From Glasgow to Manchester late for a few hours at home then next morning to Norwich. Four apprentices to get through their final EPAs, anxiety bubbling as I wandered this town. Found it most beautiful. Even more beautiful after they had all passed, two with distinction.
This cathedral is calm, wondrous. Romanesque arches stacked one upon the other. I love the curious weight of them yet still they soar upwards. This miraculous ribbed vaults of the nave in contrast to the simple (just as beautiful) vaulting of the aisles and the glimpse of wood roofing the second story. More traces of paint and decoration than I have seen elsewhere, all medieval, pre-reformation. Time’s passage and architecture’s technological development visible in the size of the enormous round columns with their simple spiral decorations giving way to incised flutes emerging from walls to stretch up and up alive to vault the precise stone of the ceiling.
Beauty through the train window almost made me forget anxiety. Everything remained covered with frost in the Pennines. Melting away as we reached the flats with their thick dark silt and water logged fields filled with birds.
Norwich itself it seemed I barely had time to see, I hope I come back. It too feels a bit lost in time, cobbled streets and a beautiful flint church on every stretch. Old crooked streets and crooked houses. A working class court left standing after the clearances. Spontaneous City art for insects and birds. Old stone towers and the ferry, factories along the water now mellowed brick and almost silent.
Magush reads the future in a vacant building opposite the charcoal yard where he lives. The six huge picture windows and the twelve little windows of the adjacent building are like cards for him. Magush never thought of associating windows and cards: that was my idea. His methods are mysterious and can be explained only in part. He tells me that during the day he has trouble drawing conclusions, because the light disturbs the images. The most propitious moment to carry out his task is at sunset, when certain slanting rays of light filter through the side windows of the building and are reflected onto the glass of the windows in front. That is why he always makes appointments with his clients for that hour of the day. I know, having learned from careful research, that the upper part of the building has to do with matters of the heart, the lower part with money and work, and the middle with problems of family and health.
— ‘Magush’ by Silvina Ocampo in Thus Were Their Faces, p 126
The Design Museum’s Moving to Mars exhibition was brilliant, fascinating. Yet it moves from simple wonder at a new world to the beauty that can be built as we flee the earth having destroyed it.
The tag line: should we stay or should we go.
But oh the wonder. It allows you to stand (or perhaps you are lucky enough to sit) in front of three enormous screens with high resolution images from rover. Like these, but without the jagged edges. See a world no human being has seen with their own eyes.
It starts, though, with the ancient Sumerians and Greeks tracing the path of mars across the sky.
It has a telescope along the lines of Caroline and William Herschel, the notebooks of Kepler and Schiaparelli. Schiaparelli of course described a phenomenon of canali, wrongly transcribed as canals and thereby the life obsessions of Percival Lawrence Lowell who built the beautiful telescope of in Flagstaff. It allows you to see scale models of these miracles of engineering humans have created to move across this terrain to capture these images. I loved each room had an engineer asking us to enter into the excitement of solving the many questions that continue to lie before us. My dad always said they should teach school not so much about all that we know but about what we don’t, and I think he was right.
I love robots, these are so splendid. Robots much like them feature most heavily in the construction of the worlds humans would have to create in the deserts of mars. Look at them building these great hollow mounds to protect human beings from the radiation of the skies above them.
This scheme for Mars housing proposes sending robot-builders in advance of the astronauts.
These robots pose a big challenge for programming and artificial intelligence, since they will need to be semi-autonomous and smart. They cannot follow a rigid routine, since much about the Mars surface and subsoil where they will be working is unknown.
The habitats are based on inflatable modules for up to four astronauts, which need to be built on Earth and then shipped to Mars. The first stage is to dig foundation pits for them, 1.5 metres deep. The inflated pods are then covered and reinforced with regolith (Martian topsoil) bound together by a 3D-printing process using microwave energy. Mars Habitat Foster + Partners, 2015
A stunning short film can be seen here: https://www.fosterandpartners.com/projects/mars-habitat/
All of these proposed models used 3d printers to spin Martian regololith topsoil into structure.
They are used here too:
MARSHA is a first principles rethinking of what a Martian habitat could be – not another low-lying dome or confined, half-buried structure but a bright, multi-level, corridor-free home that stands upright on the surface of Mars. Where structures on Earth are designed primarily for gravity and wind, Martian conditions require a structure optimized to handle internal atmospheric pressure and thermal stresses. Marsha’s unique vertically oriented, egg-like shape maintains a small footprint, minimizing mechanical stresses at the base and top which increase with diameter. Standing tall on the surface grants the human crew a superior vantage point to observe a dynamic landscape with weather patterns, clouds, and shifting hues – their new home and object of study both. The tall, narrow structure reduces the need for a construction machine to continuously rove on the surface, reducing risk and increasing speed and accuracy.
