posted on 04/10/21
This series of talks takes advantage of the phenomenon to examine five churches from the perspective of their origin, history and aesthetic character. The emphasis will be on the architecture, but the status of medieval buildings as repositories of imagery will not be neglected, nor their rhetorical power to make claims on behalf of their creators.
They take place every Thursday from 2nd December to 13th January (excluding 23rd and 30th December) at 4.30pm (GMT) and, including Q&A, will probably last just under an hour. They are available for viewing for eight weeks after the last episode is streamed (10th March 2022).
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The cappella palatina is the most spectacular royal chapel to have come down to us from the 12th century. Begun while Roger II was king of Sicily and probably completed under his son, the chapel was designed to embody an ideal of Christian kingship – relating the southern Italian monarchy to both King David and Christ. Not only that, the imagery appealed to Latin, Greek and Arabic speakers in what seems to have been a carefully planned and politically sophisticated programme. Where did the artists capable of producing such imagery come from, and what propelled the monarchy into making ambitious trans-Mediterranean claims?
As an architectural experience, Bourges Cathedral rests in a very select league indeed. The first giant of French Gothic architecture to take shape in central France, the overall design owed much to Notre-Dame in Paris. Like Paris, Bourges also redeployed elements of its Romanesque predecessor, though when it came to creating a series of story-telling windows the cathedral set a new standard. Unlike most of its contemporaries, the stained glass that illuminates Bourges’s radiating chapels is positioned above low window sills, creating the most accessible and intimate of all 13th-century glazing schemes.
Built at spectacular expense in accordance with the will of Richard Beauchamp, 13th earl of Warwick and captain of the English forces in Normandy at the time of his death, the Beauchamp chapel is the most lavishly appointed 15th-century funerary chapel in England. It was fitted out by London-based craftsmen, though within a distinctively regional architectural frame – a classic example of a building intended to surpass all precedents and expectations.
Sited well to the north of the river Tagus, Tomar was developed on a huge scale to act as the headquarters for the order of Knights Templar in Portugal. A colossal castle was created on high ground above the town, with a church and a set conventual buildings at its heart. The church survives from this early period, laid out in 1160 with a circular sanctuary and short rectangular nave, while around it were built a record-breaking seven cloisters and courtyards – the latter mostly created after 1312 when the site was refashioned as the seat of Portugal’s royal Ordem del Cristo. Heaven for anyone interested in cloister design.
Founded as a monastery for women in the 7th century and taking Etheldreda as its first abbess, Ely was raised to the status of cathedral in 1109, by which date work had already started on the existing church. The current cathedral reflects an expansion of the Anglo-Norman church, initiated to the east by a splendid new eastern shrine area created under Bishop Hugh Northwold (1229-54). Most famously, however, the core of the church was reconstructed following the collapse of the crossing tower in 1322, turning the cathedral into as much a showcase for the Decorated as for the Romanesque.