A Site for Sore Eyes? (Pt I)

When I think of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, I tend to think of a single location such as Palace Green in Durham, where both Castle and Cathedral are found, or Studley Royal in Yorkshire, where John Aislabie added his estate and water gardens to the existing ruins of Fountains Abbey.  In Sicily though, I found the word “site” stretched to breaking point, for here UNESCO have granted World Heritage status, to what they call

Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalú and Monreale

That trips off the tongue doesn’t it?  What’s more the description that might suggest three locations actually relates to nine; for the elements located in Palermo include the cathedral, three other churches, a pair of palaces… and a bridge!  Furthermore, though Monreale is contained within the urban sprawl of Palermo it is a separate town,  and Cefalù is over 60km away as the crow flies.

So what were UNESCO thinking?  Well this scattering of locations are united by unique evidence of intercultural cooperation, describe by UNESCO as:

…the fruitful coexistence of people of different origins and religions (Muslim, Byzantine, Latin, Jewish, Lombard and French).

If you’ve read my previous posts from Sicily, then this multiculturalism will come as no surprise, but what surprised me was the impact that some of these structures (I didn’t visit all nine) had on me, and two in particular.

Bay of Palermo viewed from Monreale

From my brief visit to a cold and grey Cefalù I headed straight to Monreale where heavy rain and the fact that the Cathedral was closed made me question the value of a visit.  I persevered, killing time with a quick lunch and a when the rain stopped, a walk around the wet streets nearby (rarely great conditions for photography).  As I wandered I caught glimpses of a style I was to become familiar with on my travels around the island but I had no idea what was in store.

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When the doors opened once more people materialised from all directions, and with good reason.  I was immediately reminded of Howard Carter’s words on entering the Tomb of Tutankhamun; everywhere the glint of gold.  Not the gilt statuary and picture frames that you might expect in a catholic cathedral; here it was in mosaic and roof timbers, pictorial and abstract, above you and below.  With too many people around to deploy a tripod, and works too delicate to even consider a flash,  I wedged myself between pillars and into corners in an attempt to get the stability to produce decent pictures.  These don’t even begin to do justice to a building whose beauty literally brought tears to my eyes.  The nave shone with the Byzantine and the Muslim (those geometric patterns produced by a religion that shuns figurative representation), but beyond the altar the style changed.

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Here Baroque chapels revel in marble craftsmanship that anywhere else would be with a visit in themselves but of course the return journey to the exit doors was by way of that magnificent nave that would form my abiding memory.

Time to dry my eyes and return to the real world.



Hope Street

It might seem a little greedy to have not one, but two cathedrals that are each architectural masterpieces in the same city, but Liverpool takes it further by siting them on the same street with just half a mile between them. Technically the Anglican building’s address is St James’ Mount, but head south on Hope Street from the Metropolitan Cathedral and you’ll find it.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the street must therefore owe its name to some religious aspiration, but in fact it predates the two buildings and derives from a merchant called William Hope.  In fact as the 19th century drew to a close Liverpool had no cathedral at all.  An act of parliament provided authorisation for one in 1885, but the plans were abandoned when the proposed site was found to be unsuitable.

As the 20th century began the idea was revived and a competition held for the design of what was to become the Cathedral Church of Christ in Liverpool; the Anglican cathedral.  The competition winner was Giles Gilbert Scott, a controversial choice since he was 22, had no prior experience and was a Roman Catholic.  (In fairness he was part of a design dynasty).

The Catholic cathedral had it’s own false starts; a Pugin design didn’t progress very far and was demolished in 1980. In 1930 Edwin Lutyens submitted his huge design, which would have been second in size only to St Peters in Rome (though with a larger dome).  World War II intervened and costs soared to until in 1958 with only the crypt complete, work was abandoned.  In a remarkable turnaround a design competition for this structure was held in 1959 and Frederick Gibberd’s cathedral was consecrated in 1967.  This is the unique building variously known as “Paddy’s Wigwam”, “The Mersey Funnel” and more accurately the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King.

It’s modern, spacious and full of contemporary art.  A complete contrast to the Anglican building which had been growing steadily down the road but was still incomplete.  Queen Elizabeth dedicated Scott’s Gothic Revival over a decade later in 1978.

