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In January 2019, we travelled to London to undertake a digital survey of the medieval vaults of Westminster Abbey and the Victorian reconstructed vaults of the undercroft of the destroyed St Stephen’s Chapel beneath the Palace of Westminster using funding from the AHRC.
Westminster Abbey, perhaps the best known church in the UK, offers a number of valuable opportunities to the project. Whilst most of the hundreds of thousands of visitors each year pay homage to Britain’s illustrious dead buried there, architectural historians continue to argue over whether the nation’s mausoleum owes more to France than to England. Our research will enable us to compare Westminster’s vaulting with other sites both in the UK and in France to explore the ‘Frenchness’ of its design. Furthermore, the chapter house and cloister vaults have previously been identified as having unusual 3D geometries, so we will use our digital data to investigate this. As a royal project, Westminster is also unusually well documented in the records of the King’s Works, throwing further light on the building sequence, the identity of the designers and details of construction methods. From such records, we know that the medieval masons plotted their designs on a full size ‘tracing floor’, from which moulds were cut for the individual blocks of stone and the wooden formwork by which the ribs were supported during construction.
St Mary Undercroft, formerly the crypt of St Stephen’s Chapel in the Palace of Westminster and now the place of worship for the Houses of Parliament, is another well-documented royal work, started by Edward I. Its vaults take an innovatory ‘lierne’ form, with extra decorative ribs which have been claimed as the earliest liernes in England. Although now largely a Victorian reconstruction following the great fire of 1837 which destroyed most of the medieval palace, measurements were taken from the medieval vaults prior to demolition. Our digital survey will be used to compare the measurements of the demolished medieval design with the current Victorian reconstruction and possibly identify elements of original medieval fabric lurking beneath the Byzantine-style paintwork.
The two surveys add to a growing list of case study buildings that will be individually analysed, as well as offering comparisons between sites. We are currently making good progress with analysis at Exeter, Ely and Wells cathedrals, and will begin investigations using the Westminster Abbey and St Stephen’s Chapel data later this year.
We are seeking to appoint a Postdoctoral Research Associate and a Research Technician on a fixed term contract to be part of our exciting AHRC funded project titled ‘Tracing the past: analysing the design and construction of English medieval vaults using digital techniques.’ Further details of the posts can be found via the links below:
Postdoctoral Research Associate (18 months full-time)
Research Technician (6 months full-time or 12 months part-time)
For queries, please email Dr Nick Webb – firstname.lastname@example.org
In October we attended Digital Heritage 2018 in San Francisco. Here we presented our initial investigations into the vault design of the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral, as well as outlining our digital methodology which enables the research to be carried out. The next stage of this case study is to focus on dissemination as well as identifying possible trends with other vaults at Ely, as well as comparisons with sites locally and nationally.
Whilst at the conference we saw several intriguing presentations, such as Jongwook Lee’s framework for managing risk in Korean wooden heritage buildings using Heritage Building Information Modelling and Virtual Reality, Gabriele Guidi’s reconstruction of the hidden Roman Circus in Milan, as well as excellent keynotes from Google and Artec3D.
In July we attended the 6th International Congress on Construction History, hosted in Brussels, Belgium. The conference included participants with a wide range of interests in construction history and there was a strong showing of researchers investigating vault design and construction. This included colleagues from Spain and Germany, such as David Wendland and Marie Jose Ventas Sierra’s talk on the Hall of Arms vault in Albrechtsburg Meissen as well as Rocio Maira Vidal who discussed the abandonment of sexpartite vaults across Europe, including Lincoln Cathedral in England. It was a delight to meet Jacques Heyman, who wrote ‘The Stone Skeleton’, and gave a fascinating talk on the change of level in the fan vaults at Kings College, Cambridge.
At the congress we shared our initial investigations of the nave and choir vaults at Exeter cathedral, which we surveyed in 2016. We suggest that all the high vaults were laid out in two dimensions using a geometrical figure called the ‘starcut’, allowing the same proportions to be maintained throughout, despite different bay dimensions. The three-dimensional geometry of the vaults, however, presents significant variation between bays. These appear to correspond with the construction sequences proposed by previous scholarship. Nevertheless, the nature of the variations does not correspond fully with previous interpretations. We propose that two-centred arcs were found at Exeter earlier than generally recognised and in a different pattern of distribution than previously suggested.
More information on 6ICCH can be found here.
Through the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Early Career Research Grant scheme, we have secured funding to develop the project further. Using the grant, we will scan vaults at five further sites, bring in an additional researcher and technician, archive our data digitally and make it available publicly, create a travelling exhibition with associated outreach events at key sites, support the publication of a book, as well as enabling a second symposium on vaults with research and industry partners.
We will continue to use digital technologies to identify and explore the geometries of medieval vaults at key sites in England, enabling new readings of gothic design and construction. The grant will focus on the design process of masons and clients, particularly how practical 2D geometries are projected into 3D, as well as issues of construction such as stone-cutting, installing scaffolding and formwork, structural issues and site management. We will also investigate factors leading to innovation in vault design, when and where these occurred, as well as the transfer of ideas in the above areas across sites of vaulting locally, nationally and internationally.
The AHRC funded project ‘Tracing the past: analysing the design and construction of English medieval vaults using digital techniques’ will commence in September 2018 lasting until February 2021.
