The Trees Above The Rabbit Hole

My recent visits to Manchester Cathedral and Hexham Abbey culminated in my waxing lyrical about the woodwork, whether intricately carved or beautifully painted. In Ripon Cathedral too, the wooden structures were the ones that generated the greatest fascination.

This isn’t entirely a coincidence. There are misericords again (over 30) and they were carved over a five-year period at the end of the 15th century by the Bromley family – the same carpenters responsible for the Manchester examples. Apparently there are more examples of their work in Beverley Minster, another great Yorkshire church but one that I’ve not visited (yet).

This got me thinking. In English, Italian and Croatian churches that I’ve explored the stonework has been a common source of fascination, but I don’t recall great woodwork on my overseas trips with the notable exception of the Bologna anatomical theatre. Beautiful frescoes and statuary yes, but not the woodwork.

There are a couple of possible reasons for this; either the furniture in those Italianate chiese was fairly nondescript, or I was so distracted by the artwork on the walls that I failed to notice it.  I suspect the latter; for why would the catholic church in their quest to utilise the greatest craftsmen (whether in tribute to their god or as demonstration of power) stop short of this art?

Flip that question around and you find yourself questioning why the woodwork would be so noticeable in an English church?  Well here you’re unlikely to be staring at frescoes and statuary.  The century following the creation of the Ripon misericords was the one in which Henry VIII sacked the monasteries of their wealth and brought Protestantism in place of Catholicism.  The Reformation movement across Northern Europe pointed to the Ten Commandments and instruction against the creation of graven images.  And so centuries of artworks were destroyed (or hidden away to be rediscovered centuries later like some of the Hexham panels).  Further destruction took place during the English Civil War when puritans took a dislike to much of the stained glass that decorated our churches too.

Whether the functional aspect of choir stalls led to them being overlooked, or the fact that misericords are hidden when the seat is folded down I don’t know, but without as much competition the woodwork has proved more robust through time.  Thank goodness for now we can all enjoy such curiosities as the man with three faces (a representation of the Holy Trinity perhaps?) or the mechanical hand which was operated by the organist to as a means of conducting the choir at the same time as playing.  Or how about the representation of two great empires on a single pew end where a Greek centaur accompanies a Persian war elephant?

Then there is the imagery of the misericords themselves; where gryphons, dragons, lions and whales appear as well as the bizarre headless figures from the Mappa Mundi, and my favourite of all a fox in a pulpit preaching to a cock and a goose or duck.

It’s believed that this imagery, and the narrow passages leading down to the crypt below had a profound effect on the son of a former canon in the cathedral.

The Charles Dodgson referred to on this record had a 20-year-old son when he was here.  A son also called Charles.

You might know him better by his pen name.

Lewis Carroll.





Things Ancient & Modern

Hymns Ancient & Modern was the name of the hymn book I sang from in my chorister days, so-called because the 500 plus songs it held included traditional (though hardly ancient) and more contemporary melodies.  It occurred to me while I was in Ripon Cathedral that the descriptor was perhaps more appropriately applied to the contents of this church.

The crypt of St Wilfrid’s church clearly counts as ancient being over 13 centuries old, but let’s start at the other extreme.  The Modern.

The cathedral is clearly a vibrant contributor to the life of the Ripon community.  On the morning that I visited and area was given over to running a coffee shop in one of the transepts, and a number of children were completing a treasure trail around the building accompanied by parents displaying varying degrees of patience and interest.  This is important, because so long as people value the cathedral for what it offers to them, then they will support its upkeep and development.

The great west end doorways for example have changed enormously since I first visited.  After 45 years or so I can’t remember exactly how you entered the church, but I suspect it was through huge heavy wooden doors blackened by centuries.  The stone remains much the same (this is a Grade I listed building after all) but is augmented by a glass porch that allows light to penetrate but not the vicissitudes of Yorkshire weather.  Added only a few years ago it features beautiful engravings from the life of the saint who founded the cathedral.

There’s some pretty modern stained glass too to compete with these engravings.

Step back a few decades to the 1920’s and we have another screen (ambitious to design such a piece in a building already famed for its medieval version.

This one, behind the altar, is a magnificent memorial to townsfolk killed in the Great War and was designed by Ninian Cooper, a gothic revivalist who specialised in such work.  Though installed in 1922 it recalls a much earlier period and depicts contemporaries of Wilfrid.

As does the pulpit, though the style here is very different.  A few years earlier and it would have been Arts & Crafts, or Art Nouveau but those styles were losing momentum in 1913 when this was constructed here.  The coming war would shake things up in the art world but for now there was no clear direction, which is not in anyway to diminish the impact of this fantastic work.  Featuring green marble pillars, bronze sculpture and a polished wooden canopy it depicts more Anglo-Saxon celebrity; St Chad, St Cuthbert, St Hilda and St Etheldreda.

Leave the 20th century and you’ll find all manner of memorials and ephemera from earlier times, including an internal gargoyle, the beast having failed to make its escape when the building acquired an extension.

For me though it’s still hard to beat the medieval original; the soaring arches of the cathedral itself… at least until I reveal a final treasure in my next Ripon posting!

Assumption and Contradiction

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.