My Middle Ages - page 3

I mentioned surface decoration. Late medieval architecture is a delight to the eye of the viewer who likes complex patterns and a riot of color (medieval cathedrals were originally entirely and exuberantly painted; only later ideas of "purity" and "taste"--and hours of whitewash or scraping--have robbed us of the decoration) Imagine a gothic window like this one at Batalha, in Portugal, entirely painted, with a different color to every rib, some striped or patterned. Then imagine the light of a stained glass window falling across it. Psychedelic!

Another decorative detail is this famous "sanctuary knocker" on the door of Durham Cathedral, in the north of England (if an accused man could reach the church, even if he only got as far as the door, he could cling to the knocker and claim the "sanctuary" or safety of the Church). 

S urface decoration isn't the whole story, however. The sheer power of these enormous structures is best expressed in their proportions. To an eye dazzled by elaborate pattern, the appreciation of proportion might seem a bit austere, but its power is very real. Like the nave of Wells Cathedral (which you can see in the next section below), this aisle of the cathedral at Speyer (at the right), in western Germany (much smaller than the nave of the church) can have a severely monumental beauty. Proportion can be impressive even in smaller churches, as in this parish church of St. Botolph's in Boston (and you thought that was in America), with its high ceiling, crafted of chestnut by England's famous medieval carpenters. Proportion even operates in a tiny medieval church like the one at Bradford on Avon (upstream from Stratford), built in the tenth? century. The odd but interesting proportions of the doorways silence me and make me feel as if I am in the presence of builders greater than any living today because of the builders' powerful conception of building space. 

Most cathedrals are cross shaped, so the place where the nave (the long part) met the transcepts (the short part) was often very dark. Medieval builders of some cathedrals met that challenge by designing a crossing tower with windows, like this one at the church of St. Etienne at Caen (Normandy), to flood that large dark area with light.
      Sometimes the weight of the crossing tower created disastrous problems, as at one of my favorite cathedrals. Wells Cathedral has magnificent "strainer arches" that were added to strengthen the church at the crossing, which was beginning to buckle in the late Middle Ages. These "scissor arches"--there are two more at right angles--look modern, but they are a daring and monumental solution to a structural problem that dates to the fourteenth century. I love them.

Only long after I had travelled on the Continent and throughout England did I discover that medieval houses in towns and cities coexisted with the cathedrals and palaces I had seen. Some were in tiny mountaintop villages off the beaten track, like these in the Portugese fortified village of Marvaõ (the local inn has nine rooms). Others, perhaps more reminiscent of Dante and Boccaccio, still stand in Italy, like this one, built around an open courtyard in Viterbo, a town much frequented by medieval popes.  ;

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Revised 11/05