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Art review: Kings and Scribes at Winchester Cathedral

31 May 2019

A new historical display at Winchester works, says Nicholas Cranfield

Winchester cathedral

Installation view of part of the new exhibition in the south transept at Winchester

Installation view of part of the new exhibition in the south transept at Winchester

A NEARLY decade-long project has transformed the south transept of Winchester Cathedral, for which the Dean and Chapter, and the inspired vision of James Atwell, are to be congratulated. At a cost of £11.2 million, access to the three levels (the ground floor, a mezzanine, and the triforium) has been enhanced.

This provides state-of-the-art exhibition space within the high openings of the Norman transept; the clerestory is 23 feet high, the gallery a yard higher, and the arcade 29 feet. The rhythm of the vaults makes it possible to imagine life centuries ago in what remains Europe’s longest cathedral.

From the triforium, one looks down on the roof of Bishop Wilberforce’s 1873 incongruous shrine, and across to the Holy Sepulchre chapel under the crossing, with its remarkable painted decoration of about AD 1230, and beyond to the north transept. We get to hear music recorded from the Winchester Troper, and music that was sung at the coronation of King Edward the Confessor in 1043.

Previous exhibitions had been held both in the Morley Library, in which I first recall researching my 17th-century bishops, and the associated spaces that held the Winchester Bible, the finest 12th-century Great Bible to survive in England: the exhibition marking the marriage of King Philip I and Queen Mary Tudor (2004) comes to mind.

Access has been enhanced and made possible by the intervention of a spangly glass-walled lift inserted in the Jacobean stairwell. Whereas the new obtrusive tower required to reach the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries at Westminster Abbey has divided critics (Arts, 1 June 2018), the solution here chosen by Nick Cox Architects is markedly discreet. The Oxfordshire practice, which was formed only in 2006, has worked within the spirit of the medieval building.

The older Jacobean staircase, with its flat balusters and newel posts, survives, and the woodwork offers a preparation for Bishop Morley’s Library, which has housed his collection since his death. Current technology allows visitors to “pick” books off the shelf and to turn virtual pages; Sir Thomas Herbert’s 1634 History of the Persian Monarchy, a late-medieval Sarum Missal (1510), the first edition of John Donne’s poems (1633), and the 1662 Eikon Basilike are among them. One hopes that their number will be extended; my fingers itched to open again Camden’s 1607 Britannia and Sir William Dugdale’s Late Troubles in England. Published in 1681, this was one of the bishop’s last purchases before his death in 1684.

Winchester CathedralAn interactive display in the new gallery at Winchester Cathedral

The same mezzanine level gives on to a changing display of monastic life in the cathedral priory, drawn from the archives with attendant touch screens to amplify the long history of this sacred space.

At the triforium level, there are two related exhibitions; on the landing between them is what many regard as the earliest surviving stone, the massive altar stone from the first priory church. Its scale makes sense of the 12th-century Tournai marble font in the nave.

“The Birth of a Nation” marks Winchester’s role in Wessex and the emergence of an English nation state. Years later, Charles II debated establishing a new royal palace in the former Roman city of Venta Bulgarum.

Two of the earlier 15th-century tomb chests that contained the relics of previous bishops and monarchs before they were again disturbed in the 17th century (News, 17 May 2019) are shown, the wooden coffin sides banded in red, with rosettes and human faces painted in the spaces between.

In the other wing, “Decoding the Stones” shows the skill of masons, past and present, with a moving 14th-century Virgin and headless Child from the original east-end screen, and the badly defaced fragmentary statues. Chertsey tiles that depict a mitred bishop, his hand raised in blessing were once laid in the floor around the shrine of St Swithun.

Bishop Walter Curle carried out a programme of enhancing the beauty of holiness in 1635, and this is evidenced in the wooden tester from above the high altar (taken down in 1828) and a provincial wooden statue of Charles I, its naïvety somewhat at odds with the king’s promoted self-image. Here also is the great “He” Bible of 1611, so-called for its misprint at Ruth 3.15. But it is not the King James Bible that many seek out.

Pride of place, on the ground floor, goes to the newly conserved Winchester Bible.

Archbishop Lanfranc (who died in 1089) had required all the greater churches to have a large Bible, both to give visual expression to the importance of the word of God in every community and to provide a text of the Vulgate for easier copying.

That at Winchester was almost certainly commissioned by Henry of Blois, who was bishop from 1129 until his death in 1171, and was the richest and most powerful man in the kingdom. It occupied six illuminators and a scribe for more than 15 years. It was left unfinished: at folio 331v we see the opening of the book of Judith with the design that has yet to be illuminated. Even though it was produced in the priory’s own scriptorium, this was no provincial work.

Winchester cathedralThe Winchester Bible open at Psalm 1

The illuminations draw on a wide repertory of Byzantine and classical images painted by artists, two of whom had certainly worked in Catalonia and in Sicily. The glories of the wall paintings in the Chapter House at Sigena were victim to the ravages of the Spanish Civil War, but the mosaics at Cefalù and Monreale survive to attest the artistic heritage for the work.

This original two-volume Bible is the largest to survive, measuring nearly 2 ft by 15¾ ins., has been restored and rebound four times, most recently at the Bodleian Library, which has given the opportunity to digitise every one of the 463 pages. It is now honoured in a room of its own, beneath the benign St Benedict painted on the wall above.

The first of the psalms (Beatus vir) is decorated with a double initial “B”. In one is David, who had vanquished both bear and lion (1 Kings 17, 36). As David releases the sheep from the mouth of the bear, so Jesus is seen releasing a boy possessed by the devil in the parallel illumination (Luke 9.43, 44) and the harrowing of hell matches David’s triumph over the lion.

Visitor information on “Kings and Scribes: The Birth of a Nation” is at www.winchester-cathedral.org.uk

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