These innovations challenge the conventional image of “space age” domes by focusing on the creation of spaces tuned to both known and anticipated physical and psychological demands of a Mars mission.
They are working to create and test a new city in the Mojave, have created some really stunning visual glimpses of what a radically reimagined architecture for Mars — and Earth — might look like. Visuals are undoubtedly their strong point, there is this glorious visual of a truly massive city spreading across the new planet.
More internal schematics!
The aesthetics clearly dominate all of these, but thought did go into the lived experience of space, the need to create home. It is hard to see, however, quite what personal mark individuals might make on these pristine printed environments. Where the posters and bluetac might go, the strings of lights, the shawls and hangings, the knickknacks. There was an occasional view of a book, a toy. For that the Soviet designer Galina Balashova seemed to be in a league of her own — she painted landscapes herself for soviet astronauts to have something of home:
So much in this exhibition was streamlined and beautiful. I am still not entirely convinced it is a great idea.
Part of me embraces so much this thought of reaching for the stars and yet…Elon Musk, how can his SpaceX fill you with confidence? Though it too is beautiful as it spreads in self-contained domes across the deep red ground.
There is the film near the end in which they describe a scenario in which the planet needs us to come, return it to its former glories when it ran with water, to act as stewards. As if our experience on Earth gave any indication that this would be our role and purpose.
Also missing were serious SF thinking about space travel — Stan Robinson’s Mars trilogy impossible not to feel as an absence here. But even more so the biosphere, the actual attempt of human beings to live in such a dome. Their own experiments of growing plants in space. A reminder of why Mars makes me feel a little bit like home.
So this left me with mixed feelings.
I will end it on returning to the joy of space exploration, the mad SF covers and wild imaginings. Maybe my favourite aspect of space when you come down to it.
The hill was a network of lights in which the twin stars of a car’s headlights traced a live circuit. There was an abstract, designed beauty in the setting of the clusters of bright rectangles that marked out houses along the well-lit roads, climbing at last to the long, low striations of light that signified the offices and labs at the summit. A satellite dish was a shield of gold, a communications tower a lance of silver. The captive power plant twinkled with ruby points of brilliance, cadmium sulphoselenide letting only red rays through. Good gatekeeper, cutting the seamless continuum of light into freed and absorbed, escaped and imprisoned. To the lens, there was only red and not-red. There were no other questions, no other categories. Gopal sat astride his bike and watched. Here, a hundred metres down the approach road from the town to the campus gate, he could appreciate the cold schematic beauty of it all. This complex in the middle of nowhere was the child and citadel of science, clean and limpid in its stark organization, its grid layout, its lit streets and planned bungalows. He could not think of those spaces as containing people. From here it was only infrastructure, a valued and valuable asset to the nation.
Entered in the account books of the republic: so many crores of rupees, so many man-hours of labour invested. Purpose: national security. Aims: laudable. Control: absolute. Glory: unlimited.
This is a machine for killing people. (113-114)
Chatterjee, Rimi B. (2005) Signal Red. London: Penguin.
I’ve been reading so much about housing and so much about home. And all of it so European. So different from these homes. These homes had a touch of Europe, but really felt like something quite a bit different. These steep cobbled streets and homes stepped and angled, most from the first few decades of the 1800s were so lovely.
I took a few too many pictures maybe, but the two interiors we saw were so gracious, so unexpected. The first the House-Museum Hindliyan / Къща-музей „Хиндлиян“, built between 1835-1840 by an Armenian merchant, decorated with paintings of cities from around Europe and Istanbul/Constantinople done over a period of 6 months by Chirpan craftsmen Moka and Mavrudi. The furniture is not the original furniture of course, but typical National Revival. It is the structure, the yard with its grapes, the store room by the high wall to enter, the feel of the rooms and the incredible bath with its hypocaust heating, the fountains and niches, the wondrous ceilings that feel so different.
The second house was the Georgiadi House, entered on whim. It was actually built for Georgi Kendinenoglou by Hadzhi Georgi in 1848, but he gave it as a dowry for his daughter upon her marriage to Georgiadi, a merchant from Thessaloniki. It is a wooden frame filled in with mud bricks. The wall niches I so love are called alafranga. The central rooms on the 1st and 2nd floor both have platforms but there is nothing about them at all anywhere written here.
Few seem to love knowing the form and function of rooms and the life that filled them quite like I do. A mystery for unraveling at some future time.
This house is no longer furnished, rather it full of pictures, artifacts, guns and flags and uniforms from the freedom struggle for independence from the Ottomans. The ivory handle of a cane carved like Napoleon belonging to Peyu Geogiev, grand master of the fur-dressers guild. A portrait of the only female participant of the horse detachment of Benkovski. A small cannon. Lots of lions. Print patterns traded in the 19th century. The revolver, dagger and gospel before which Vasil Levski’s revolutionary oath was sworn. A handbook of successful fights with the Turks.
