Archive for January, 2017

Exeter Cathedral Curiosities

Saturday, January 28th, 2017

1993-pp-14-3In the four years that I served as a steward and tour guide at Exeter Cathedral, there were some interesting curiosities I encountered.  Many are old, such as the cat hole in the door leading to the clock mechanism in the north transept that allowed a cathedral cat to hunt the mice that liked to eat the ropes of the clock mechanism.  Yet, this curiosity is not old enough to have been in place at the time of Plague of a Green Man, my second Lady Apollonia West Country Mystery, set in Exeter in 1380.  The hole was installed in the time of Bishop Cotton, 1598-1621, too late for Lady Apollonia’s period.

So, let me describe some curiosities which already existed in the cathedral in 1380.  One is the dog-whipper’s flat which is directly over the north porch and behind the Minstrels’ Gallery, a feature of the cathedral that I described earlier this year in my blog post of September 9.  The flat was literally a residence for the staff member called the dog-whipper, complete with cooking facilities and a garderobe or medieval toilet.  From this elevated position, the dog-whipper could watch things going on inside the nave and spot any feral dogs who might be loose inside the church.  He had a stave or strong wooden pole that he could use in chasing dogs out of the church.  That stave is now in the possession of the cathedral’s head verger.

The flat has not been occupied since the 19th century, but vestiges of its cooking facilities and garderobe still exist and its space is largely used in our time for storage.  The most well used thing found in the space just behind the Minstrels’ Gallery in modern times is a set of cathedral organ pipes for very high notes.  Most of Exeter’s organ pipes are in the giant organ cabinet above the screen separating the quire from the nave. Some very large pipes for bass notes are in the south transept in addition to those in the dog-whipper’s flat.2013-PP-01-2

A different curiosity is found between the Lady Chapel and Saint Gabriel’s Chapel.  I found it on the tomb of Bishop Walter Bronescombe who died in 1280 after starting the rebuilding of the Gothic church we see today.  The canopy and base below the effigy were added to his tomb in the 15th century, but the effigy and the 14th century version of the tomb were in place at the time of my novel.  The curious feature is not the tomb itself but a series of small carved angel musicians that are shown playing a host of medieval instruments including the zither, violin, portative organ, shawm, harp, lute, and bagpipe.  These are instruments that are also played by the angel musicians of the Minstrels’ Gallery, but the Bronescombe tomb angels are tiny by comparison and easily missed by a casual viewer.  The angel playing the violin is pictured above.  All aspects of the tomb would have been brightly painted.  Much whitewash and paint has been removed over the centuries to reveal remnants of medieval colours in their surviving glory.

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Exeter Cathedral’s Misericords

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

2002-kb-056-1Exeter Cathedral plays a significant role in Plague of a Green Man, the second of my Lady Apollonia West Country Mysteries, set in 1380.  The Lady of Aust, my heroine, is given a tour of the cathedral as part of the story.  Although they are not mentioned in my story because the Lady would not have been allowed to enter the quire, Exeter’s misericords were present in the quire at that time and had been there for a century or more by 1380.  They are excellent examples of wood carving dating back to the period of the Norman cathedral in Exeter.  There are fifty misericords, of which 48 date back to the 13th century.

Misericords were a medieval solution to the discomfort that clergy regularly faced when required to stand for long periods of worship.  By the 12th century, there were references to such tip-up seats in quires, the jutting upper ledge of which allowed the occupant of the quire stall to rest some of his weight while still nominally standing.  The wood carving under the ledge was designed to support that ledge as well as providing carved decoration.  The term misericord is derived from the Latin word for compassion or mercy.

The misericords of Exeter are the oldest complete set known in England.  They have survived several changes in the stalls of the quire going back to the Norman cathedral.  New stalls were built for the Decorated English Gothic church in the late 13th and the 14th centuries but the ancient misericords were reused in them.  There were later changes in the quire at the time of the Reformation, at the time of the Commonwealth, and in Victorian times but each time the Norman misericords were reused in the new stalls.

