Miracles in Art, Canterbury, Kent

12 02 2005
The Cloisters in Canterbury Cathedral

The Cloisters in Canterbury Cathedral

Until today I have never come to the East of England and it starts with Canterbury, that famous place of pilgrimage of the 12th century. It has great religious and historic significance. Most people from outside England, I for example, have heard of it only through Chaucer who has immortalised it in his masterpiece, “The Canterbury Tales”. But the significance of Canterbury and its Cathedral is such that it does not need Chaucer for immortality.

The events that shaped the history of this town, in particular the Cathedral (well, the town is nothing without its Cathedral), are more intriguing than interesting. The murder of Archbishop Thomas Beckett made him not just a martyr but also a saint as a result of many miracles that followed his murder. I wish I could relate here some of these miracles but the details are fuzzy and I haven’t had time to gather more information. The remains of this martyr are believed to have been destroyed in 1538 during the Dissolution but who knows, they may still be here. Beckett is the essence of this Cathedral. All the iconoclastic zeal of the puritans have not been able to purge the association and admiration of Beckett that still stirs the emotions of visitors. After all, bold defiance against the King of England is not what many of us would have been capable of displaying in those rough times.

Some say that visiting one cathedral is sufficient to get a taste of cathedral architecture and grandeur. This is a statement that is founded on either ignorance, listlessness, prejudice or all of them. I have seen something unique and worthy of notice in every cathedral I have visited. Each trip has not been in vain. This is true in particular of Canterbury since here I have found little to interest me except the Cathedral.

At Salisbury we have the best representation of Early English. In Exeter, we have Decorated Gothic. It was also in Exeter that I noted one of the corbels in the nave depicting the murder of Thomas Beckett. The significance or context was lost on me until this day’s visit at Canterbury. At Winchester and Wells, a mix of styles is displayed from different periods. Here in Canterbury, the towering magnificence of Perpendicular Gothic is at its best.

Perpendicular Gothic reaches its pinnacle of perfection

Perpendicular Gothic reaches its pinnacle of perfection

In comparison to Exeter’s sculpted exterior or the elegant spire of Salisbury’s, the exteriors of Canterbury are not as impressive. One almost regrets paying the entry fee of seven pounds. Worse still, the splendid carvings of the Christ Church Gate that greet the visitor make a soaring first impression but this can be seen without paying the entry fee. Then when one enters the Cathedral suddenly it becomes more than worth the money and the travel of a two-hour train journey. The breathtaking view that confronts one is that of the nave. Here is stone laid upon stone. Here slender columns join in embrace around each pier. Here pier after pier stretch the length of the nave. Here the perpendicular piers tower to stupendous heights. Here the arches curve religiously in manifold ribs as fingers interlocked in humble prayer. The heightened sense of awe that we find here is also magnified by a flight of stairs at the east end of the nave. These lead to the pulpitum. The choir that lies beyond is on a higher ground than the nave and hence not visible from the nave. It is precisely this architectural feature along with the carved pulpitum that defines a clear separation between the public space of the nave and the private space, holy and mysterious, that is the choir and the high altar.

As we climb up the well-worn-out step (pilgrims used to climb up on their knees!) the promised expectations are fulfilled. The choir is large and spacious. The 13th century throne of the bishop is simple but august. The site of the martyr’s shrine lies further to the eastern end. The rectangular chapter house has a unique waggon vaulting. Descending to the crypt we find a maze of stout pillars and rounded arches from the Norman period.

Fan vaulting at the crossings

Fan vaulting at the crossings

It is a common thing to get used to a place quite soon once the initial awe has lost its impact. After four hours in the Cathedral I continued to be amazed by the nave, viewed it from all possible angles, climbed up to the pulpitum landing and for minutes witnessed the perfection of the ceiling at the crossing. Then I attended choral evensong. The desire to visit it once more was fulfilled in the evening at a concert by the Canterbury Christ Church University that included some delightful pieces. The one that captured me most was by Purcell. The organ came in for a solo piece. It was a disappointment, a noise to the ears, an ugly intrusion to the mind. It appears to suit the voice of the Devil himself. The organ should be used to accompany hymns or psalms but never to display one’s talent in contemporary or avant-garde creations.

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