Looking at Buildings

Building Types

The West Front

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Exeter Cathedral, Devon. West Front

The grand west front was a sign of status, particularly for a cathedral. The west door, providing the principal ceremonial entry to the church was frequently emphasised by sculpture, and this might extend as an external sculptured screenGlossary Term across the whole of the west front, complementing the reredosGlossary Term behind the high altar inside. Sculptured screenGlossary Term fronts such as those at Wells, Salisbury and Exeter were a particularly English solution. The west front at Exeter, begun 1329, was the final addition to a rebuilding campaign that had started in the 1270s.

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Exeter Cathedral. Canopied niches with figure sculpture.

Its richly sculptured screenGlossary Term was an afterthought and may originally have been lower, so as not to interfere with the great west window; the top tier of statues was an addition of the 15th century. The screenGlossary Term stands forward from the main building, to the extent that there is room behind it for a tiny chapel with the tomb of its builder, Bishop Grandison, who died in 1369.

Study of Salisbury Cathedral during recent repair work revealed how the west front had a role in cathedral ceremonies. Stairs and passages in the thickness of the wall enabled the choristers to stand high up within the west front, their music audible outside be means of holes behind the exterior sculpture.

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Salisbury Cathedral
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Lichfield Cathedral, West front

At Lichfield the principle of the screenGlossary Term front is combined with the older tradition of twin west towers, and the sculpture appears subordinate to the impressive skyline. Although much restored in the 19th century this is essentially a 14th century creation, each tower has a stone spireGlossary Term rising above corner pinnacles, complemented by a third spireGlossary Term over the crossingGlossary Term.

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Beverley Minster. West front

The two-tower front, though found more frequently on the Continent than in England, was a frequent ideal throughout the Middle Ages, seen in its simplest RomanesqueGlossary Term form at Southwell Minster or in the early GothicGlossary Term Ripon Minster. As well as forming prominent landmarks, towers had a practical function in housing bells. West towers, out of the way of the main liturgical activity, could be more convenient for this purpose than a central tower. Because of the expense, towers were often constructed over a long period and so rarely finished to a unified design. By the fifteenth century the building of pairs of west towers was uncommon, but at Beverley Minster they form part of an unusually complete and unified composition in the PerpendicularGlossary Term style. The buttresses have sculpture, but ornament is kept firmly under control with much of the walling decoratedGlossary Term only by stone panellingGlossary Term.

Ely Cathedral

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Ely Cathedral, West front

Ely Cathedral demonstrates both the diversity to be found in the west front design, and how its character could be substantially changed by later alterations. The west end planned in the late 12th century was a broad composition with central tower between western transepts. Only the SW transeptGlossary Term remains, the NW transeptGlossary Term having collapsed in the 15th century. The gatehouse-like central tower was given a 14th-century spireGlossary Term, later replaced by the present octagonal top storey which echoes the form of the 14th-century octagonal crossing.


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