Westminster Abbey, Part Three

15 03 2011

This picks up after leaving the Nave and moving through an outdoor hallway/garden area (the Cloisters) to the Chapter House.

We’re now in the Chapter House and on the wall are the most breathtaking images I believe I’ve ever seen.  It strikes me that you hear about Michaelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel, but I’ve never heard of these paintings which are significantly older and far more intriguing to my eye.

When you walk in though, the room almost looks to be forgotten or overlooked. It’s completely vacant except for the physical structure of the room itself.  Overhead there is a Gothic styled archway, like it would have been maybe a double door, but no doors are here.  And the floor is very old, lots of wear, but I don’t see door scuffs here.  It’s painted, as we come in, very wow umm old.  My mouth fails to find the words, this is just so unique and there really isn’t a set pattern that I can see, a lot of dark maroons and gold colours, lot of black.  It looks like it’s been repaired with newer conceptions of the work from time to time, some squares are so brilliantly different in tone from the others.

The ceiling, I have to say it rises from a single column here and picture holding up an umbrella with exposed wires – it reminds me of such an old umbrella.  It all is supported by this simple column, which is very plain.  From a first look it looks like water pipes in an old basement, though with a closer inspection it is obviously not.

Wow, I’m going to start to my immediate left and work clockwise round the room, as it appears this was how the artists had hoped it would be viewed.  The plaque hear reads:  “Most of the paintings in the Chapter House were painted around 1400 international Gothic style.  Documents show they were commissioned by John Northampton, one of the Abbey’s monks.  They are important because of the high quality of paint and detail, made of precious pigments, delicate glazes, and the use of gold and tin leaf.  Their survival is especially remarkable given the alterations the building has suffered, particularly between the 16th and 19th centuries when the Chapter House was used to store documents.  The paintings are the most extensive and best preserved example of their period in England.  The paintings show signs…scenes from the Apocalypse and the series of visions of the end of the world described by Saint John in the book of Revelations.  96 scenes were originally painted around the room which were painted on parchment and pasted directly onto the wall.  The principal scene, The Last Judgement, was on the Eastern wall, opposite the entrance.  Along the base earlier editions painted in the 15th century showing carefully labeled birds and beasts including a cameo and krokydyle (crocodile?).”

Below are a series of the wall images that remain and if you click on them you should be able to enlarge to see the detail.  It truly is stunning that this artwork has survived over 600 years and is just magnificent in detail.

The walls go to a plaster or alabaster white in most of the rest of this room.  The final image above is the Eastern wall, referenced on the plaque, which has the Final Judgement or Last Judgement scene.  It is in the best state of repair of all of the images posted.  It looked as though there may have been other images on the other walls but they are no longer in existence.

Most of the walls in here are white and inaccessible, the windows though…it says “built between 1245 and 1255, King Henry the third built this Chapter House for the monks.  He enriched it with sculptures carved by the most skillful craftsmen of his time.  About 1255 he laid down the pavement areas inscribed upon” I cannot read the next window pane.  “In the windows he placed shields of the founders and their benefactors belonging to great families of the time.  In this Chapter House the monks of the Abbey met daily.”

This is absolutely unreal.  Just beautiful.  There are no words I can think of to describe this.

There is one area here on the wall opposing the entrance and it is taped up with some sort of tape that almost looks like medical tape and it is just applied in some odd fashion.  There are paintings below and while I am far from any expert, I would think the tape would be the last thing to sensibly apply to paintings on parchment pasted on the wall.

There is a gentleman here, not a guide but he obviously knows something more than I.  He is explaining to his two older guests that they have been redoing this room over the last year.  There are outside new gargoyles with the faces of the current workers who have been leading the restoration.  They are working on cleaning the paintings and drying the room out, he says.  The later sounds odd to me because they have heat pipes running along the stone step bleachers in this room and you can actually see the steam off of them as it hits the cold air.  The room here is round, well octangular-ish, and there are two steps like you would see in an amphitheatre  all the way around with the third step creating the foundation for the walls.  I can only imagine what a choir would sound like filling this room with songs.  I bet you would feel the power of the Lord to hear voices in harmony in here with the natural acoustics of the stone and high ceilings.

Above the western doorway is stained glass with four figures represented, two women and two men.  The first could be a Tudor era woman, but the rest look much later, 17th or 18th centuries, just based on their dress.  Then there are two shields in two smaller paned windows and at the top is a very ornate window with very obviously a royal male in it.  Perhaps to serve as homage to Henry the third, seeing as he commissioned this room.  I don’t know.

As you leave there is very interesting stonework with a beheaded, well wait, they’re all beheaded!  I don’t get it, but five still have their heads and yet five do not.  I’m not sure who they are or who they pissed off to lose their heads, but half have lost their heads.  The ones that have their heads look like new heads.  I can’t really describe it well and I don’t see a seam, but it looks like a different texture to them.  But they go down narrow strips on each door jam.

