Colour Amidst the Coal Dust

Just before I left Durham, I made sure of one final trip on my bucket list of significant buildings on my patch.

On the face of it, a tiny pit village to the west of the city should have little to offer other than its industrial heritage, but for some reason it was singled out for siting a Roman Catholic Seminary at the start of the 19th century.  When you consider that the seminary had its origins in France it’s all the more remarkable that it ended up here.

The English College, Douai was established in the mid 16th century, which was long after the periods of English occupation in Northern France, so you might wonder what led to its creation, but given that this was a period of great religious turbulence on this side of the English channel the location makes a lot of sense.  Or it did until Napoleon and the French Revolution, at which point the college and its students were no longer welcome.  Catholic persecution was over by now and so the school returned to England and ended up in Durham; initially at Crook Hall (one on the bucket list that remained unticked) until building work commenced in Ushaw.

An interesting enough story but it could have ended there with a bunch of religious students in some Victorian college buildings.  Except that these Victorian college buildings were designed by an architectural dynasty of great repute.  The Pugins.

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin was a leading gothic revivalist, most famous for designing the interiors of the Palace of Westminster, which few of us have seen, and the clock tower known as Big Ben (though that is actually the name of its largest bell) which everyone has seen!  He and his sons Peter Paul Pugin and Edward Welby (known as E.W.) Pugin have run riot at Ushaw College, recreating a medieval look which at times is breathtaking, and at others borders on pastiche.

This latter description is perhaps given weight by the quality of the work.  It is clear that the Pugin’s understood theatrical design; created for effect rather than accuracy.  Whereas medieval statuary would be carved to perfection under the eye of a master mason, and in the belief that the almighty would also be scrutinising the workmanship, the Pugin angels are quite rough-looking when viewed through a telephoto lens, but perched on high above the chapel nave they are far enough away from the worshipper to have the desired effect.

Despite the visual opulence the seminary was not successful in continuing to draw students in these more secular times and it closed in 2011, and was acquired by Durham University who have intentions to establish it as a research centre.   It strikes me that even the most diligent researcher might just be a little distracted here!

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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