This was also the first place I really got a sense of how cosmopolitan Plovdiv was, the many different cultures and peoples who resided and traded here. All long before independence.
Still, funny to read this from the letters of Octavia Hill, which I finished not long before we came here.
I was interested to land in Bulgaria. One wonders what these young nations are going to be, somewhat as one does about children. The country looked strange and very uninhabited ; but it was much more beautiful than I expected. We went by railway thro’ it to Rustchuk. (Octavia Hill, 432)*
It is from the period not long after that independence was won (another painting of General Gurko triumphantly entering the city was to be found here, looking very much like his entry into Veliko Tarnovo).
*Maurice, C. Edmund (ed) ( 2010) Life of Octavia Hill As Told in Her Letters. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
The ancient seat of the Second Bulgarian Empire, this is a lovely place. Ivan and Peter Asen launched the successful rebellion for independence from the Byzantine Empire in 1185.
This is one of the four horsemen from the magnificent monument that honours them:
Veliko Tarnova remained the capital of an empire that expanded across the Balkans before it began constricting again. In 1393 the Ottomans burnt this capital city the ground, though 1396 is the date given for the completion of Ottoman conquest.
Not much is left of the fortress of Tsarevets (Царевец), but its reconstructed ruins drape the hill like a crown. The town itself stacks itself along the hillsides surmounted by its beautiful church. Hristo told us before dropping us off that there is no left or right here, only up or down.
We walked down the oldest street, Ulitsa General Gurko, renamed after the Russian General who led the Russian forces freeing Bulgaria from the Ottoman ‘yoke’ in 1878. We wandered this old impossibly picturesque street with an older couple, and before they left it the man turned back. He spoke little English, but showed us a poor black and white photocopy of this painting kept safe within a clear plastic sleeve:
He beamed a contagious happiness. He had found the precise view of this street depicted here, and after waving the picture at us with a final smile turned to follow his wife. I had not seen the painting previously, but I think this is it. Or close to it. It is perhaps not quite far enough down
I was reading The Rose of the Balkans, histories of Bulgaria being limited. I found the highlight to be the many letters included, like this one describing precisely this street only ten years later.
Nothing can exceed the beauty of the rocky ravine through which the northern road winds as it approaches Trnovo. Here and there the slopes are exquisitely green, dotted with forest trees and fragrant hawthorn; in other places tall perpendicular crags obtain the mastery, and frown down upon the traveler to the right and left, while at his feet the foaming waters of Yantra dash swiftly along, half hidden by the luxuriant foliage, as they carry the melted snows of he Balkans to the broad bosom of the Danube. A sudden turn of the road brings him to the entrance of the town, and it is not without a pang of disgust that he finds himself in a dirty, ill paved malodorous street, the closely built houses of which shut out all view of the lovely valley, through which the river winds as it almost encircles the ancient city of kings and priests. The town lies on a rocky peninsula, and it is necessary to descend to the banks of the river, or, if possible, to scale the dizzy heights of the opposite side, in order to appreciate the extreme beauty of its situation. The houses cluster on the precipice like sea birds on the ocean crag, the red-tile roofs rising one above the other in picturesque confusion, here and there relieved with trees and tiny vineyards, which seem literally to hang over the rapid torrent beneath…
— J. D. Bourchier. Through Bulgaria with Prince Ferdinand, Fortnightly Review, July 1888 (272 The Rose of the Balkans, Ivan Ilchev)
The times are better I think.
But this is still a style of building that…look at these eaves, these houses jostle each other in their lots, sprawl on top of each other down the hills.
But of course the city has grown far beyond these old cobbled streets, like all of the other places we have been here, it is ringed by wider more modern streets full of lovely National Revival style mixed with more modern buildings.
And the outer ring? Buildings like the city hall in a modernist, communist style, huge slabs of social housing. And our absurd hotel, the Interhotel, which represents such faded communist grandeur, and gave us incredible views from our balcony, but also a shower possessed by the devil and the most peculiar smell.
This is a beautiful place full of art and life spilling out across public spaces, lovely craft shops, a brilliant book store and of course, cats.
It is visible for miles, perched precipitous, high on its mountain above fields golden with sunflowers. It is an incredible absurd sciencefictional thing. A flying saucer tethered to a grounding skysoaring shard of concrete.
It sits on earth of great significance, impossible beauty. Site of the last battle of rebel Hadzhi Dimitâr against the Ottomans. He received a fatal wound here, and it was for many years known by his name.
Between 1877 and 1878 a number of battles were fought here for control of Shipka pass, Russian General Gourko facing down the Ottomans, you look down on the monument itself from here.
Then on 2nd of August, 1891 the 1st Bulgarian Socialist Congress was held here under cover of celebrations of the deeds of Hadzhi Dimitâr. There is a monument to Dimitâr Blagoev at the turn off for the monument.
