Tag Archives: Lincoln Cathedral

Guest Reviewer Session 1: Norton Priory, Gloucester and Lincoln

The first of our guest reviewer sessions was organised on Wednesday 18th December in 2019.  We asked one of the contributors, Richard Plant, to write a blog post about his experience of the event:

“Writing this from the enforced isolation of April 2020, the meeting held last December at the University of Liverpool seems like an unreal dream of collegiality. There were five of us in the room: Nick Webb and James Hillson from the project, Jenny Alexander from the University of Warwick, Stuart Harrison, Cathedral Archaeologist at York Minster and myself. Alex Buchanan, at home with a heavy cold, occasionally phoned in; something of a foretaste of things to come.

We had been invited to talk about the results of the scanning at Lincoln (in particular the crazy vault and eastern transepts) Norton Priory and the Romanesque parts of the east arm at Gloucester Cathedral.

What was perhaps most surprising about the discussion was how the application of sophisticated digital techniques brought us so often to improvised practices of putting vaults together, and the discussion was much enriched by being shared with such connoisseurs of worked stone as Jenny and Stuart. We worked our way backwards, chronologically, through the buildings. Much of the day was spent on the choir at Lincoln, where the scanning revealed great regularity in the cutting and geometry of the ribs. Yet despite this they also showed that the junction of ribs to walls, and sometimes ribs to ribs had often involved improvisation, with the masons cutting back or cutting in stones in order to make them fit the space. The scanning processes also reveal much about the geometry of the vault webs, which led to discussions of the general relations of ribs to the web (whether the rib is integral or simply sitting below) and also questions about the construction process including the ways and media in which the centering was made.

For Norton and Gloucester we were also dealing with groin vaults and arch construction, but many of the questions relating to their geometry are still complex. The team seemed particularly concerned with variable springing or impost heights, though in Romanesque buildings this is more usual than it seems to be in Gothic ones. Working on bays of irregular shape in Gloucester, both at crypt and choir level, produced many solutions including arches which seemed to have multiple centres. Whilst it might be inferred from this that the irregularities were due to settling, the stonework still appears entirely regular. Painstaking observations of this kind open new avenues of research and reinforces the importance of looking at the stones as well as scanning the geometry, as discussion of the abstractions of geometric schemes often proved to be closely linked to the practicalities of stone cutting. Equally, a better understanding of the geometry helps us to comprehend what the mason was aiming for and what strategies were available for putting their intentions into practice. Even if the answers to many of the questions posed by architectural historians are still not readily solvable, then at least the questions themselves can be posed with greater precision.

All in all it was an enjoyable as well as an informative day. The team are exemplary in their willingness to share and discuss their work, and in their openness to different approaches to their material. The prospects of further investigations are exciting, as will be the debates prompted by the publication of their findings.”


Scanning at Lincoln Cathedral

On 29th to 31st July, we visited Lincoln cathedral to laser scan the interior. The cathedral is something of a magnet for vault enthusiasts, featuring a magnificent range of mainly thirteenth-century examples which were hugely influential throughout Britain – we’ve already scanned some of their offspring at Chester and Ely.

Most famous is the so-called ‘crazy vault’ over St Hugh’s choir, one of the earliest surviving high vaults in the cathedral. There is evidence that the Romanesque cathedral had vaults, specifically in the nave, but we don’t know what they looked like. An eastwards extension of the cathedral, begun in 1193/4 under Bishop Hugh of Avalon (1135-1200), canonised St Hugh of Lincoln in 1220. As part of this project, the new presbytery was vaulted with a design involving an additional rib in an asymmetrical arrangement. This, along with other peculiarities of design and a name, Geoffrey of Noyers, described as ‘constructor of the noble fabric’ in the Greater Life of St Hugh, encouraged Robert Willis to identify the designer as ‘a mad Frenchman’ in a lecture given to the Archaeological Institute in 1848. At a time when Lincoln was venerated as a gem of Early English architecture, this comment was considered heretical, both by Anglophiles and by the French: having been invited to comment on the issue, French architect Viollet-le-Duc pronounced that the architect could not have been French (whose architecture he characterised as wholly rational) but might possibly have come from Normandy. In fact, whatever his ethnicity, Geoffrey was probably unlikely to have been the designer but was probably a clerical administrator.

Although Willis never published his lecture, which is now known only from contemporary journalists’ reports, the ‘mad Frenchman’ epithet entered the historiography, ‘mad’ being transformed along the way into ‘crazy’ and being applied to the vaults as opposed to their designer. A famous article by Paul Frankl cemented this usage and framed the terms of a debate which has continued to the present day.

