Thursday, 9 June 2011

Gothic Architecture: Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury held a peculiar place in my memory without ever having seen it. I had studied Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales in one of my earlier English classes, seen it referenced in lectures on the English Gothic tradition, and written an essay comparing the accounts of its rebuilding by Gervais of Canterbury to those of Abbot Suger of St Denis. It appeared to me as a place, and a building, that I both knew academically and physically. It wasn't until the summer after my European Gothic Architecture course had finished, however, that I finally got the chance to see it. I was staying with my dad in the south of England when my results came out; I'd done rather well, and as a treat, my dad took me to see the Cathedral that had helped me achieve my best mark (at that point in time).

Curiously, for a building so significant in both architectural and literary terms, it felt almost hidden away from the rest of the town. The town itself is lovely, and I would relish the opportunity to go back and make notes of the various Canterbury Tales/Chaucer puns used for shop names. The Cathedral is central, however, but unlike other small-city/town great churches such as Bath, it was segregated from the main thoroughfare. Yet, the perfomativity of stepping through the gates and into the Cathedral grounds adds to the sense of splendour and the sublime that is usually discussed in reference to such architecture. I was not disappointed.

Small, yet imposing, its external fascade was brimming with the Gothic luxury of detail and excellent organisation of space that had so captured my imagination throughout my course. Obviously, many of the external elements are primarily structural and serve to augment the internal space and light, but they also provide the valuable external silhouette. Unlike their French counterparts, the English examples of Gothic are much more prone to horiztonal lines of sight, rather than the stereotypical struggle for ever increasing heights. Without doubt, this does not hinder the diffusion of light throughout the building. The following photographs perfectly display the manner in which thorough saturation of light in the vaulted areas can be perfectly teamed with the horizontally running lines of purbeck marble.

This was my first visit to a great Gothic church after having studied them for 12 weeks. I found myself yelling terminology at my dad and recounting the story of the Martyrdom of Thomas Beckett, quoting poetic lines from Dr Luxford about the spilling of brain matter over the stone. It's very easy to forget that these things actually happened. So far removed are we from the events and their motivations they become even less than shadows, even when standing in the exact location of their happening. This is something I try to stay very aware of, which I feel I do rather successfully. At the same time, however, I was just as eager to stretch my academic muscles as I was to feel the history of the Cathedral, which is probably why I take so many detail photographs like the following.

Overall, Canterbury Cathedral was a particularly marvellous experience. I came away with a heavy awareness of the greatness of its architecture and its history, even moreso than when I arrived with my head full of knowledge about its medieval existence. Perhaps the reason I am so drawn to architecture is that it will outlast us all, achieve greater prominence and notoriety, see more examples of human nature. Truly great architecture has the ability to become that unspoken character in fiction, the one that observes, absorbs and manipulates its surroundings.

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