Some Nazis were killed here as well in 1944, and three partisans lost their lives in the ambush (though Bulgaria’s government under Tsar Boris III officially supported the Nazis until 1944). This massive 1981 installation was designed by architect Georgi Stoilov, as Richard F. Morton writes:
He lists both the Roman Pantheon and the sci-fi films of the 1950s amongst his inspirations for Buzludzha.
It was meant to symbolise all of this history as a museum and meeting space, but after decades of varying types and degrees of Stalinist rule, the fact that it was built with not-always-so-voluntary labour and subscriptions…it is not a thing I can love wholeheartedly. After it was abandoned in 1989 looters (rumored to include government officials) stripped what they could like the copper from the ceilings, smashed the red star thinking the glass to be rubies, pulled down concrete letters to leave them scattered across the grass.
All this and also the villain’s lair in Mechanic 2.
What it looks like today:
What it looked like once (this is borrowed from the best site by far about the monument, with an extensive history and many more photos, especially of the inside which you are no longer allowed to risk life and limb to see. Have a look!):
Beneath it sit this amazing sculpture of unity, two hands holding torches.
After arriving in Veliko Tarnovo, I looked at the book I was reading and there they were again.
We had to get a special tour out here as we didn’t have a car, but well worth it and we enjoyed it immensely.
There may be loads written on this, but very little of it is available in English in anything resembling an affordable edition. Almost nothing. The book I most wanted by Eve Blau The Architecture of “Red Vienna” 1919-1934 starts at £130, still, I found a lovely article by her which this pulls from a bit en masse. But the lack of literature is an immense frustration.
After the electoral victory of the Austrian Social Democratic Worker’s Party (SDAPÖ) in May of 1919 Vienna, the new socialist council accomplished great things to improve the lives of workers. Housing was only one of the things they did, they looked at education and health as well. But more on that is here. The new government under mayors Jakob Reumann and Karl Seitz worked to build as much housing as quickly as they could. And it is splendid. It was ‘organised communally and jointly on a community aid basis‘, designed by architects like Adolf Loos, Josef Frank, Margarete Lihotzky and Franz Schuster and the whole advised by others like Otto Neurath.
The settlers’ collectives and cooperatives were in most cases sub-organisations of the SDAPÖ, which was a guarantee that neither anarchy nor a proprietary bourgeois ownership mentality prevailed, but above all that party-political and unified action was encouraged and reinforced, through educational and community-oriented organisational forms such as political and cultural education courses (adult education programme, adult education centres), libraries, clubs, workers’ clubs (Schutzbund) and youth groups (Wiener Kinderfreunde, Rote Falken, Naturfreunde),
From a present-day viewpoint, the formal achievements of “Red Vienna” are of less importance than its social achievements, because the allocation of housing according to the determination of need, i.e. objective urgency, rather than through interest or purse, the instilling of a spirit of community and shared responsibility in a longed-for democratic welfare state by means of architecture and improved living conditions, the demand for healthier, decent housing with local infrastructure, not at the cost of the weak, are (still) real-socialist goals which remain to be achieved today. (Zednicek 11-12)
I found a slightly different take here, from Eve Blau in an article on an earlier exhibition touring the US ‘The Vienna Model: Housing for the 21st Century City’ (would have loved that…)
To begin, it is important to emphasize that the municipal project of Red Vienna was not a housing program, but an urban program. It was a comprehensive urban project that set itself task of making Vienna a more equitable environment for modern urban living. The building program – which involved the construction of 400 buildings known as Gemeindebauten, in which housing, social services and cultural institutions were distributed throughout the city – was the primary instrument of that project. By 1934, when Red Vienna itself came to a violent end with the Austrofascist rout of the socialist administration by Dollfuss and the Heimwehr, 200,000 people – one-tenth of the population of Vienna – had been rehoused, and the city provided with a vast new infrastructure of health and welfare services, clinics, childcare facilities, kindergartens, schools, sports facilities, public libraries, theatres, cinemas, and other institutions.
When the first socialist mayor of Vienna was elected in 1919, the Social Democrats determined to make Red Vienna a model of municipal socialism. “Capitalism,” Robert Danneberg, president of the new Provincial Assembly of Vienna declared, “cannot be abolished from the Town Hall. Yet it is within the power of great cities to perform useful installments of socialist work in the midst of capitalist society.” Red Vienna, in other words, was a project to change society by changing the city (Blau).
Most of the flats built were modest, all had an internal toilet (revolutionary!) but many were lacking other amenities now considered necessary. But they held so much more, and embodied a vision of social transformation:
The Gemeindebauten were conceived as the “social condensers” of Red Vienna, the vehicles for transforming the city. They contained housing, but also the Social Democrats’ extensive new infrastructure of social and cultural institutions that were embedded in them. They therefore created a new network of socio-cultural nodes throughout Vienna. It is important to note that the Social Democrats could not have focused on housing and social infrastructure if the previous Christian Social administration of mayor Karl Lueger (1844-1910) had not put in place the extensive network of technical infrastructure – electricity, gas, drinking water, sewage, tramlines, and a new metropolitan railway – in Vienna a generation earlier. The Social Democrats not only profited, but also learned a great deal from that earlier program (Blau).
