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Scanning at Norwich Cathedral

This week we have been scanning at Norwich cathedral. This is the biggest site we’ve tackled to date – the whole Norman cathedral was covered with lierne vaults in the 15th century and there is also a tierceron vaulted cloister and a 14th-century lierne vault in the so-called Ethelbert Gate into the cathedral precinct.

Like other sites we have previously scanned, including Gloucester cathedral and Tewkesbury abbey, Norwich cathedral remains largely a Romanesque building, originally built as a visible symbol of the Norman Conquest of 1066. The elevations display the massive piers and round-headed arches typical of Romanesque architecture. Although undoubtedly impressive, this style would have looked very old-fashioned by the 14th century, so when the central spire blew down in 1362, damaging the east end of the building, the monks might have seen this as a good opportunity to update their church. The presbytery clerestory (top storey of windows) was rebuilt with Perpendicular tracery and, in the fifteenth century, the whole building was vaulted. The Norman walls had not been intended to carry stone vaults, so we will be interested to explore what effects these might have had on the existing fabric. Moreover, in reverse, the existing bay dimensions would have placed specific requirements on the 15th-century designers, inevitably affecting their artistic freedom.

We selected Norwich as one of our case studies for a number of reasons. Firstly, Professor Robert Willis noted that the cloister vaults showed a number of different 3D forms, despite all following the same 2D plan. Such situations – which we knew existed at Wells cathedral and have also found at Exeter – provide very interesting data for our analysis, revealing the sophistication of medieval design processes. We are therefore very much looking forward to interrogating our scan data once it has been processed. It may also provide further clues for understanding the sequencing of the cloister – the dates at which the different parts were erected – which has long been an interesting puzzle for archaeologists.

In addition, Norwich will provide an interesting comparison with Ely cathedral, as we know from documentary evidence that the same named masons worked on both sites. Members of the Ramsey family worked at Ely and Norwich in the early fourteenth century (as well as at St Stephen’s Chapel in the Palace of Westminster, whose surviving undercroft we have also scanned). Our data may help to identify whether the Ramseys and their teams used the same design methods at different sites and whether their approach was different from our other West Country vaults.

Finally, it has been argued by Frank Woodman that the vault of the Ely Lady Chapel is not 14th-century, as had always been assumed, but dates from the 15th century. He used the high vault at Norwich as a comparison for dating purposes, therefore it will be interesting to see whether laser scan data can be used to support or disprove his theory. The Norwich cathedral lierne vaults are the latest in date that we have scanned and we will be looking to see whether methods had remained constant from the 14th century or whether familiarity with the techniques had enabled improvements.

We are very grateful to all the staff at the cathedral, especially Roland Harris, the Cathedral Archaeologist, for facilitating our visit and making us feel welcome in this beautiful building.

Fire at Notre-Dame

We were shocked and saddened at the scenes from Paris as Notre-Dame Cathedral blazed in the night. Today’s news that the structure of the building seems to be safe has come as a great relief, given its importance both as a symbol and as a monument of Gothic architecture.

The word-famous cathedral was started in around 1160 and the west front dates from the early years of the thirteenth century. Later in that century, the upper storeys were remodelled to introduce a larger clerestory with traceried windows and the transept facades, with their celebrated rose windows, were added. As the mother church of Paris, the building has undergone many alterations and additions over its history, most significantly at the Revolution, when religious images were attacked, and in the nineteenth century, when architect Viollet-le-Duc undertook a major restoration, including the rebuilding of the wooden spire whose dramatic fall became one of the defining moments of the inferno.

Thoughts are already turning to the possibility of reconstruction, to which President Macron has stated his commitment and many millions of euros have been pledged from around the world. This is where research such as ours can be particularly valuable. Thanks to years of surveying and a recent laser survey by the late Professor Andrew Tallon, Notre-Dame is probably one of the best documented medieval buildings in the world. The level of detail provided by a laser scan, consisting of millions of digital points recorded in space to create an exact 3-D digital model, could enable a reconstruction to produce a stone-by-stone replica of a destroyed building. That is not to say that laser scanning would provide all the answers: scans can only record what is visible and cannot identify what is going on under the skin of the building. In particular, wooden roofs of the kind that has been destroyed at Notre-Dame are particularly difficult to document by digital means. Nevertheless, laser scan data would make it relatively easy to interrogate the geometries of the parts of the vaulting that have been lost, in order to accurately recreate their three-dimensional form. The geometries used would thus be based on an understanding of the design methods originally used by the medieval masons. There is a wealth of expertise that the reconstruction team could draw upon to assist in this work, with researchers in Spain, Germany and the United States (as well as us in the UK) all using digital techniques for documentation, interrogation and reconstruction purposes.

