were sounded at the very top, making it appear that the stone figures had come to life. It must have looked and sounded as if they were singing from on high!

West Front of Wells Cathedral

Detail of the West Front

And so transport yourselves back for a moment to Medieval times, where life could be tough, especially for the poor. But try and put yourself in their shoes and don't get wrapped up in religion or belief, for whether your are a spiritual person then or now isn't important. Regardless of your or their faith surely it must have been a most magical experience. Whatever your beliefs, surely we all enjoy a little bit of magic in our lives.

Still not convinced? Well not only did the builders of cathedrals and other great stone structures look to the future, but given their limited technologies and materials their ingenuity would put any modern builder to shame. Just witness the scissor arches in Wells cathedral.....

Scissor arches - east from the nave

Detail of the arches from the south transept

Many think they are modern additions and dislike them for that, but they are in fact no more than a fourteenth century happy accident and we Ragged Ramblers love our happy accidents! But whilst we might stumble upon the interesting and unusual after we have lost our way, the medieval builders had much more to contend with than missing or badly read maps - They were more concerned with a central tower which as it was being built was already subsiding and sinking into the ground. The builders though were not phased and the scissor arches were their solution. Some hate them, but I love them for their clean flowing symmetry, their cleverness and the fact the yet again they demonstrate that the medieval mind could and did raise itself up beyond the grim hard world. A grim hard world that some nowadays cannot see beyond when they look back into our past.

Details of two levels of 'string course' (Above arches) in the south transept
They dip towards the scissor arch in the south transept showing the earlier subsidence of the central tower

Certainly they overawed and overwhelmed one Ragged Rambler, Mrs Many Coats, so much this weekend that she was driven mad and spent most of the weekend believing she was a tree.

Mrs Many Coats at Wells Bishop's Palace being a tree

+Many Coats R.S.A.R +


  1. I am extremely taken by the scissor arches. I have never seen them before and think that they are a wonderful and breathtaking take on an older architectural tool. In all honesty I don't care when they were built, I simply like them.

    Thank you for answering the questions I had about cathedrals. I quite enjoyed your rambling and I hope Mrs. Many Coats didn't take it too hard when she was told that she wasn't a tree.

  2. Thanks Danielle and yes Mrs Many-Coats is fine now, although I do fear for her when autumn comes!