This blog post is coming to you live from York, England. I arrived here just a couple of days ago in order to participate in a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar on the arts and devotional practices of medieval and early modern England. Though today was technically a “day off” on our schedule, many of us gathered together for a morning visit to York Minster and then an afternoon trip to St. Martin-cum-Gregory church in Micklegate.
The contrast between these two churches – separated from one another by just a few minutes’ walk – is striking. There’s an obvious difference in size and scale: York Minster is one of the largest and most recognizable Gothic cathedrals in Europe, whereas St. Martin-cum-Gregory is a small parish church. But that’s not quite what I mean.
The two churches actually have more in common than we might expect. Both have their roots in the 11th century and continued to be added to and improved upon throughout the medieval period and beyond. Both have some lovely and cherished stained glass. Both have lost many treasures as the result of reformation, war, tragedy, and economic hardship. Both have strong ties to the powerful 15th-century Scrope family. Both were home to a thriving community. And both still have historians and conservators who are passionate about preserving the buildings and their history.
And yet, York Minster is a testimony to how well a medieval building can be preserved and kept alive, while St. Martin-cum-Gregory spends most of its days closed to the public. It’s a crumbling building, rather dank and musty inside, but it has a grace about it that is entirely different from that which hangs about its much larger and fancier cousin.
We were fortunate today to have a couple of fantastic folks from the Archaeology of Buildings program at the University of York there at St. M-c-G to help us learn how to read the building: not just in terms of style (Romanesque vs early Gothic vs Perpendicular, etc.) but in terms of materials (recycled Roman stone from the late Anglo-Saxon or early Norman periods vs. smoother limestone used in the later middle ages), the tools used to work those materials (large axes vs. fine chisels), the functions which necessitated certain forms (adding side aisles once chantries – small chapels or altars for saying prayers for souls in purgatory – because fashionable in the 15th century), and so on.
It was an eye-opening afternoon. When I first entered the building, I must admit that I wasn’t all that impressed. The whole interior of the church has been plastered over, the stained glass had been disassembled and reassembled so many times that it was, as one helpful sign pointed out, pretty much a “jumble” in some places, and the mildewy air made me sneeze. But by the end of our visit, I felt I had a whole new vocabulary and a whole new way of seeing. And that simply doesn’t happen every day.
For example, in the picture of St. M-c-G above: at first, it’s easy to just see some Gothic arches and a bunch of plastered-over stones. But when you look carefully, you can see that the stone in the clerestory (above the horizontal divider where the windows are) is totally different than the stone below it. And while the arches and the capitals are certainly later in origin, the columns they rest on are probably from the 11th century, based on the difference in stone and tooling. The arches were probably new when the side aisles were added in the 15th century, but that’s no reason to assume that the columns are the same age. The big gap in the wall tells us where the rood screen (a large architectural feature that divided the chancel and altar from the nave, where the congregation gathered) was. Although we can’t get a photo of what this church may have looked like in the 12th or 13th centuries before all these additions, learning to see past what is there now helps us to understand how the building has grown and changed in accordance with the needs of its congregation.
Every part of this fascinating building – no less than in York Minster – has a story. The buttresses on the south wall, for example, are purely decorative – there to make the building appear larger and more impressive from the side that would have been its primary medieval entrance. With all the beautiful parish buildings scattered throughout York, it’s easy to see why the congregation of St. M-c-G would want to project a good facade … pun absolutely intended!
Sometimes, looking back at these buildings from our 21st century vantage point, it’s hard to remember that medieval tastes and trends changed just as often as modern ones. We have to remember that those massive Romanesque columns, which must have felt so solid and comforting in the unstable years after the Conquest, would eventually have felt as dated to them as an avocado-green refrigerator does to us. I’m so glad that I now have new ways to read and interpret those stories.
To learn more about the conservation work going on at St. Martin-cum-Gregory and their efforts to make the building a public space once again, visit their website: http://www.stainedglasscentre.org/