Look how much they managed before this brilliant moment was crushed by fascism. Small wonder they campaigned around it.
A striking feature of all “Red Vienna” municipal housing projects is the inscription in red metal lettering: “Built by the Viennese municipal authorities from funds raised through the housing construction tax in the years …” Notwithstanding their stylistic similarities, the municipal developments are characterised by a wide range of architectural solutions and building typologies, whereby, with the typology of the “superblock”, for the first time in urban development morphology both a new building typology in housing construction and a change in scale in Vienna’s urban landscape appear. The homogeneous giant blocks containing over 800 individual flats, but also some big estate settlements with between 400 and 800 settler’s holdings, burst asunder the traditional architectural and structural fabric of the city. The new, unfamiliar “colossal” scale of the municipal developments gave rise to new problems both in terms of urban the planning and also in the way the dimensions of the buildings rage and were handled architecturally. The monumental-emotional excesses of the “superblocks”, which because of their size and mass dominated the urban space, were perceived as a unified “Red Front” against bourgeois-conservative Vienna. (Zednicek 35)
Eve Blau brings out more nuance in this, partly by describing the traditions of architecture, planning and transport design they drew from as well as their goal. I wouldn’t have said they felt all that much like a front, with perhaps the exception of Karl-Marx Hof. They fit the fabric of the city quite well.
At first glance the Gemeindebauten appear to be traditional Central European perimeter blocks that have been monumentalized and provided with large garden courtyards so that they often occupy an entire urban block and sometimes several. Because of their seeming conventionality, the Gemeindebauten were sharply criticized at the time by architects of the modernist avant-garde and by architectural historians later, most notably, Manfredo Tafuri, who criticized them for their apparent lack of typological innovation.
But in fact, they did represent innovation:
By bringing the public space of the city into the interior (and traditionally private space) of the block, the Gemeindebauten effectively turned the traditional urban block of the Central European city inside out. In so doing, they created hybrid spaces that were both part of the public domain of the city and part of the private and communal space of the new housing blocks.
The buildings themselves also challenge traditional concepts of boundary and type. Part dwelling space, part institutional space, part commercial space; they are multi-functional, multi-use structures that operate as both housing and urban infrastructural nodes, distributing the social services and cultural facilities provided by the Social Democratic municipality across the city. In short, they reproduced the city while reallocating its spaces and amenities.
In short, the Gemeindebauten not only appropriated what would normally have been private space in the city (the interiors of the city blocks) for public use, but also created a new kind of commons, a new form of communal space in the city. And they did this without destroying the existing scale and fabric. Today, this kind of commonly owned space has more or less disappeared from the city.
A display from the exhibition:
We headed to the Ringstrasse of the Proletariat — I mean, we heard that such was its name once upon a time and so of course we did. Not all the buildings we saw are on this map but this is the key grouping:
We start from the top, walking down from the Margaretengürtel station. We found these nowhere clearly mapped, so had no idea quite what we were looking for, or how much we would find (and missed one with crazy balconies right across the street).
Ernst Hinterberger Hof
This was impressive — nine stories in the center flanked by two smaller blocks of seven stories. The courtyards they hold and the different levels are wonderful, as is the welcoming garden in front of the center building. It was meant to be impressive, ‘since it reflected in idealised form the ideological power-political and cultural reality right at the beginning of “municipal socialism’ (Zednicek54) .
Architects Hubert Gessner/Josef Bittner, built 1924-26
This feels both subdued and ornate alongside Reumann Hof
There is clearly another in the curve of the road, I thought Matteotti was the end…but we had the biggest yet to come. Still, I appreciated seeing these more I think, one alongside each other you get a real sense of how they are each distinctive yet the characteristics they share.
Karl Marx Hof
This monstrous flagship of the social democratic administration and building ideology bears all the hallmarks of a built political manifesto. The grand gesture already expressly demanded by the municipal planning department when inviting competitive design proposals required a distinctly “triumphal architecture”, which the official town hall architect Karl Ehn implemented in ideal form with his colossal design. The gigantic housing complex of, originally, 1,300 flats with exemplary infrastructural amenities has a facade almost one kilometre in length which gave rise to how the problem of how to deal with the structural dimensions and divide them harmonically… solved through the effective scaling of the structure in individual blocks. The prestige project with its plainly designed and divided blocks was consciously conceived as an antithesis to the otherwise preferred pathos of the “people’s palaces”. (Zednicek 14)
It was built in 3 stages as part of the 2nd 5-year plan of housing constrcution, first occupied in 1930 and completed in 1933. Such an incredible thing after July 1927, the burning of the Palace of Justice and bloody street fighting — which cannot but be connected to the civil war of July 1934.