We were delighted to have the opportunity to present our initial findings on the tracing floor processes of the 14th century vaults at Ely cathedral as part of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society’s day investigating the Architecture and Archaeology of Ely, in memory of Anne Holton-Krayenbuh. We discussed our work to date on the medieval vault designs of Bishop Hotham’s choir vaults, both in the main vessel as well as the north aisle, and the particular research problems we’ve faced compared to other sites of investigation given that we appear to have uneven impost levels across vault bays.
It was excellent to hear from the other speakers at the event, starting with Dr Catherine Hills discussing the clothing and jewellery discovered at local burial sites during the time of Etheldreda. Next, Ely cathedral archaeologist Dr Roland Harris presenting an overview of the Romanesque parts of the cathedral, and we are keen to share our survey data with Roland to assist in future building work. Rebecca Lane from Historic England then presented findings based on surveys of Ely’s early urban buildings, which surprisingly included a tierceron vault in the cellar of one of the high street shops. Dr John Maddison gave an excellent talk on Bishop Hotham’s tomb in the cathedral, and the possible solution of it now being two separate pieces. Elizabeth Stazicker, the cathedral archivist, then concluded with a talk highlighting a few of the fascinating artefacts in her custody, as well as reminiscing on her time with Anne Holton-Krayenbuh.
It was an insightful and stimulating day, and we were very grateful for the opportunity to be part of it. We look forward to future events organised by the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, where we can hopefully return in future once our research progresses.
The Architecture and Archaeology of Ely: Papers in memory of Anne Holton-Krayenbuh was held at The Maltings in Ely on 10th March 2018.
David Wendland and his ‘Late Gothic Vaults’ team have produced a film exploring the vaults of St Anne Church in Annaberg-Buchholz, which feature complex double curvatures. Using total station surveying as well as original drawings, the team replicate the design process that medieval masons would have used via a plaster tracing floor, then experiment with stonework to create a replica of the final voussoirs. you can watch David’s film here:
Before the start of the teaching year, we just managed to fit in a day’s scanning at Norton Priory, the site of a ruined Augustinian priory near Runcorn in Cheshire. The vaults in the undercroft here are earlier than most of those we’ve scanned before (other than the eleventh-century crypt at Gloucester Cathedral) and offer an instructive example of the so-called late Romanesque and ’Transitional’ styles of the twelfth century, in which both round and pointed arches, groin and rib vaults could be used as appropriate to the situation.
Some of the groin vaults look to have been built (or rebuilt) in the nineteenth century when the site was part of a Victorian mansion, adding to our data on revival approaches to vaulting. Here, instead of the groins being created by a herringbone junction of stones, individual blocks are shaped to face in two directions, suggesting the use of stereometric methods unknown in the middle ages. In the original vaults, visual analysis suggests that many of the webs and arches have settled, pushing the side walls off from vertical and presenting a new challenge for us in terms of analysis: how can we ascertain their original, or intended, form?
Settlement is sometimes associated with poor construction, but although the vaulted area is the west range of the cloister, a service area usually used for storage, some of the sculpted capitals and bases are of high quality. The early Gothic passage into the cloister even offers a jaunty syncopation of rib profiles: in one direction filleted, in the other keeled, showing the masons’ love of variety. These vaults were taken down at a later period, giving us the exciting challenge of identifying their original form from the surviving springing stones. There is also an interesting series of masons’ marks, which we hope to document on a later visit.
As well as the intrinsic interest of the vaults, we are excited to be working with Norton Priory because of its impressive new visitor facilities (opened in 2016) and proactive approach to outreach. The curators have already used digital methods, including scanning their magnificent fourteenth-century statue of St Christopher to enable visualisation of his original colouring (as well as helping him to come to life with the aid of the booming voice of Brian Blessed!). We hope that our scans can be used for future interpretation work, such as enabling walk-throughs and visualisation of how the the buildings might have looked and been used at different times in their history.
We also hope to work with the curators in presenting our research to the public via talks and possibly an exhibition, and developing resources for use by teachers and schools. The geometric methods that our research has revealed were used by medieval masons offer a very visual approach to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, even for students who lack confidence with numbers.
We are therefore very grateful to Arts Council England and Paul Sapple of the Knowledge Exchange team at the University of Liverpool for introducing us to Norton Priory and for facilitating the initiation of our work there.
Our article investigating the creativity and imagination used to design the choir aisles at Wells cathedral has now been published in ‘British Art Studies’. This article is free to view here.
This paper explores the topics of creativity and imagination in relation to the design and construction of the lierne vaults in the presbytery aisles of Wells Cathedral, erected around 1330. It explores the potential of digital scanning and analysis for forensic investigation of the structure in order to identify the processes involved. Four different processes were employed and we compare those used in the three eastern bays of the north and south aisles. These are shown to share characteristics with the retrochoir but to involve different approaches to 3-D projection and stone-cutting. We conclude that the basic geometry of the vaults was defined in advance of construction, using full-scale drawings worked out on a tracing floor. In both sets of vaults the 3-D geometry continued as a sequence of steps and was derived from measurements ascertained from existing elements (including the drawings) but was not consistent across the two aisles. The processes reveal different priorities, whether for level ridges (north aisle), different choices in terms of rib radii or apex heights, and different sequences of design steps. This demonstrates the potential for experimentation at every stage of construction.
Buchanan, A., & Webb, N. (2017). ‘Creativity in Three Dimensions: An Investigation of the Presbytery Aisles of Wells Cathedral’, British Art Studies, Issue 6.