If I enjoyed the freshness of the Catholic building I was simply astonished by the Anglican.  It’s the longest cathedral in the world, possibly the largest Anglican cathedral (in competition with St John’s, New York), and one of the tallest too (if you exclude spires).  You might but that last fact down to the enormous tower, but to do so would be to overlook the height of the nave alone.  It soars.  It’s breathtaking.

It’s a quarter century since I was last in St Peters (I need to rectify that) so the impact of that church has long subsided.  For now I’ll just remain in awe of Liverpool’s Anglican option.  It’s neighbour might have had greater impact in a city where it stood alone, or had Pugin or Lutyens completed their efforts, but can it compete in the city of two cathedrals.  It doesn’t have a hope.  Despite the street name.

All Things Ecclesiastical

As you will see next month, in my final Croatian posting, I wasn’t in the Dubrovnik area with my usual determination to unearth interesting nuggets of history or design. Many of my other city trips have been aided by a GPS app on my phone which enables me to record where the images were taken, and sometimes it even works!  That wasn’t the case in Dubrovnik because I wasn’t here for the buildings at all, and so whilst my reflex response to a baroque painting or architectural feature was still to record it, my brain wasn’t so disciplined in recalling where I was at the time.

Consequently I have images shot in a number of churches in Dubrovnik old town but can’t be certain which is which. I can look at them chronologically and therefore have some idea of where I might have been at the time, but the old town is so compact that that is far from infallible so please bear with me.

Let’s start with a disappointment and an example of my lack of preparation.

If, as most visitors do, you enter through the Pile Gate, you’ll pass Onofrio’s fountain on your right as you make for Stradun, the main street.  Dominating that space on your left is the Franciscan monastery, whose campanile is one of the tallest structures here.  Naturally I went straight into the church but found it lacked impact or imagination.  There are some second-rate mouldings, a positively funereal colour scheme, and a dominating pulpit emerging from the walls.

Between these features stretches of plain plaster and velvet drapes were more akin to someone’s living room so I wasn’t in a hurry to linger.  My mistake, because elsewhere in the complex is a pharmacy.  A pharmacy that has been operating for 700 years.  The oldest in Europe.  I didn’t see it.

And now things get messy.  You might think that given the saint’s importance that the church of St Blaise would be Dubrovnik’s cathedral, but 100m along the same street is another great church and this is the Cathedral of the Assumption.  Their proximity and the multiple entrances mean that I can’t be sure where I was when capturing images of the interiors.

Externally there is no doubt for though they are both domed buildings made from the same coloured stone the large golden statue of the town’s patron is easily spotted.

And it would be easy to think that those are major sites, but there are other monastic compounds and if you opt to walk the walls one more great church becomes apparent, high above the central area.  This is St Ignatius, the great baroque church built by the Jesuits and completed in the 18th century (though bizarrely it houses the oldest bell in the city which was cast over 350 years earlier).

The Italian influence is apparent in the reliquary statue, grotto, rosaries and frescoes that decorate the interior, the latter being a particularly obvious demonstration of the power and wealth of the church, though it’s the approach that underlines this.

Spanish Steps anyone?


Early Eccentric

Just a few weeks after my visit to Hexham and I find another great church with 7th century origins.  From the side elevation Ripon Cathedral even shares a similar look due to the squat tower at the centre, though once you understand the history of the building then you’ll understand that there was no plan that produced this.

The two churches do share origins though – both were projects of St Wilfrid, inspired by the basilicas he had seen in Rome.  Like Hexham he made use of nearby Roman masonry (in this case from Aldborough), and like Hexham the crypt survives beneath the medieval church.  Like Hexham, Wilfrid’s church here was adopted as a site to build a major centre for pilgrimage by the Normans and it is here that the stories converge significantly.

Roger de Pont l’Évêque, who was Archbishop of York in the mid 12th century began the rebuilding, but it’s clear that he was no engineer.  His insistence that the crossing (the point where the transepts, nave and choir meet) be directly above St Wilfrid’s crypt was a poor decision as it meant that the east end, the focal point of the cathedral had to be constructed on sloping ground.  The scaffolding present on the day of my visit amply demonstrated this fact centuries later.

The problem took a dramatic turn in 1280 when the eastern facade and half of the choir collapsed.  Disaster at the time but fortuitous in some ways.  The great west end is one of the best examples of Early English architecture,  but the loss of more of the same means the church also features a new altar window in the style known as Decorated.

