I’d been to Ripon Cathedral only once before; part of a whistle-stop school history trip which took in Mount Grace Priory, Fountains Abbey, and Ripon.  (Rievaulx Abbey might also have been on the itinerary but after 45 years my memory of the day is fading).  Naturally with such a tight schedule each location visited was given the edited highlights treatment.  In Ripon Cathedral this meant the medieval reredos, or rood screen.

You’d think that if the screen is the main attraction it would be simple to find details of its history and construction.  The danger of assumption!

I can tell you that the screen was built in the 15th century, but various search results have pointed to dates at either end of the 1400’s.  The solid structure includes a staircase up to the organ loft and down to the crypt and is 8 feet thick.  Except that another source says twelve.

The four statues of important kings from the cathedral’s history were added by the Victorians, though apparently they waited until 1946.

So what can I tell you with any certainty?  Well once again I find myself following in the footsteps of JMW Turner who sketched this part of the cathedral in one of his notebooks.  It’s difficult to discern the detail from an online representation of pencil on yellowed paper, but the niches appear empty, and knowing how the Victorians enjoyed reviving the gothic they seem likely to be responsible.  The bright colouring may be a later addition.

There are of course many unanswered questions.  What was in these niches originally?  When were they removed?  (The Reformation again?)  Are the angelic figures in the tier above original or were they lost too?  Why is Henry II posed so effeminately? (Sculptor influenced by rumours about his relationship Thomas a Becket?)

In the midst of this confusion is a feature that I suspect many visitors overlook.  Just above the point of the arched doorway is a small triangular section that is unpainted and unrestored.  It appears that a figure here held something or someone across their knees with smaller figures  paying homage alongside.  A pieta perhaps?  What Christ deliberately removed as part of a general rejection of artistic representations?

Lesson learned.  Take nothing for granted, but for now just enjoy the hotchpotch for what it is.


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