Pictures from the Red Vienna exhibit website of when it was first built — and by whom!
This is another settlement all together, but gives a sense of the cooperative building.
And these the books used to track people’s labour:
A model building of a settlement house by Adolf Loos. Splendid
There is a map of course, but it is large and we saw it at the Red Vienna exhibition but could not take it with us…
This is quite a lovely pamphlet by George Claridge Druce, F.S.A. (Fellow of the Society of Antiquities) from 1917, unearthed by me years ago now (sweet Christmas, how many years ago?) while engaged in a bit of rooting through archives at the Royal Foundation of St Katharine. I’m returning to them now because I’m on holiday! And giving a bit of time to this sadly neglected blog and looking at the many things half written. I’m working on photographs as well, like the ones I took a few weeks ago at Salisbury Cathedral and full of wonder at them. Thought I’d polish this off instead of looking at the things on landscape I’ve half done as was the original intention…
Once upon a time for work I was reading a bit about misericords — like many people I so love the odd grotesqueness of much medieval carving. I was quite little the first time I saw Winchester Cathedral with all of its mysterious faces and monsters and many wonders, and remember how amazing I thought it all. Misericords are a bit harder to access, inside cathedrals and often behind ropes. It is tragic. The ones of the Royal Foundation of St Katharine in Limehouse are truly glorious.
So much was lost when the old liberty of St Katharine’s By the Tower was flooded to form St Katharine’s Docks in 1825-26. Some of the greatest treasures saved were a selection of the misericords and related carvings from the mid-14th century. This is from one of the books in our library, the Catalogue of Misericords in Great Britain, by G.L. Remnant (1998).
In the modern chapel are fourteen stalls, thirteen with carved
misericords. These misericords are in perfect condition owing to the
fact that the hospital, then St. Katharine’s by the Tower, was under the
patronage of successive Queens of England. Three stalls on each side
are returned, and the corner-pieces are said to be faithful portraits of
Edward III and Philippa, the latter closely resembling her effigy in
Westminster Abbey, which was from a portrait by Liege in 1369.
Both sources I found in St Katharine’s archives argue that misericords tell us more than most things about the lives of medieval carvers — but from reading them it is obvious that they tell us in the most subjective manner possible. In fact, interpretations may tell you more about the person drawing such conclusions (and your own self, through your own reactions to the carvings and to what they say about them). In his essay included in Remnant’s A Catalogue of Misericords in Great Britain (1969) M.D. Anderson writes:
Misericords are a very humble form of medieval art and it is unlikely that the most distinguished carvers of any period were employed in making them. The names of the men who actually carved particular misericords are never recorded.’
Yet, at all levels of quality, these carvings reflect the minds of the men who made them, and, if we study misericords as we might turn the pages of painters’ sketchbooks, they may teach us much about English medieval craftsmen which is not recorded in any other form.
They were considered so lowly that usually they were not required to follow any scheme of iconography, so that craftsmen had much more freedom in what they carved…Because of the freedom the carver’s work is often amusing in a naive way, and sometimes includes subjects which are mysterious, because he has divorced one incident from the identifying context of the full story or has worked from his inaccurate memory of a picture he had seen but not fully understood.
In their way, these carvings are as much a record of the early life of St Katharine’s as the Ordinances of Queen Philippa. But they are the work of men whose names have been erased from history. Anderson continues:
Biblical themes are always in the minority, and, even where they do appear, seem to have been chosen at random. (xxiv)
The moral allegories which figured largely in other forms of church imagery seem to have had curiously little appeal to the carvers of misericords. (xxv)
‘Amusing in a naive way’ is annoying, the desire to escape biblical themes and moral imperatives in carving quite wonderful. Instead inspiration comes from the natural world as well as bestiaries and secular literature. I suppose it’s why I love them so much.
At the same time it must be remembered that medieval beliefs embraced a very different kind of iconography, Anderson continues:
Medieval teachers, such as Hugh of Saint Victor and Honorius of Autun, regarded almost every object in the visible world as reflecting some spiritual counterpart, and this use of metaphors drawn from daily life was popularized by the preaching friars…Both cosmic majesty and grotesque humour have their place in the great structure of medieval thought and art. (xxvi-xxvii)
So these two impulses blended perhaps, hybridised. Anderson states that we have discarded the romantic 19th century image of ‘medieval carvers delighting in their own creative powers, as wholly original designs took shape beneath their chisels‘ (xxvii). But what he means by that is curious, in that woodcarvers often seemed to be working from some knowledge of standard designs, which were repeated with free variations alongside carvings of their own invention. Others were copied from wall paintings, manuscript illuminations, and woodcut pictures — he speculates that carvers were given rough sketches or spoiled pages only, due to the high value of books. These designs are often shared by the team of men doing such carving.