Less than 150 years later and the central tower collapsed, ostensibly due to an earthquake, though this isn’t a seismic hotspot.  I’m no expert but surely subsidence is more likely.  Fifty years after that and the nave walls were replaced (Perpendicular was in fashion now).  Consequently there’s no uniting style, but instead you have a collection within (and without) a single structure.

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I noticed something else once I ventured inside.  Attempting to get a shot of the length of the building I was struggling to align key features in my photograph, and for good reason.  For one thing the pillars supporting the great Norman arch at the end of the nave are asymmetrical as you can see below, but more importantly, beyond the rood screen the choir runs slightly to the left.  Another consequence of the site topography?  It would be easy to assume so but I raised the matter with one of the cathedral official to check.

She told me that this was a common feature in church construction.  (Really?  How come I’d never noticed this elsewhere?)  She backed this up by saying that because the cruciform design of a church recalls Christ’s execution, the slight deviation in the line represented the tilt of his head to one side as his life ended.  Was she right? I don’t know but it’s a pretty plausible explanation.

Wooden It Be Nice

Of the two churches I visited in Manchester, it seemed right to begin with St Ann’s as archaeological evidence suggests that the first church to be built in Manchester was erected near that site though it was destroyed by vikings in the 10th Century.

_pw_4032That said my second church can also point to Anglo-Saxon origins as a carved stone from that period is embedded into the present building’s fabric.  I refer to the Collegiate Church of St Mary, St Denys and St George, or as it is now known, Manchester Cathedral.  The present structure began as a parish church in the early 13th century, but in 1421 Baron Thomas de la Warre was granted permission by his king and the pope to establish a collegiate church here, and so began a remodelling into the current building.  The use of the same red sandstone as St Ann’s produced the same issues of erosion and with wartime bomb damage contributing to the need for restoration, the building has a more youthful look and might be mistaken for a Victorian gothic revival.  It is Grade I listed.

On this occasion then I’ll turn my back on the stonework, but not on the architecture for the most impressive structural details are in wood.

The roof beams are perhaps the first to catch your eye on entering the building, or perhaps the paired cherubs of the font cover,  but these are soon forgotten when you reach the chancel area and see the choir stalls.  Is exquisite too strong and adjective?  Centuries of wear from cleric and choristers passing hands over the carvings have softened some of the lines, but once out of reach of human contact the structures are detailed and intricate and look as sharp as when they were installed installed in the Tudor period.

A recent exchange on British quiz show Pointless had two suggestions for the meaning of the word misericord, the first was that it was an organ-like musical instrument, the second that it was a medieval knife.  Neither was fully correct, though there was dagger called a misericorde.  The correct answer is that it is a protrusion on the underside of a folding seat which gives support to someone standing, for example through a lengthy set of prayers.  The term means giver of mercy – hence the dagger.  The thirty examples in Manchester are considered to be amongst the best in Europe, though several weren’t visible on the day as many seats were folded down so I didn’t see the example which apparently shows the earliest example of backgammon being played in the UK.

_pw_4044Something else that was hidden on this occasion was the choir screen for a new organ is being installed, meaning that the perpendicular gothic lines were overlaid with vertical scaffolding that camouflaged and obscured them.

Luckily I’d found myself with a moment or two to spare earlier this year when en route to catch a train at Manchester Victoria.  I hadn’t had time to fully explore, but I did have enough to see this…


The Substance and the Shell

Since it’s at the top of the Barcelona tourist’s ticklist, most people assume that the Sagrada Familia is the city’s cathedral yet clearly this would be absurd.  Barcelona’s history reaches back for two millennia.  The Sagrada, still unfinished, has been a feature of the city for only a fraction of this.

Local legend tells the tale of a young girl, Eulalia, martyred by the Romans in the early 4th Century for refusing to recant her Christian faith.  Given that her short life seems to have overlapped with the rein of the Emperor Diocletian her fate is quite plausible.  Many external religions were assimilated into the Roman pantheon.  In Bath the goddess of the thermal springs was Sulis, who was upgraded to Sulis Minerva by the Romans, thereby ensuring that any sacrifices and offerings were made to a deity who would favour Rome and prolong the empire’s dominance.  Christians were different and eschewed sacrifice so they were seen as a threat that could dilute the power of the official religions.

