Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Winchester Cathedral

   Winchester Cathedral:
   The New Vaudeville Band

In December, 1966, the #1 song in the country was "Winchester Cathedral," by The New Vaudeville Band.  A novelty song, it succeeded "You Keep Me Hangin' On" by the Supremes and was followed in turn by the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations."

The song accuses Winchester Cathedral with having stood idly by while the singer's girlfriend left town, even asserting that the beloved "wouldn't have gone far away if only you'd started ringing your bell."

Strong words, but the song has a point.  There is in fact something stolid and sedentary about the cathedral:

Nor does its interior change our impression that Winchester is something of a slow-responder:

To emphasize this point, here is a close-up of the vaulted ceiling of its nave:

Crikey!  This place is tightly knit and pulled together –– and that's just the ceiling.  Its ancient transept, the "arms" of its cross-shape, adds to its mass and balance, and its nave is the longest of any medieval church in Europe.  Then there is its ascending verticality.  The structure as a whole is massive, deliberative.  We don't expect it to easily break ranks in order to chime to an outbound girlfriend.  So while we sympathize with The New Vaudeville Band, we empathize with the cathedral.  It simply lacks the suppleness of, say, the local fire department. 

Winchester Cathedral:
Norman Semicircular 
And there is its age, it is hardly spry; for besides being tightly and expansively wrought, it is very old.   Founded in 1079 and formally consecrated in 1093, it was built adjoining sites of two older Saxon churches, the oldest of which, the Old Minster, dates to 648.  Following the Norman conquest of 1066, the prevailing politics dictated demolition of the old to make way for a new cathedral to be built on a Romanesque (Norman) design.  And thus Winchester was born.  (See Romanesque Architecture In England, and Winchester Cathedral.)

Within centuries, though, the cathedral's Romanesque design would transition to Gothic, so much so that Norman emphasis now remains only in its oldest sections, its crypt and transept.  The new Gothic aesthetic led to modifications lasting into the 16th century, these being most pronounced in the 14th century refurbishments of Winchester's commanding nave and Western entrance.  (See English Gothic Architecture; also, Sacred Choral Music by The Boy Choristers of Canterbury Cathedral, an hour-long collection of images and choral pieces, with supplementary playlist, from Neurotic Films.)

Winchester Cathedral:
Flying Buttresses
What does a shift from Romanesque to Gothic mean?  Briefly, this change involved the advent of ribbed ceiling vaults, pointed arches, and flying buttresses.  Meaning: ribbed ceiling vaults were lighter, stronger alternatives to barrel and groin vaulting, causing less outward thrust on walls and allowing higher, thinner walls; pointed arches were stronger than Romanesque semicircular ones in that they offered less "crown" to potentially buckle, thus better distributing downward pressure; and flying buttresses provided lateral supports for the walls, in a manner analogous to the function of outriggers on a canoe.

Detail: Flying Buttresses
showing Pointed Arches
In combination, these three features resulted in increased verticality.  Walls did not have to be so massive, did not have to carry the whole weight on their backs.  Freed up from serving a purely load-bearing function, walls could now serve a soaring, light-bringing function; and higher, thinner walls allowed for more and greater windows.  Whereas the Romanesque atmosphere had been that of a dimly-lit, hunkered-down refuge, the Gothic atmosphere was a light-filled portal to beyond.  Heavy lifting gave way to art and aesthetics.  (See: Romanesque versus Gothic [1], a clean, no-frills video description; Romanesque versus Gothic [2], an architectural summary with a sociocultural slant; Romanesque Versus Gothic [3], a quiz.)

Returning to our starting point with the New Vaudeville Band's complaint about Winchester, we think we have justified that while Winchester did stand idly by when the girlfriend left town, it surely had no choice.  It's just too massive. 

   Crosby, Stills & Nash

Now it turns out that "Winchester Cathedral" isn't the only song composed about that church, nor the only complaint.  In 1977, Crosby, Stills & Nash recorded "Cathedral," a song of religious disillusionment set in Winchester Cathedral.  Written by Graham Nash, and with Nash on piano and singing lead, the song is reflective, angry, and political, and hardly a novelty piece.

 Its middle verses are:

     I'm flying in Winchester Cathedral
     Sunlight pouring through the break of day
     Stumbled through the door and into the chamber
     There's a lady setting flowers on the table (covered lace)
     And a cleaner in the distance finds a cobweb on a face
     And a feeling deep inside of me tells me
     This can't be the place

     I'm flying in Winchester Cathedral
     All religion has to have its day
     Expressions on the face of the Saviour
     Made me say
     I can't stay

     Open up the gates of the church and let me out of here!
     Too many people have lied in the name of Christ
     For anyone to heed the call
     So many people have died in the name of Christ
     That I can't believe it all

For the most part we couldn't agree more.  Plus, we like Nash's writing. The secular details of flower-selling and church-cleaning undercut the vaulting majesty of the cathedral, and the charge of bloodletting carried out in Christ's name similarly deflates Belief.

That said, we want to pause and say, "Wait a minute, what about the music? the art?"  Can something valuable lie amidst the ideological? even if that something has historically conveyed that ideology?  We think, yes, and here we refer to the total aesthetic of the cathedral and the
way that aesthetic transports us out
of the mundane.  Listen, for instance, to the singing of the renowned Winchester Cathedral Choir.  (The blue playlist contains compositions by Thomas Tallis, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, William Byrd, Gregorio Allegri, George Frideric Handel, Gabriel Fauré, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Francis Poulenc, Samuel Barber, Paul Manz.)

