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From the longest church in England, Winchester, we are now at the tallest church in England, Westminster Abbey, with the nave rising to 31 meters (102'). The height to the top of the pinnacles on these western towers is 68.6 meters (225'). The original abbey was founded in 750, and was named “west” Minster because it lay on the western edge of London, and the name distinguished it from St. Paul’s to the east. William “the Conqueror” began a tradition of coronations, which continues to this day. That church was begun in 1055 by Edward III (a.k.a. “the Confessor”), and consecrated just before William’s arrival in 1065, actually a few days prior to King Edward’s death. One website calls it a “Place of Worship, House of Kings.”

The original structure was rebuilt by Henry III in 1245, and involved destroying the earlier church. The eastern end of the church was constructed, and about half the nave. It was felt that Edward the Confessor had been a miracle worker, and his burial in the church originally led to a flocking of pilgrims, which necessitated the rebuilding. Edward is now buried in the apse behind the High Altar.

The reason for the title “Abbey” is that Benedictine monks were housed here. A fire in their quarters in 1298 destroyed all of the monastic buildings. The fire, followed in 1349 by the “Black Death” plague, drained the resources of the Abbey, and all construction ceased for nearly a century. The nave was finally completed in 1517. The towers of the western façade were not completed until the 18th century, between 1736 and 1745.

The site had been a typical trilogy, consisting of a monastery, church, and palace. The present Houses of Parliament, erected in the early 19th century, are known as the New Palace of Westminster. The church itself measures 156 meters (511'- 6”) in length, just a bit shorter than Winchester (see above). The width of the nave is 22 meters (72').

Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of all monasteries in 1540, as part of his separating the English Church from Roman authority, resulting in confiscation of the Abbey’s treasures. The 600-year-old Benedictine monastery was disbanded. Buildings in the area remained, and an institution known as the “Westminster School” replaced the monastic school.

The site also includes the clock tower known as “Big Ben,” another 19th century addition. Actually, there are three impressive towers on the site, but Big Ben became London’s symbol of resistance against the Germans in World War II, when it survived daily rocket attacks on the city from across the English Channel. More on all of this in the second semester.

The western façade, with the exception of the towers, was completed in the 16th century, and was modeled after Reims Cathedral in France. The pinnacles and bar tracery in the windows were new to England, and show the French influence.

The main portal to the church, revealing structural ribs fanning out to support the recessed entryway. This is but a preview of the magnificent fan vaults we shall see in the nave, once we enter the church.

The northwest corner with its tower shows stepped buttresses growing in depth as they approach the ground. This typical expression of structural development as forces come down to the earth, accumulating as they descend, is expressed by Gothic construction becoming deeper, and larger to accommodate those forces.

The north side of the Abbey and the transept can be seen behind the unrelated towers in front – it is the triangular peaked façade and roof, containing the north Rose Window of the church, very much in the French manner.

The portals of the North Transept.

The highly intricate metalwork, as exemplified in this doorway in Westminster, gave rise to the expression “decorated,” in the 14th century. It is typical of English ironwork, which is so different from the simpler, bolder, and perhaps more masculine Italian and Spanish. Thus we can perhaps suggest that this expresses a more feminine side of design, to make a bit of a play on present day psychological interpretations. An interesting diversion would be to explore the differences in wrought iron development in the countries of Europe, notably exploring and comparing Italian, Spanish, French and English. Now going along with this “decorated” concept, Carol Davidson Cragoe suggests in her work Abbeys and Cathedrals that: “all wall surfaces were probably once painted and gilded, with the result that the whole building sparkled like an enormous precious metal casing for the Confessor’s shrine.” In this she suggests that the original building was conceived to provide a tomb for Edward the Confessor.

The nave was first begun in 1362, financed by Abbott Nicholas Litlyngton with funds left by his predecessor, earmarked for monastery use. Credit for construction is given to the master mason Henry Yevele. Yevele used flying buttresses to support the over 32 meter (100') high nave , as stated above and to be emphasized, the tallest nave ceiling in not just England, but all of the Britain Isles.

Here we can see the fan vault, which had become a hallmark of English Gothic construction. The bosses are gilded, and help to identify a crease in the ceiling, actually a straight line running from the entrance to the apse. This “crease” could first be seen in Winchester, and actually outdid the French in moving the eye to the altar. The fanning ribs act almost like directional arrows, pointing to that crease and ultimate sight line. All of this shows how architectural design can create a sense of direction and of movement.

Moving down the nave we come upon the Choir screen. Even though it still appears to block off direct flow to the altar area, this enclosure is much smaller than the original 13th century design, which actually blocked passage to the transepts.

A view of a side aisle showing articulated columns, with ribs ultimately ascending to the vaults above. The crease above is most evident.

This rose window is in the South Transept. The glass as seen dates from 1902. The South Transept houses the Poet’s Corner. This spot was not intended for burials, but curiously, Geoffrey Chaucer was the first poet to be buried here, not because of his writing (Canterbury Tales), but because he had been Clerk of the Works to the Palace of Westminster. Edmund Spenser was next, and thus began what was to become a world-famous tradition here in Westminster Abbey. Not all poets or writers were buried here immediately after death. William Shakespeare, buried at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1616, was not recognized here until 1740, when a monument was designed in his honor by William Kent.

Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, an unidentified soldier killed in World War I, and buried here in Westminster Abbey as a representative tribute to all Military Service personnel, especially those who have no other memorial or identification. The choir screen appears in the background.

Just behind the eastern apse, which is the main sanctuary of Westminster Abbey, and contains not only the High Altar but also the tomb and chapel dedicated to Edward I (The Confessor), lies a separate construction known as the Chapel of Henry VII. Its official title is the Lady Chapel. It was originally intended as the burial place of Henry VI, but Henry VII was finally buried here in a quite elaborate tomb. The designer/mason is unknown, all the more tragic because of the success of his work. The chapel was completed in 1519 in the Tudor style, and features a vaulted ceiling the likes of which had never before been created, nor have they since.

The colored banners represent crests of Knights, and some might be representative of the fact that this Chapel is officially dedicated to the Order of the Bath. Awarded principally to serving officers of the military, as well as to a limited number of civilian servants of the Crown, these knighted figures are entitled to have their Banners, Crests, and Stall Plates affixed to their stalls within the Chapel.

A detail of the stone pendants, which comprise the ceiling construction. They are elongated voussoirs with conoidal webbing, a veritable masterpiece of English masonry work. This ceiling has been called the “culminating triumph of English Medieval architecture.” The construction appears to be a manifestation of lifting oneself by one’s own bootstraps. I can only assume the stones were intricately interlocked and hang from themselves.

The undulating stained glass windows form the eastern enclosure of the chapel, and contain the badges of the fighter squadrons that took part in the Battle of Britain in World War II. The windows are by Hugh Easton. That commemoration is tied to a religious theme, in which four panels are shown symbolizing the Redemption. In one a squadron leader kneels before the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child. Below this Mary is represented in her sorrow with the dead Christ across her knees, symbolizing the sacrifice of the mothers and widows of those who died in the conflict.

Interestingly there is a very similar memorial – in stone – situated in what was East Berlin, on Unter den Linden Number 4. The building, in which the sculpture is now housed, is known as the “Neue Wache,” or “New Guard,” and was the earliest design of Karl Friedrich Schinkel in Berlin, in 1816.

After the reunification of Germany, a sculpture featuring a mother holding her dead son in her arms, was placed inside the Neo-Classical design, dedicated to all victims of war and dictatorship worldwide. The sculpture is by Käthe Kollwitz.

Back at Westminster another panel shows a sergeant pilot kneeling before the Crucifixion, symbolizing the sacrifice of the pilot himself. Above that panel is the Resurrection as seen by an Air Force officer, representing the pilots' triumph in defeating the German Luftwaffe. Seraphim, with six wings and with hands outstretched to paradise, are shown in the top row of the window. In the central section are the Royal Arms, the badge of the Fleet Air Arm and the badge and motto of the RAF "Per Ardua ad Astra" (Through struggle to the Stars) together with the furled flags of New Zealand, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Belgium, and the United States of America. In two of the bottom panels are words from Shakespeare's Henry V: "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers."

A momentary aside: Home Box Office television produced an epic documentary series of a group of American soldiers, officially “Easy Company,” fighting through Europe in World War II, interestingly titled “Band of Brothers”. One never knows what one will learn while traveling and exploring, and isn’t that what really makes life so very exciting and rewarding?

© Architecture Past Present & Future - Edward D. Levinson, 2009

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