The loveliest, most curious oldest carvings (apart from those at St Katharine of course) he says are found in Worcester and Lincoln, Chester and the Holy Trinity in Coventry, and then there are some stalls rescued from Roche Abbey, now in Loversal Church, Yorkshire. There is a side mention of the ‘sinister quality’ of the face of the green man found in both Lincoln and Coventry and again at Loversal, which makes it recognizable as the same artist. Amazing, I will find them.
Like I will find this — he describes that in Bristol a naked woman has been carved leading a pack of apes into the jaws of Hell. This illustrates the supposed fate of the woman who dies unmarried, to which Shakespeare refers in both The Taming of the Shrew (II i) and Much Ado About Nothing. The apes are the souls of unmarried men.
Anyway, to St Katharine’s incredible carvings, that I would often visit, particularly when work was hard. This one is my favourite:
They have returned to the East End from Regent’s street where Druce recorded them, and sit in a lovely modernised chapel. They came back under the radical Father Groser, who dedicated his life to improving conditions for the working classes and I imagine loved them also.
I. Bust of bearded man wearing striped cap and cloak clasped at neck, with trailing drapery, knotted at back. Supporters: Left and Right, winged monster with long tail.
2. Grotesque head surrounded by foliage. Supporters: Left and Right, stiffleaf.
3. Man’s head with long, thick moustache and forked beard. He wears a flat round cap. Supporters: Left and Right, leaf
4. Man’s head, with flowing hair and full, forked beard. Supporters: Left and Right, rose.
5. Angel playing bagpipe. Supporters: Left and Right, lion-mask.
6. Lion leaping on amphisbaena. Supporters: Left and Right, snake-monster.
the amphisbaena is a winged serpent with a second head at the end of its tail. A symbol of deceit. While Anderson mentions that lions were popular due to their use in heraldry, the symbol of the apostle St Mark is often a lion, and they also often represent the resurrection. I love this one immensely.
The amphisbaena in its unmolested-by-a-lion form:
7. Wyvern, with outstretched wings. Supporters: Left and Right, stiffleaf
Dragons tend to be a ‘symbol of the Evil One‘, and the wyvern is simply the two-legged variety.
8. Pelican in her piety, with three chicks. Supporters: Left and Right, swan, with crown encircling its neck.
The Pelican is ‘always shown feeding its fledglings with blood from its own breast. Never represented naturalistically.’ Below is this lovely bird as it appears on one of the carved armrests.
Druce gives an illustration of just such a pelican in a medieval manuscript, from which these were likely copied
On the subject of our pelican, Druce quotes extensively from the bestiaries of the 12th and 13th centuries — early encyclopedias of animals that for contained both what was known of their natural history alongside myths and moral lessons they exemplified. Medieval carvers drew heavily upon these books and their drawings to decorate England’s churches and cathedrals.
It is a bird which lives in the deserts of the Nile and is exceedingly fond of its children. When they have begun to grow up they strike their parents in the face, and their parents, being angered, strike them back and kills them. And on the third day the mother, striking her breast opens her side, and bending over her young ones pours out her blood upon their bodies and brings them to life again. So too our Lord Jesus Christ the author and founder of every creature created us, and when we were not, he made us. We, however, struck him in the face when we served the creature rather than the Creator. For that reason he ascended on the Cross, and his side being pierced there came out blood and water for our Salvation and life Eternal.
On either side of the pelican and its young are two swans that at first glance are the same, but if you look closely you can see that the swan on the left has swallowed a crown, which marks its heraldic form. There is much legend surrounding the swan as well, Druce writes
It is called ” cignus” from its singing, because it pours
forth the sweetness of its song in measured tones. They say also that
it sings so sweetly, because it has a long and curved neck, and that its
throbbing voice must pass by a long and tortuous way to render the
different modulations. Among other items there is an interesting
account, adopted from AElian (Bk. XI, ch. I), of how in Northern regions
swans fly up in large numbers to people who play before them on the
cythara, and sing in perfect harmony with them.
It continues (and these were the days when swans were often eaten, Druce notes of the Monk in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, ‘A fat swan loved he best of any rost’), that it sings
right sweetly when dying. Likewise when the proud man departs out of this life, he is still charmed by the sweetness of this present time, and what evil he has done comes back to his memory when dying. But when the swan is stripped of its white plumage, it is put upon a spit and is roasted at the fire; so, when the rich and proud man dies, he is stripped of his earthly glories, and descending to the flames of hell he will be tortured and tormented; and as he was accustomed when alive to desire food, so when going down into the pit he becomes food for fire.
9. Woman riding man-headed beast (perhaps head of Aristotle). Supporters: Left and Right, grotesque face with protruding tongue, in square-foliage design.