So what is so ‘crazy’ about the vaults over St Hugh’s choir? Before this, rib vaults were designed either in a quadripartite (divided by diagonal ribs into four parts) or a sexpartite (divided by diagonals and with an additional transverse rib to create six parts) form. We have already scanned quadripartite vaults at Westminster Abbey and there are sexpartite vaults in the transepts of Lincoln cathedral. Both quadripartite and sexpartite vaults have a single central boss per bay of vaulting, marking the junction of the diagonal ribs. As in the transepts and nave at Westminster Abbey, English designers started to use ‘ridge ribs’ to join the bosses longitudinally. Frankl suggested the earliest example of a ridge rib was at the abbey of Montivilliers in Normandy, where the Romanesque church has transepts covered with a form of sexpartite vault. In a number of Norman or Norman-influenced churches, what have been termed ‘semi-sexpartite’ vaults were constructed – these are basically a single quadripartite vaults over two bays, the division between the two bays being marked by a ‘diaphragm arch’. The plan therefore resembles that of a sexpartite vault but the transverse rib which intersects with the diagonals at the centre of the vault bay carries a wall rather than a three-dimensional vault conoid. This type of vault can be seen in the nave of La Trinité, Caen. What we see at Montivilliers is this type of vault turned by 90 degrees, so that the diaphragm arch springs from the end wall of the transept. Once the arch reaches its apex it cannot descend, as if it did, its springing point would be mid-air in the transept. Instead it is therefore continued horizontally to meet the apex of the next transverse arch and then the crossing arch, thus forming a ridge rib. This experiment had no immediate progeny. Other early ridge ribs have been claimed for the Priory of St Mary at Airaines, where they exist alongside diagonal ribs but have a different profile, suggesting a subordinate status and, in a more typical form, in the church at Luchueux. Both these churches are in the Departement of the Somme in northern France. In England, we find early ridge ribs in the north transept chapels of Ripon Minster (probably 1170s), a building which can be related both to local Cistercian architecture and its French sources and to the great cathedral Archbishop Roger was erecting at York (now rebuilt, but elements survive in the crypt). Ridge ribs also flourished in Angevin and Poitevin architecture and were used in the similarly domical high vaults of Münster cathedral in Germany. In all cases, their aesthetic effect is rather different, so even if they do share a common ancestor, they were readily assimilated into a varied range of regional styles.

At Lincoln, St Hugh’s choir has a ridge rib which runs east-west, whose directionality was originally emphasised by painted decoration. Instead of the typical single central boss per vault bay, however, here there are two bosses. This makes the vault ‘eccentric’ (as it was described by John Bilson), meaning that it has no defined central point. Instead of converging on a central boss, the diagonals of the south side of the building converge on the more easterly boss and those on the north side converge on the more westerly. An additional rib from the other side also meets the boss, making each boss mark the conjunction of three ribs in addition to the ridge rib. This additional rib does not mark a change in plane as ribs had previously done and has been described as the first ‘tierceron’, a medieval word usually translated as meaning ‘third rib’. It is as though the diagonal extending from the north-east to the south-west corner of the bay has been split and stretched in two directions along the ridge rib. This sets up an asymmetric, sawtooth rhythm to the vault, further emphasising its longitudinality. Nothing like this had been seen previously in Gothic architecture and, as its form was not replicated elsewhere, it may not have met with contemporary approval. The great transepts at Lincoln reverted to sexpartite vaults and the nave has the first tierceron star vault.

The patterns can also be seen as being formed from pairs of ‘tri-radials’, arrangements of three ribs converging on a single boss. Frankl, a German scholar, was certainly aware that both the use of tri-radials and the asymmetric quality of Lincoln’s vault would form important elements of early fourteenth-century German and Swabian architecture, developed further in the later fourteenth century by Peter Parler at Prague cathedral and forming a key feature of late Gothic. He thus described Lincoln as a proto-late Gothic building, disrupting all standard stylistic chronologies. Whether, and how, the vaults of Lincoln might have influenced Continental Gothic became a topic of much debate – we look forward to the relevant Continental vaults being scanned so that their three-dimensional geometries can be compared with what we find in England.

There are many other current debates about Lincoln, relating to original design intentions, chronologies and extent of repairs after the collapse of the crossing tower in 1237 or 1239. We look forward to seeing what our data can add to these discussions and, indeed, whether it can offer new ways of looking at a building which has puzzled and delighted generations of scholars.

A celebration of the life and work of Richard K. Morris

On Saturday 20 March, Alex went to London to attend a study day at the Courtauld Institute, organised by the British Archaeological Association and the Ancient Monuments Society to commemorate Richard K. Morris (1943- 2015), whose work on Decorated architecture in England is very relevant to our project. Richard specialised in the detailed archaeological analysis which is an essential counterpart to our own research and specialised in the study of West Country buildings. His methodology involved the use of mouldings to reconstruct both building chronologies and the careers of individual masons and offered readings of such buildings as Wells Cathedral, Exeter Cathedral, St Augustine’s Abbey at Bristol, Tewkesbury Abbey and Sherborne Abbey, all of which have significant vaults.