There is a centre pillar that is ornate, but plain in contrast to much of the other work here.  And above this, below the windows though, is what I am going to presume is a representation of Christ.  He certainly still has his head at least.  Then over each shoulder there is an angel.  Well no.  The one is an angel, maybe they both are.  And they both have a smaller cupid type creature with them.  Then a very Catholic looking Virgin Mary on the right, which let’s see – west so that would be north, and then to the south above the door is a statue of perhaps Jesus?  Odd though, seeing as he is clearly represented by the centre statue.  Perhaps a saint, but there are no halos that typify the saints.

Okay, we’re leaving the Chapter House and going down some stairs here.

Once more passing the Oldest Door in Britain, with no idea where it leads to.  The door is dated to 1050.  In all sincerity, I believe some of the chapels’ doors look older, but nonetheless.

There is a library that is off access and then the Pyx Chamber here.  There is a double door system which is odd, but the outer door to the hallway is opened outward, then the second door is opened into the room.  The floor here in the hallway is old, like considerably old.  Given that this area is the oldest of the abbey, it is possibly the oldest floor.  There is some newer, more modern tile put in as well.  The room has the Gothic arch style and the doors look as old as the other oldest door, reinforced with metal strapping.  What is interesting about this door system is there are locking mechanisms, three bars encased in wood and it appears that they would lock the outer door, then close the inner, being able to seal themselves completely within.

The walls have a plaster and shell or limestone composition and the room is fairly small.  There is a small altar at the front, maybe four feet wide, and it does not appear that it is a pulpit or any lecture place.  It looks much more like a prayer room.  There are four narrow bench-style pews, likewise perhaps four feet across but no more than 8 inches wide for the seat.  To the side of the room, let’s see – south, unless I am turned around again, there are two large chests.  The sign reads: The Pyx Chamber was built in the years immediately following the Norman Conquest and is one of the oldest parts of the Abbey and originally formed part of the unintelligible under the monk’s dormitory.  The Cope Chests from 1450 are all that remain of six left in this country for holding copes, which were garments or capes for the clergy to wear. The stone door is lined with human skin protected this room, the former monastic treasury.

Lovely.  Where is my Purell?

We’re moving to a garden area, which is a quaint courtyard.  Glenn is wondering about how they mow in this enclosed space and I can almost picture a little Capuchin monk, on his hands and knees with a pair of rusted scissors, tending to the lawn.

It’s brutally cold in this space, and I cannot wait to get back inside.

The museum, which is supposed to be part of the ticket price and has the effigies of most royals, is closed today.  Rather unsettling.  The same is true for the college garden and Saint Catherine’s garden.  We are walking along the pathways which have small doors along here which I believe I read were the monks dorms or apartments.

We’re able to re-enter at the choir area and being rather hurriedly guided towards a hallway.  Ahh the gift shop.  Well, on that note I’ll stop recording then.

There is a small area here before leaving, with a stone for the Unknown Soldier – Beneath this stone lies the body of an unknown British warrior, unknown by name or rank, brought from France to lie amongst the most illustrious of the land and buried here on Armistice Day, 11 November 1920, in the presence of His Majesty, King George the fifth…gave the most a man can give for life itself, for God, for King, and for country, for loved ones home and empire for the sacred cause of justice and the freedom of the world.  They buried him among the kings because he had done good toward God and his house…In Christ shall he be made all alive.

Brilliant.  I’m tearing up.

There is a monument over at the wall to Franklin Roosevelt as well, our faithful friend of freedom…and Churchill as well, a plaque here to him.

Okay nowhere else to go now, but the shop so I will once more, stop recording.



One response

3 04 2011

Comments added from feedback from Marcille so I don’t lose them when I begin doing research follow-up:
“A few notes on your observations:
Philippa, Duchess of York, was no one particularly remarkable. There’s no way in the world you’d remember her, unless you’d really studied up on your 14th-15th Century British.
Could the damage you noted have been caused by good ol’ Cromwell? His destructive touch is everywhere …
Richard II asecended to the throne after the death of his grandfather, Edward III. His grandmother was from Hainaut; now it’s divided between Belgium and France, though I’m not sure what it was, politically, during that time. That probably explains the nod to France.
He was imprisoned by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, and starved to death by Henry’s sort-of stepbrother, so I doubt his wife had a lot of pop as to his memorial.
There is one thing that sort of concerns me, however, the Peasants’ Revolt which Richard II successfully dealt with. There are some eerie similarities to stuff that’s going on even now.
Vivien Leigh was cremated and her ashes scattered, um, I am not sure where but somewhere in the south of England I think. There’s a memorial plaque to her in St. Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, aka the Actors’ Church.”

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