This begs the question, WTAF, but I love it immensely also…
10. Large leaf design. Supporters: Left and Right, stiffleaf
11. Hawk pouncing on duck. Supporters: Left and Right, stiffleaf.
Images of hunting are common, Druce gives another manuscript example:
While hawks could symbolise cruelty, there is a more interesting interpretation also emerging from the bestiaries Druce is drawing from:
The hawk is a type of the holy man or monk “who lays hold
of the Kingdom of God,” and the passage in Job xxxix, 26, is introduced
to illustrate that as the hawk moults its old feathers and gains new
plumage, so the religious man has thrown off the burdens of his old way
of living and has put on the new wings of virtue. The hawk’s quarters ,
which it says should be enclosed and warm, is the cloister. As the bird,
when let out, comes to the hand to be flown, so the monk, leaving his
cell for good works, when sent out seeks to raise himself to the things
of heaven. As it is held on the left hand and flies to the right, so it
is a type of men who care for the good things of this world and the
things of eternity respectively, and when it captures the dove, it is
the man who, being changed for the better, receives the grace of the
12. Elephant and castle, surmounted by crowned head and surrounded by foliage. Supporters: Left and Right, beast with man’s head, one bearded, the other hooded.
‘As described in the Physiologus, the elephant sometimes represents Christ, and in medieval times was always drawn with a tower on its back as the manuscript describes how eastern warriors fought from wooden towers on their backs.’
The tower is really the only thing identifying this as an elephant, really the stars of the show are the man-headed beasts.
It was most likely at some point drawn from a manuscript like this one…
A great bestiary quote about the elephant:
…the Greeks think it got its name because the form of its body resembled a mountain. For in Greek a mountain is called Eliphio. No bigger animal is to be seen, and the Persians and Indians, stationed in wooden towers placed on them, fight with darts as if from a wall. They break what they roll up in their trunks, and what they tread upon is crushed as it were like a house falling down.
If the elephant falls down, it cannot get up, for it has no joints in its knees. It sleeps, therefore, leaning against a tree, but the hunter, aware of this habit, cuts a slit in the tree, so that the elephant when it leans against it may fall down with it. But as it falls it calls out loudly, and at once a great elephant comes, but is not able to lift it up. Then both of them cry out and there come twelve elephants, but neither are they able to raise it up. Thereupon they all cry out, and immediately there comes a little elephant which places its mouth with its trunk under the big elephant and lifts it up…When the elephant was fallen, that is man, there came the great elephant, that is the law, and did not raise him up, as the priest did not raise up him that fell among thieves. Neither could the twelve elephants, that is, the prophets, as neither did the Levite him that was wounded; but the wise elephant, Jesus Christ, since he is greater than all, is made the smallest of all, because he humbled himself and became obedient unto death that he might raise mankind…
13. Winged devil eavesdropping over two busts of women. Supporters: Left, recording demon holding parchment. Right, centaur-like figure, with club and shield. (I had to do a bit of work to find this one, it sits least easily I think with our current conceptions of High Anglican tradition).
On Centaurs: ‘The man typifies Christ, the horse His vengeance on those who betrayed him.’ That’s pretty awesome.
The carvings on the armrests are also splendid, a whole collection of beast curled upon themselves
And then there is this about owls:
The Bestiaries, following Pliny, give particulars of three different kinds of owls, viz., Noctua or Nicticorax, Bubo, and Ulula, but neither in MSS. nor carvings can they be distinguished with any certainty, except that it is Bubo that is teased by other birds. This scene is illustrated in Harl. 4751 and Bodi. 764. It is a bird of ill-omen, and its slothful and dirty habits are described and made use of to denote the various misdeeds of wicked men.
These night birds are also used as a type of those who study the stars at night time and the shadowy realms of spirits, who believe that they can see to the very topmost height of heaven, describing the world by a circle. But they cannot see the light, which is Christ, nor faith in him which is close to them, because they are blind and leaders of the blind.
Yet my favourite carving is I think an owl, and he hardly seems of ill-omen. but he might not be an owl at all.
There is obviously much outdated scholarship on these lovely creatures and so much more to explore about them (the woman on the beast with Artistotle’s head? So much more to explore there…), but I enjoyed the musings of antiquity.
A far-away from the centre and mountain town, university town, town built around the manufacturing of wool. Its picturesque buildings tumble down hills along narrow twisting streets, offer incredible views across valleys filled with the ruins of old factories. It has built public elevators and funiculars. It is storied with ancient castle walls, labour organizing, and now woolfest, which has brought the town some of my favourite street art. It seems safer to love these incredible works without reservation here unlike Lisbon, where gentrification and the financialisation of real estate through luxury flats and air bnb creeps across that amazing city. Once an art of rebellion, grafitti has become marketable in many places, but perhaps not here. It can just be loved.
Just communities, just cities, Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.