The best-known misericord in Exeter is the carving of an elephant, shown above.  It is now displayed in the south quire aisle rather than in its original home in quire stall #44.  When this was carved, English people would have known nothing of elephants in their island nation.  There was a single elephant at the Tower of London in the 13th century which had been a gift to the king from an alien prince.  It is doubtful that the medieval carver who did this misericord had ever seen an elephant.  Much of the body resembles a real elephant, but when we look at its feet, it appears to have horses’ hooves.  There were drawings of an elephant made by the chronicler, Matthew Paris, circulating in medieval England.  It is possible that the carver had seen one of these.2013-PP-01-2

The subjects carved on Exeter’s misericords include persons in various activities, real animals such as the elephant, a lion, a pair of fish or a pair of birds, but also fictitious animals such as mermaids, sirens, dragons, mythical beasts, or centaurs.  Some were carved with designs using stiff foliage, at times being spewed out of the mouth of a beast.  Unlike other carving of wood and stone in Exeter cathedral, the misericords all are secular and include no religious subjects.

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Exeter Cathedral’s Bishop’s Throne and East Window

Friday, January 20th, 2017

1989-w-26-2Exeter Cathedral plays a significant role in Plague of a Green Man, the second of my Lady Apollonia West Country Mysteries, set in 1380.  The Lady, my heroine, is given a tour of the cathedral as part of the story.  Although they are not mentioned in my story, the bishop’s throne and the east window of the cathedral were there in 1380 and have survived to the present, even after the German bombing of Exeter in World War II.

The bishop’s throne was carved in oak in the early 14th century, and at 59 feet high, is the largest in England.  In the 1989 photo on the left, I am shown sitting next to the bishop’s seat, within the throne with one of the cathedral vergers sitting on it.  The oak timber from which the throne is carved came from the estates of the Dean and Chapter in the parish of Newton St Cyres in Devon and was immersed in the mill-ponds there for three to four weeks to help season it before bringing it to Exeter.  Today the throne lacks the brilliant colours with which it would have been painted in medieval times.  Much of the carving depicts the flora of Devon, but there are two human heads carved on the southern arch-cusp at the back of the throne which may well represent the carver and his wife, a fitting signature for a true artist who was probably illiterate.

The bishop’s throne would have been destroyed by the high explosive bomb which struck the nearby Saint James Chapel during a German raid in 1942 but the cathedra staff had taken precautions before the war.  The throne had been taken apart like a three-dimensional puzzle, and each piece was carefully labelled before being removed to Dartmoor for safe keeping.  After the war, the parts of the throne were retrieved from their hiding place and returned to Exeter.  Unfortunately, all the labels had been eaten away, probably by rodents, so there were no instructions to reassemble it.  Fortunately, the workman discovered that the original medieval carver had cut Roman numerals into facing pieces to match them up and enabled the throne to be reassembled to its original state as we see it today.

Much of the east window of the cathedral contains surviving medieval stained glass dating to the 14th century or earlier.  All of the stained glass would have been destroyed in the German air raid had not the same precautions been taken to remove it and store it in safety.  Much of the Victorian stained glass, installed in the 19th century restoration of the cathedral, was destroyed in that raid.2013-PP-01-2

The medieval glazing of the east window is in pot-metal which is tinctured with metal oxides and coloured throughout, not just on the surface.  Details were then drawn on the glass with dark brown paint and brown wash.  There are nine lights containing figures in the lowest tier of the east window, seven in the next tier, and three in the top tier.  Some of the figures are from the early 14th century but also include Biblical figures from the Old Testament.


Exeter Cathedral Tomb Effigies

Monday, January 16th, 2017

1993-i-30-2Medieval tombs are an important feature of Exeter Cathedral that capture the attention of modern visitors.  The same was true for my fictional heroine, Lady Apollonia, when she visited the cathedral in 1380 in Plague of a Green Man.  Some of these tombs include a sculpted effigy or model of the deceased person or persons buried within.  Some of them existed in 1380 when the Lady took her tour, but others have been added since 1380.

The oldest tomb effigy is in the Lady Chapel and represents either Bishop Bartholomew Iscanus who died in 1184 or Bishop Leofric who supervised the move of the see from Crediton to Exeter in 1050 and died in 1072.  The relief carving of this early bishop, done near the end of the 12th century, is much more shallow than is found in later fully rounded, sculpted bodies of the 12th and 13th centuries.  This most ancient effigy clearly shows the bishop holding his crozier and displaying the ring of his office.  The emphasis is that the deceased was a bishop but there was probably no attempt to portray a realistic representation of the person.

