Looking at Buildings

Building Types

The East End

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Peterborough, Cathedral. Transept

The main part of the eastern end of the church contained the choirGlossary Term, enclosed by seats for the clergy on each side, with the high altar as principal focus. The east end was the most sacred part of the buildings, and from the 13th century was often rebuilt or extended to provide ample circulation space around shrines and chapels. In many churches the prized possession of saints' relics, to which miraculous powers were attributed, made this part of the church a focus for pilgrims and worshippers. The principal shrine was generally placed on a high pedestalGlossary Term in the retrochoirGlossary Term (beyond the choirGlossary Term) so that it was visible above the high altar. The sanctity of the area attracted burials in its vicinity; although all shrines were destroyed at the Reformation, their significance is still demonstrated by the surviving tombs which once surrounded them. To the E of the retrochoirGlossary Term there was often a Lady ChapelGlossary Term, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who from the 13th century was especially esteemed as the intercessor for all mankind.

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Lincoln Cathedral, Angel Choir

Although the east and west arms of a great medieval church had different functions, they were designed in a similar way. Both choirGlossary Term and naveGlossary Term were commonly three storeys high, divided vertically into bays by columns or piers, and buttressed laterally by lower aisles. Proportions between the different storeys vary, contributing to contrasting visual effects. Peterborough Cathedral, like many RomanesqueGlossary Term buildings, has ground-floor and first-floor arcades of roughly equal height, their imposing monumental character reminiscent of the architectural traditions of ancient Rome. Direct lighting is provided by the uppermost part, or clerestorey, so named because it rises clear of the galleryGlossary Term roofs. At this level the thick wall could be hollowed out to lighten the load and to provide a wall passage which permitted access for maintenance. Lower down, the massiveness of the thick wall could be tempered by ingenious variety in the form of the arcadeGlossary Term piers, visible on this 19th-century view which omits the choirGlossary Term stalls. Galleries were a tradition taken over from RomanGlossary Term and ByzantineGlossary Term architecture; in RomanesqueGlossary Term churches they were used less regularly, though occasionally the eastern and transeptGlossary Term galleries had upper chapels.

Read further in: E. Fernie, The Architecture of NormanGlossary Term England,(2000).

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Wells Cathedral, Retrochoir

With the introduction of stone rib vaulting over the main spaces as well as over aisles, more complex clustered piers and wall shafts were introduced to unite vaultGlossary Term and wall. In the GothicGlossary Term period the adoption of a more skeletal buttressed structure led to slimmer, more widely spaced piers, taller arcades and clerestorey, while the middle storey became lower, or could be omitted altogether. At Lincoln Cathedral the elaborately decoratedGlossary Term Angel choirGlossary Term, named from the carved angels in the spandrelsGlossary Term of the arcadeGlossary Term arches, was added to the east of the older choirGlossary Term after 1256. The rich sculptured surfaces and elaborate mouldings emphasise its significance as the site of the shrine of St Hugh of Lincoln, which was installed here in 1280. Here, as at Canterbury Cathedral, the area around the shrine is made the same height as the main choirGlossary Term.

The east end offered interesting challenges for the designer. In GothicGlossary Term buildings, skilful handling of rib vaulting made it possible to unite parts of different shape and height. This allowed for easy circulation while retaining the separate identity of each space. The complexity that could result, especially in the most ambitious designs of the 14th century, is well illustrated by the east end of Wells cathedral where the low choirGlossary Term and Lady chapelGlossary Term appear to flow into each other. As Nikolaus Pevsner put it, 'the sensitive visitor is at once thrown into pleasing confusion'. The intriguing play with diagonal vistas is especially characteristic of the DecoratedGlossary Term period of gothicGlossary Term architecture.

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Wells Cathedral, Retrochoir, and Lady Chapel

Only on a plan is it easier to grasp that the Lady ChapelGlossary Term is an elongated octagon with a star-shaped tierceronGlossary Term vaultGlossary Term whose two western points also form part of the hexagonal shape created by the vaulting of the centre of the retrochoirGlossary Term. In the Middle Ages there would have been altars against the east walls of the projecting chapels and at the end of the side aisles, as well as in the Lady ChapelGlossary Term. The retrochoirGlossary Term was probably built with the hope of accommodating a shrine to Bishop William De Marchia (died 1302), but the campaign to have him recognised as an official saint was unsuccessful.

Read further with: Nikolaus Pevsner on Wells Cathedral, in The Buildings of England, North Somerset and Bristol, (1958);
N. Coldstream, The DecoratedGlossary Term Style, Architecture and Ornament 1240-1360, (1994)
W. Rodwell, "Above and below ground, Archaeology at Wells Cathedral" in The Archaeology of Cathedrals, ed. T Tatton-Brown and J. Munby, (1996).


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