Tag Archives: Robert Willis

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

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.

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.

ROBERT WILLIS SYMPOSIUM – 16-17 SEPTEMBER 2016

Tracing the Past was inspired by the work of Robert Willis (1800-1875), a famous Cambridge polymath. He was Jacksonian Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy and taught engineering in the early years of that subject.

Willis’s research and teaching was spread over a wide range of
subjects. Our particular interest is in his pioneering study of medieval vaulting, presented as a lecture to the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1841 and published in the first volume of their Proceedings in 1842. Willis proposed a number of hypotheses about the design of medieval vaults which he hoped contemporary architects would be able to test. However the difficulties of gathering suitable data were huge and it’s only now, with the introduction of laser scanning that his ideas can be more fully explored, through projects such as ours.

On 16-17 September 2016, both Nick and Alex will be giving papers in the Robert Willis: Technology, Science and Architecture symposium taking place at Willis’s own college, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. Alex will be speaking on Willis’s networks of knowledge and Nick will be presenting a digital update of Willis’s 1842 paper, for which the digital content can be found here. Other speakers will also be discussing Willis’s work on vaults, including Prof Santiago Huerta, Javier Giron, Martin Bressani (speaking on Willis and Viollet-le-Duc) and Antonio Becchi. The full programme is available here: willis-program-a4

The Symposium website includes a digital library of Willis’s publications, making it an incredibly useful resource for those sharing his interests. The Symposium proceedings will be published – further details available soon.

 

 

 

Funding to scan vaults at Ely Cathedral

Through the Lambarde Fund, we have received a grant from the Society of Antiquaries to scan the lierne vaults at Ely Cathedral, which we intend to carry out towards the end of the summer. The main vaults we will scan and analyse are:

  • Retrochoir (tierceron vaults built under Hugh of Northwold  1234 and 1252, thus, like the Chapter House at Chester, immediately after and influenced by the nave at Lincoln).
  • Octagon (tierceron vaults constructed in timber after the collapse of the Norman crossing in 1322 and showing a similar interest in centralised space as the Wells Lady Chapel).
  • First three bays of presbytery (dated c. 1330 and described by Pevsner as the earliest lierne vault in East Anglia) which also includes an aisle vault in first 3 bays of the north aisle.
  • Lady Chapel – lierne vault of a stellate pattern, built after the Octagon and choir so c.1335-50.
  • Prior Crauden’s Chapel – a vault reconstructed by Willis from the evidence of the springing blocks.

We hope to investigate the decisions taken by Willis when reconstructing the vaults of St Catherine’s Chapel and Prior Crauden’s Chapel in the 1840s.

In addition to forming a case study in its own right, we also hope the  data collected will also allow us to explore differences in vaulting methods between the West Country and South Eastern Decorated styles.

Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0