In Plague of a Green Man, Lady Apollonia notices the effigies of two knights in the south quire aisle.  It was one of these effigies that inspired me to develop the title for my first novel, Effigy of the Cloven Hoof.  The Lady’s tour included the quire aisles and the Lady Chapel where most of the tomb effigies were located at that time.

Two of the effigies in the north quire aisle inspired some ideas in writing my third novel, Memento Mori.  One is the effigy of a transi tomb which shows the effigy body in decay or transition, a concept which became popular after the Black Death struck England five times in the 14th century.  The other is the monument of Sir Robert Stapledon who died in 1320.  Stapledon’s tomb not only presents the effigy of him as a knight with his legs crossed but also features two small accompanying figures: one is his squire and the other a page leading the knight’s horse.  I used this monument as my inspiration for the tomb which Lady Apollonia commissioned after the death of her fourth son, Sir Alban.

The tomb of Bishop Lacey in the north quire aisle tells an interesting story.  Masons were doing repairs to the stone screen above this tomb about a year and a half after a German air raid on Exeter.  They discovered small fragments of unpainted wax images varying in colour from dirty pale yellow to a deep terra-cotta.  Many were images of body parts, hands, feet, legs, all the way up to an 8-inch figure of a woman. It is thought that these wax images may have been hung from the railing above Lacey’s tomb as votive offerings by those seeking his intervention for healing in various parts of their body which they illustrated for him with the wax images.2013-PP-01-2

Effigies in the south transept of Hugh Courtenay, the Earl of Devon, and his Countess, Margaret de Bohun, shown in the above picture, are helpful because they may portray the kind of armour and clothing worn in the 14th century by a nobleman and his wife.

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Exeter Cathedral Corbels

Thursday, January 12th, 2017

1980-kb-022-1In my two previous blog posts, I spoke of Exeter Cathedral as the best example of the English Decorated Gothic style of architecture and about roof bosses as an important manifestation of this style. As well as in its roof bosses, decorated Gothic style is also exhibited in Exeter Cathedral in its carved corbels.  Corbels are bracket-like blocks of stone which project from the wall to support some superincumbent weight like a vaulting shaft or rib.  They are part of the structure of the building but in Exeter are beautifully carved and highly decorated just like the roof bosses.  There are hundreds of corbels throughout the cathedral.

Many corbels in the nave and quire are four feet high, especially those at the level of the main arcade.  Fluted shafts rise from each of these past the triforium level to an upper level of corbels from which eleven ribs spread out as they rise upward to support the vault.  Exeter corbels have a great variety of relief carvings which in medieval times was brightly painted.  The subjects are varied and do not always seem to be religious.  The largest corbels in the first four bays at the eastern end of the quire are carved with good representations of identifiable plants found in Devon.  Moving westward two changes appear.  Carvings of nature become more stylised and figures begin to appear, sometimes several on the same corbel.  This is continued in the crossing and throughout the nave.

The most famous corbel in Exeter Cathedral is frequently called the Tumbler Corbel.  It consists of a wandering minstrel playing a viol while standing behind the head of the Exeter dog and supporting a tumbler upside down tumbling over his shoulders.  The Tumbler Corbel is at the northeast end of the nave and faces a corbel on the opposite side presenting the Virgin Mary and Child with a crouching king below her.  There is the suggestion that this combination of corbels was inspired by a medieval French tale of “Our Lady’s Tumbler” in which a medieval acrobat performs his act in front of the Virgin and Child as the most perfect gift he could render to them.  I speak of this corbel in Plague of a Green Man, the second of the Lady Apollonia West Country mysteries.2013-PP-01-2

Smaller corbels can also be of interest, such as the cripple corbel shown above.  It is placed high in the north transept in the bay which connects the north aisles of the nave and quire.  The crippled figure is leaning on a cane or a stick while his right foot rests on the head of a mythical animal from whose mouth sprouts foliage, much like some of the green men or foliate faces I have mentioned in other posts.