Paradoxically, it has often been the case that disasters have helped to enhance our understanding of buildings. The nineteenth-century architectural writer, Robert Willis, who has inspired our research, explored the debris surviving after the collapse of one of the western towers of Canterbury Cathedral and found a stone from the fourteenth-century vault still inscribed with the setting-out lines used by the masons when cutting the vault ribs. He used this as evidence for understanding how their designs were projected into three dimensions. Viollet-le-Duc used his experience of very thoroughgoing restorations to draw conclusions about medieval vaulting techniques, including at Notre-Dame. Some of his theories about the structural behaviour of vaults were challenged by the destruction of some of the northern French cathedrals during the First World War: at times the ribs collapsed, leaving the webbing, supposedly supported by the ribs, still standing without them. It may be hoped that the damages at Notre-Dame might be equally enlightening for further research on early Gothic vaulting, which can then inform the rebuilding.

Victor Hugo, whose 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris (more famous in English as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) called for the restoration of the cathedral, spoke of three agents of change: time, revolution and fashion. To this should be added disaster. He understood all works of architecture as social products, the sediments of ages – as he put it ‘Time is the architect; the nation is the mason’. The future reconstruction of Notre-Dame should be seen in this light. It cannot return Notre-Dame to how it was before the fire, still less to any ‘original’ medieval state. Indeed, even if timber on an adequate scale were available it could be questioned whether there is value in replicating a less visible part of the building whose significance lay in the original timber and medieval carpentry techniques. Nevertheless the reconstruction work of the twenty-first century, which will doubtless use both traditional skills and cutting-edge technologies, will form the latest chapter in the biography of this beautiful building.

Image credit: Antoninnnnn

In memoriam – Andrew Tallon

We were very saddened to learn of the death in November last year of Professor Andrew Tallon, whose obituary was published on the Society of Architectural Historians’ website.

Although we did not have the privilege of meeting Prof. Tallon, we had corresponded with him about our shared interest in digital methods in relation to medieval architecture. Ongoing medical treatment meant that, although delighted to have been asked, he was unable to accept our invitation to speak at our 2016 conference. We had hoped to invite him again to speak at our next symposium, where he will now be a sad absence.

Prof. Tallon was one of the first medieval architectural historians to identify the potential of laser scanning to the study of medieval architecture and the value of digital tools both for research and outreach purposes. His contribution to the Mapping Gothic France project has helped to make it a hugely valuable resource and he explored the possibilities offered by film and exhibitions to share his knowledge of French Gothic.

Of particular significance to our own research, Prof Tallon used the data gathered from laser scanning to look at medieval design methods, providing secure data to overcome the obstacles faced by earlier researchers. In his article ‘Divining Proportions in the Digital Age’ in Architectural Histories 2:1 (2014), he discussed the technique of laser scanning in relation to analysis of the planning of the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. Showing a generosity we understand to have been typical of his character, he also shared his data with Robert Bork, who used it in his article ‘The Geometry of Bourges Cathedral’, Architectural Histories, 2.1 (2014). Equally importantly, Prof Tallon used data derived from laser scanning to inform a method he described as ‘spatial archaeology’, the close observation of building deformation. In articles such as ‘Rethinking Medieval Structure’, in New Approaches to Medieval Architecture, ed. R. Bork, W.W. Clark and A. McGehee (Farnham and Burlington VT: Ashgate, 2011), pp.209-17, he used this approach to demonstrate convincingly that flying buttresses had been a feature of French Gothic architecture from the outset, rather than being added to early Gothic buildings at a later stage. Although the English Gothic buildings on which we are focussing are far less adventurous in engineering terms than French cathedrals, we have used his methods to argue that apparent anomalies within our data are unlikely to result from settlement, as the walls we have so far analysed are similarly vertical. Nor was Prof Tallon’s research confined to questions of construction: he was equally interested both in historiography and symbolism. His research on the supposed ‘refinements’ to Gothic proposed in the early twentieth century by William Goodyear (1846-1923), published as ‘An Architecture of Perfection’ in the JSAH, 72:4 (2013), pp.530-54 showed that not only were such displacements not intended by the original builders but also went against their understanding of the importance of being ‘upright’ in both structural and moral terms.

As Prof Tallon had undertaken a major programme of scanning at Bourges Cathedral, we had been looking forward to discussing with him any findings on the three-dimensionally curved ribs of the ambulatory, which seem to be unique for their date. It is a matter of great regret to us that his untimely death cut short an ongoing conversation and has deprived our field of one of its great innovators. He will be very sorely missed.

Scanning at Westminster Abbey and the crypt of St Stephen’s Chapel

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.

Digital Heritage 2018 Presentation

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.

6ICCH Presentation

 

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.

AHRC Research Grant Success

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.

The Architecture and Archaeology of Ely: Papers in memory of Anne Holton-Krayenbuh

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.

Late Gothic Vaults film

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: