Monday, June 6, 2011

Field Trip: England! Part 2: Cathedrals

 "Railway termini and hotels are to the nineteenth century what monasteries and cathedrals were to the thirteenth century." -- Building News, 1875 (quoted in Discovering London Railway Stations by Oliver Green, p. 37)
As it happens, in addition to trains one of N.'s major passions is old buildings, especially cathedrals and churches, so this was another major focus of our recent trip to EnglandSt. Paul's Cathedral was one of the first buildings I noticed N. get interested in, back in 2009, so we were all excited to tour it together.  N. cares about every bit of information related to the history of St. Paul's: the earlier Norman cathedral on the site, the toppling of its tower in the 16th century, Cromwell's stabling of horses in it during the Interregnum, the Great Fire that destroyed it, Sir Christopher Wren's various designs for the current building, its escape from damage during the Blitz... N. noticed new details of the building's exterior that he didn't know about and he hadn't known much about its interior, so he enjoyed seeing it. And we climbed hundreds of steps to the interior gallery around the dome (the "Whispering Gallery"), the exterior gallery around the dome (the "Stone Gallery") and even a little balcony up at the base of the spire (the "Golden Gallery," which was pretty scary!).  We got great perspectives on the building and beautiful views of the city.

After touring St. Paul's, we wandered around the City to see some of the other churches Wren designed after the Great Fire.  Many of these were severely damaged in and most gradually rebuilt after World War II, so we admired Wren's inventiveness while also pondering the traumas of the Fire and the war (N. has something of a morbid fascination with both).  These churches were all new to N., and he asked that we find a book about Wren's career so he can learn more about his City churches at home.

Another of N.'s favorites has long been St. Martin-in-the-Fields, designed by the Wren disciple James Gibbs, so he was excited to see that church as well.  Again, seeing the interior and other sides of the church (besides the main front pictured here) was really exciting for N.

We also spent part of an afternoon at Westminster Abbey.  We wandered through the building and then were lucky enough to sit in the nave while the choir rehearsed for an evening concert.  N. had not studied this building a lot in advance and is now interested in learning more about it.  At one point a verger asked N. if he spoke English and if he'd like to do a  "Children's Trail."  We didn't really know what he was referring to (although now that I've looked it up on the Abbey's website, it looks potentially interesting) and N. was offended!  "Why didn't he know that I just want to look at the building?" he asked us repeatedly.  Tourist sites have to walk a fine line between providing basic information to ignorant visitors and excessively mediating those visitors' experience of the site; their material for children tends to do the latter (in my experience), providing "treasure hunts," etc. that construct the child visitor as someone who must be distracted from the site itself and entertained, who won't be interested in the site without this entertainment.  Even material for adults runs this risk.  I like to get a leaflet or paper guide when I visit a site or museum, but I absolutely never get the audio guides.  I like to experience things on my own and look up additional information later rather than have my experience of a site or a work of art shaped by an audio guide.

Anyway, the rest of our England itinerary after our London stay was structured by cathedrals.  We went to York Minster, Lincoln Cathedral, and Ely Cathedral, as well as King's College Chapel (not a cathedral, obviously, but an exquisite example of fan vaulting).  At York, we learned a lot about cathedral construction from an interesting exhibit in the crypt showing excavated remains of the Roman and Norman buildings on the site.  At both Lincoln and Ely, we paid particular attention to the clear differences between the Norman, Early English Gothic, and Decorated Gothic parts of the buildings.  This was a real revelation to N.  Even though he'd been really interested in this element of cathedral construction (that is, the differences in architectural style in different periods) from the start of his cathedral obsession, he seemed to appreciate and understand these differences in a whole new way after seeing them up close.

Right before going on our trip, N. and I read a slew of books on Ely Cathedral from my university library and gleaned an account of Oliver Cromwell storming into the Cathedral in the middle of a service in 1643 and driving out the congregation (the cathedral was then closed for 20 years); this incited in N. a dread fascination with Cromwell that first started when N. learned of Cromwell's abuse of Old St. Paul's Cathedral and reappeared every time we learned the fate of an ecclesiastic building during the Interregnum.  I think we'll be studying both Cromwell and William the Conqueror (the other hero-villain whose name was inescapable in the histories of English cathedrals) in the coming months.  At any rate I certainly felt the need after this trip to brush up on my Norman and medieval English history.  N. has asked that we get books on Lincoln, York, and Westminster Cathedrals to follow up on what we viewed.

This portion of our trip was thus a stimulating combination of seeing cathedrals N. has long loved and seeing new others that prompted the desire (of all of us!) to learn more.  Regardless of what more we may learn after this trip, seeing the cathedrals in all their massiveness, pondering the feats of their engineering, helped us grasp their worldly function as monuments to church power and authority in the middle ages.  We had the incredible privilege to hear Evensong at Lincoln, Ely, and King's College; the ethereal sounds of the English boy choirs highlighted for us the cathedrals' ongoing spiritual function.  Even as nonbelievers, we were transfixed by the beauty of thunderous organ and soaring voices.

1 comment:

CMR said...

Wonderful!