Which is why a 13-year-old virgin who stubbornly refused to bend to the edicts of the Tetrarchs was subject to a range of tortures (one for each year of her life) that culminated in her decapitation. That number 13 is commemorated in an unusual way (see below), making the cathedral an unattractive place for triskaedekaphobics!  Her body lies in the crypt beneath the altar of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia, the true seat of Barcelona’s archbishop.  Construction of the church began in the thirteenth century, though most of the work was undertaken in the 14th.

I say most of the work, for although it was built concurrently with the rise of the Gothic style of architecture, the Catalan tradition was for plainer, featureless exteriors.   Internally it works though here you will also find a Gothic masterpiece; the choir stalls.  These intricately carved benches scream for attention with their multicoloured decoration.  They bear the coats of arms of the knights who made up the Catholic order of chivalry known as The Order of the Golden Fleece.

_pw_1404I wish I’d known more about the cathedral prior to my visit, for I would then have allowed more time to explore and include the cloister that is home to a group of 13 white geese, the Chapel of Lepanto (though I was then more ignorant of this historic naval battle), and the fountain where a strange ritual called the “Dancing Egg” takes place each year at the feast of Corpus Christi.  The process, which involves “balancing” an egg atop a jet of water is now undertaken at fountains around the region, but is thought to have begun in the cathedral centuries ago.  There’s a little trickery involved; to give the egg the necessary stability its contents are blown out and the hole plugged with wax thus changing the centre of gravity.

Fittingly the illusion has parallels with the building where it originated.

Barcelona’s cathedral is at the heart of the city’s Gothic Quarter, and it’s quite the centrepiece, for that plain building now wears a different skin.  Just as work was beginning on the construction of the Sagrada in the late 19th century, so a new façade was built over the cathedral exterior, at a time when the Neo-Gothic style had fully matured._pw_1460

It fits right in._pw_1418-edit

Temple Teaser

Back in the days when I was a young banker, I knew the names of thoroughfares in cities across the country purely on the basis that a bank had a branch there and I’d seen the name on a cheque even though I’d never been to the place in question.  Bank Plain in Norwich, The Headrow in Leeds, Paragon Square in Hull.  Place names that were different enough to stimulate the imagination.

One such street name was Temple Row in Birmingham.  Row as in a series, or an argument, or access by boat?  What sort of temple?  Or temples?

Working in Birmingham recently I set out to explore the area and perhaps to answer some of these questions having found nothing on Google that provided sufficient explanation.  The most obvious explanation would be the present of Birmingham’s Anglican Cathedral here, and the building is certainly worthy of a more detailed piece that I’ll post at a later date, but temple?  With its ballustrading it looks more like a palace than a place of ritual.

_PW_1115_6_7Walk a little further and it seems you have your answer.  The fluted columns lead the eye upwards to the tympanum where no Latin inscription awaits.  Instead you discover the building was erected for the Midland Bank (now HSBC).  What about the structure beyond it with the impressive statuary above the entrance?  This time it’s National Provincial Bank (later Natwest and eventually part of RBS).  There seems to be a theme emerging._PW_1121_2

Not to worry there are more columns ahead.  Perhaps my answer lies there in the white masonry of this Parthenon lookalike?  Not a temple though.  This is Birmingham Town Hall, a Victorian concert hall designed to resemble the crowning glory of the Acropolis (and the less obvious remnants of the Temple to Castor & Pollux in Rome).  Perhaps we’re getting closer to the solution.

The Town Hall may hold a Grade I listing, but it is completely overshadowed by its Grade II neighbour.  This is another piece of Classical Style, but with lots of Victorian extravagance that contrasts strongly with the purity of the Town Hall, though they have a shared owner.  This is the Council House, Birmingham’s council offices.  Drawn a blank again in my search.

Elsewhere there are more banks, as well as pubs and cafés all housed in some degree of grandeur or other.  There are in fact over 70 listed buildings within a few minutes walk of the Cathedral.  None provides the answer to my question.

The nearest I have come to solving my riddle are a couple of suggestions on a discussion board which state that there was once round building here (that was a dovecot rather than an actual temple) or that there was once a Temple of the Minoress in the 15/16th century in the vicinity (which seems more likely).  Hmmm.  Minoress?  Wonder what that’s all about…