The study day offered a varied programme including both new and established scholars. Of particular interest for our project were papers by James Cameron and Peter Draper which discussed medieval architectural drawings: both those which survive (a huge archive of drawings cut on the rocks around an 11th-century temple in Bhojpur, India) and those whose one-time existence might be suggested by the evidence of buildings whose detailed similarities are hard to explain.

Another relevant paper by James Hillson discussed the lierne vault of St Stephen’s Chapel Westminster, which he identifies as a design of the 1340s, rather than the 1290s as most previous interpretations have suggested. The problem is compounded by the loss of the original vaults after the fire at the Palace of Westminster in 1834, although detailed drawings were made and measurements taken by architect Charles Barry and communicated to Robert Willis for his research. If Hillson is right, this redating would mean that the Westminster designs can no longer be identified as the earliest true lierne vault and its relationship with other lierne vaults, such as those at Exeter, Bristol and Wells could be reversed, for the lierne vaults at Wells date from around 1330 and those at Exeter are earlier. The dating of the Bristol vaults remains a matter of controversy, into which Hillson opted not to wade.

Finally, vaults made a virtuoso appearance in a paper by Andrew Budge, who spoke on the chancel at St Mary’s Warwick, which has a tierceron vault with additional ‘skeleton’ ribs. Although Budge drew attention to a number of English examples of such vaulting, at St Augustine’s Bristol, the pulpita (screens) of St David’s Cathedral and  Southwell Minster, the Easter Sepulchre of Lincoln Cathedral, stairway vaults at Thornton Abbey and Wells Cathedral and around the apse of Peterborough Cathedral, he also pointed out their existence in the so-called ‘tonsura’ at Magdeburg Cathedral. It was suggested that Thomas Beauchamp, 11th Earl of Warwick (1313-1369), who was buried in the chancel, might have visited Magdeburg en route to or from crusading activities and that the inclusion of skeleton vaults above his tomb might therefore represent an aspect of a ‘biography’ in stone. This of course offers some of the same problems about knowledge transfer as had already been addressed by James Cameron in relation to near-duplicate designs for sedilia. Whatever their meaning, these vaults amply demonstrate the exuberant inventiveness of architects of the Decorated period, whose methods we are seeking to explore.

Overall the day offered a wonderful opportunity to pay tribute to the work and influence of a kind and generous scholar with exemplary commitment both to his subject and to future scholarship.




Modelling Vaults at the University of York

On Monday 1 Feb Nick and Alex went to the University of York to an event organised by Professor Tim Ayers, which brought together three leading experts on European late Gothic to discuss issues of vaulting, specifically international transfer of ideas and the design processes involved. The opening seminar was led by Paul Crossley, Professor Emeritus of the Courtauld Institute and Dr Zoë Opačić of Birkbeck College, offering a reflection on Professor Crossley’s work on late Gothic in Eastern Europe. It was encouraging to hear one of our case studies, Wells Cathedral, described as a clear influence on the work of Peter Parler in Prague Cathedral and discussion of Lincoln Cathedral’s tierceron vaults as an apparent influence on Polish examples of a similar form, for example the Cistercian church of Pelplin. We’ve already identified Lincoln’s nave as an influence on the vaults we’ve scanned at Chester, which share the feature of a ridge rib which does not extend to the side walls. Stuart Harrison was also in the audience and keen to share with us his discoveries about the plan of the now-lost east end of Lincoln Cathedral, which will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of the British Archaeological Association. We can’t wait!

Next, Professor Norbert Nußbaum from the University of Cologne gave a lecture entitled ‘Benedikt Ried’s Vaults in Prague Castle and the question of Formative Inventiveness’. Professor Nußbaum is co-author with Sabine Lepsky of Das Gotische Gewölbe (Darmstadt, 1999), a foundational text for the study of Gothic vaulting. Using a series of digital models, Professor Nußbaum showed how the seemingly chaotic designs of the Rider Staircase and the Chancery involved a series of geometrical manipulations based on a two-dimensional plan which could be shifted sideways across a grid or rotated to deconstruct its original logic. He argued that these feats of architectural ingenuity could be compared with the contemporary phenomenon of the ‘Wunderkammer’ (cabinet of curiosities) and were intended to provoke the question ‘How did they do that?’ These were highly sophisticated designs demonstrating the learning of an architect sufficiently confident in his knowledge of the rules to be able to break them – but in contrast to the architects of the Italian Renaissance, the ideas were presented in built form rather than in a textual treatise.

We came away very excited by both the presentation and by the ideas involved, particularly the methodology used to discover the results and the use of colour in the digital models to make clear the hypothetical process enabling the vault design to be accomplished. We saw some clear parallels between the geometries discussed and the vaults we have scanned, but also some significant differences which we look forward to exploring further.

Further information about the event is available here: https://www.york.ac.uk/history-of-art/news-and-events/events/2016/modelling-vaults/.