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Exeter Cathedral Roof Bosses

Sunday, January 8th, 2017

1993-LL- 3-8In my previous blog post, I described Exeter Cathedral as the best example of the English Decorated Gothic style of architecture.  An important manifestation of this style is found in the cathedral’s stone roof bosses.  Roof bosses are the keystones at the intersection of ribs in the vaulting which in fact hold things together.  They serve an important function but may be quite plain in other Gothic churches.  In Exeter Cathedral, however, the Exeter roof bosses are done with relief carving that is highly decorative.  There are over 500 bosses in the cathedral, ranging in size from five inches in diameter in some of the side chapels to a yard across for the bosses running down the centre of the main vault.

There is no one theme to the carvings on the bosses.  Some show important biblical narratives and Christian stories with Old Testament characters such as Samson, the crucifixion, or the coronation of the Virgin.  Important religious subjects are often repeated in several parts of the cathedral.  The most famous of Exeter’s roof bosses is in the nave and shows the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral during the reign of King Henry II.  Some bosses feature angels, including one in the Quire playing a medieval violin.  Many, however, are mysterious such as the bosses of foliate faces, called Green Men in the 20th century.  The meaning of the foliate faces to ancient peoples such as the Celts and the Romans is unknown.

Some of the Gothic roof boss carvings are realistic representations of nature to identify the flora or fauna represented.  Others present armorial bearings indicating noble families who contributed to the decoration of the cathedral.  Other are mythical or fanciful featuring dragons, mermaids or somebody’s dog.

My second Lady Apollonia West Country Mystery, Plague of a Green Man, uses the idea of the foliate faces in its title.  In her tour of Exeter Cathedral in 1380, the Lady Apollonia is shown both the Becket boss and the green man boss which is featured on the cover of my book, shown in the above picture.  The survival of the Becket boss in Exeter is especially interesting because King Henry VIII ordered all Becket references destroyed when he took the English church from Rome.  It is not possible to remove a roof boss because it is the keystone which holds the vault ribs together.  The canons of Tudor Exeter simply whitewashed the Becket boss, covered it over and so it survives to this day.2013-PP-01-2

Medieval carvings such as the Exeter roof bosses would have originally been painted in brilliant colours.  Restorers through the centuries repainted the bosses and other carvings in more modern paint.  This was especially true for the centre bosses in the western end of the nave such as the Becket boss.  More recent restorers have been inclined to clean them and expose whatever is left of the original ancient paint.

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Exeter Cathedral Architecture

Wednesday, January 4th, 2017

1989-c-25-2Exeter Cathedral was rebuilt in the English Decorated Gothic Style primarily between 1275 and 1340.  This re-building project extended from the Lady Chapel at the east end to the carvings of the image screen on the west front.  Some features of the previous Norman cathedral remain, however.  The side towers were opened to make the Norman transepts of the new Gothic design.  The new Gothic nave was built on the foundation of the Norman cathedral using the Norman walls up to the sills of the windows.  Yet, the construction of the new edifice in just two-thirds of a century achieved a homogeneous consistency that makes Exeter the best example of English Decorated Gothic architecture.

Decorated Gothic architecture is more grandiose than the simpler Early English Gothic style found in places like Salisbury Cathedral, but it does not seem as extreme as the Flamboyant Gothic one finds in France.  In Exeter, the vaulting is boldly ribbed and features beautifully carved roof bosses at the intersection of ribs.  Exeter’s is the longest unbroken Gothic vault in England because there is no central tower to interrupt it.  A picture of the elaborate tierceron vaulting in Exeter is shown above.  It gets its name from some of the ribs called tiercerons which rise from the side pillars but do not all go to the centre of the vault.  Rather, they meet the cross pieces.

Another feature of the Decorated Gothic style is the tracery found in the windows.  There are variations in the tracery design from one window to the next, but each window on one side of the cathedral will have its tracery duplicated in the corresponding window on the opposite side even though the stained glass in the two windows may be quite different.  Much of Exeter’s stained glass had to be replaced after the damage of World War II but all the surviving medieval stained glass in the great east window was removed and hidden away early in the war and thus saved.2013-PP-01-2

The north doorway on the west front was one of the last parts of the building to be finished and is in the later perpendicular Gothic style.  At the east end of the south side of the nave, there is a seldom-used door left over from the Norman period called the Brewer Door and of course, there are the two Norman towers mentioned earlier.  These Norman style features are the exceptions.  Most of the architecture of this magnificent building in Exeter is a perfect example of the English Decorated Gothic style.

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