The choir dates to at least 1402, and you needn't be a Believer to be drawn into its music or hooked by the art and architecture in cathedral space: the columns, arches, stained glass, altar statuary, vaulted ceiling.  The music is but part of a larger otherworldly atmosphere –– one composed of light, space, sculpture, sound, and color.

Moreover, there is something about very old places* that evokes a mood, a sense that past ages commingle with this age, that we are partially merging with the parade of those who preceded us.  This mood is pleasurable, if hard to articulate; it feels something like déjà vu merging with an ancestral group-identification.


*Speaking of very old places, the city of Winchester has quite a history itself. Located in Hampshire, England, it was known to the Romans as Venta Belgarum.  The meaning of Venta is disputed, but often Venta Belgarum is translated as "Market town of the Belgae."  The Belgae were Celtic tribes with Germanic influences that had been living in Northern Gaul.  Modern Belgium is named after them.  Julius Caesar, while Governor of Gaul, defeated them in 57 BC, calling them the bravest warriors from among the three principal Gallic tribes (the other two being the Aquitani, related to the Basque culture, and the Gauls, who were also Celtic).  And in Caesar's time, some of the Belgae had already migrated to England.

Their main town, Venta Belgarum, is listed in Ptolemy's 2nd century Geography, its Saxon rendering being Ouenta.  By c. 730, Ouenta had acquired the place-ending ceaster (Saxon for "Roman town," itself derived from castra, Latin for "walled town").  Spelled variously as Ouentanceaster, Uintanceaster, Wyntonceaster, Wintanceaster, it eventually settled down as Winchester.  (See Belgae and Winchester ; also Venta Belgarum, for an interesting subsection, Life In Venta Belgarum.)

Anyway, the charges against Winchester Cathedral –– its alleged indifference as seen in the New Vaudeville Band's song, or its hijacking "in the name of Christ" as per Graham Nash –– these should be weighed against its evocative possibilities.  Because there are spaces that embody transformational magic: singular spaces that open us up, foster contemplation, release us from ordinary tensions and strictures of living.  Such spaces are sacred, not because of dogma, bones, relics, saints, but because through these spaces we rise above the mundane.  It's not resurrection but it's what's available to us down here. We're betting that Winchester Cathedral is one of these spaces, despite the fact that we've been there only in mind.

Its sturdy external physicality sets a tone also.  Massively, reliably there, apart from yet part of a human community, it designates a nearby world of available reverie.  Were it in our neighborhood, we'd go visit.  We're pretty sure that once inside we'd feel unlocked from the mundane and more permeable somehow, freed up like Winchester's gothic walls to let light in and imagination out –– freed up and also catalyzed via art, architecture, music, the light-paintings of stained glass windows.

Now viewed from the the outside, and despite its Gothic makeovers, Winchester's visage retains a certain stodginess.  A Norman-ness, blockish and fortress-like.  Interestingly, while its exterior signifies an alternative spirit-world, that same exterior belies its interior world of space, light, music, art, heavenward ambition.  Its frumpy look contrasts with its inner delights.  The nave seems to say (or sing) "I'll take you higher," while its exterior stands its ground heavily, mutely.

British Bulldog
(possibly named Norman) 
But that's OK.  Its real job isn't to sing but to materially house an inner transformational space.  And if it doesn't speak in ethereal tones of heaven, perhaps it bespeaks –– in its earth-bound stolid permanence –– another kind of timeless reassurance.  Maybe Winchester is the British Bulldog of cathedrals, reliably there through centuries and on the ground.  There are flights of heaven and there are material constancies of earth (chicken pot pie, a true friend, a loving dog), and all have their place.

Posted By Blogger to  One Hand On The Radio at 5/04/2011 07:01:00 PM


Kit said...

I'm commenting on my own post here. I've just found a reliable informational website dealing with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. On it, I found an interview with Graham Nash in which he describes visiting Winchester Cathedral (while on LSD), being understandably impressed, and taking four years to write the song, "Cathedral." In the interview, he says: It was an amazing space–the feeling of the sunlight pouring in through the windows; in fact, when the sunlight hits, it definitely made a "bbhhrr" sound, the pillars turn to ivory white. So much feeling inside it, I'm sure I didn't need the acid. The interview continues with Nash recounting an uncanny experience in which he was drawn to the grave of a soldier who had died on Nash's birthdate. Nash felt his legs: ...waver, not shake, but just waver, you know, like a divining rod––it was real strange.

Anonymous said...

I've heard this song criticized as silly for telling a church it didn't stop the singer's girlfriend from leaving town. Silly, sure, it IS a novelty song. But I've come across something that makes a bit of sense out of that for me. This is a British song, and for a British listener the idea of a church stopping someone from leaving isn't a new idea.

Have you heard of "the sound of Bow bells"? The church of St. Mary-le-Bow is in the center of London, and to be born within the sound of the "Bow Bells" is said to make one a true Cockney. According to legend, young Dick Wittington was called back to medieval London by the sound of the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow as he was climbing Highgate Hill, trudging back home toward Gloucestershire in discouragement. He believed the bells were sending him a message, so he turned back to the city to try again and eventually became a great success as a merchant and as four-time Lord Mayor of London. The adventures of Dick Whittington are partly legendary, but he was a real person of great importance and popularity.

So the idea of church bells calling someone back and stopping them from leaving would not be a novel thought for a Brit.

But Winchester Cathedral didn't even try; it just stood there. :)

(Winchester, and its cathedral, is about 60 miles SW of London. Gloucestershire is about 80 miles W of London.)

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