Sunday, November 16, 2008

Tower vaults

click photo to enlarge
Anyone who has done the full tour of this blog will know that I have a fondness for tower vaulting (see here and here). I suppose it's because there's something fascinating about the way that medieval builders chose to ornament this inaccessible location - often the highest point inside a church. Was it because it was the place in the building nearest to heaven? Did they expend so much care and craft here, knowing that in its remoteness their work would remain pristine, safe from the knocks and bumps of clumsy priests and careless parishioners? Whatever the reason, tower vaults are often elaborate where other vaulting in chancels, naves and aisles is plainer.

The underside of a tower is usually square, though there are a few octagonal examples to be found. In churches (though not always cathedrals), there is frequently a trapdoor to allow the passage of bells to and from the ringing chamber, and this is usually placed in the centre. Consequently, the rib pattern of tower vaulting tends to be symmetrical. However, each decorative boss that often cover the joins of the ribs are usually carved with different designs - shields, foliage, faces and animals are common. Comparing the vaulting designs to be found in different churches, I am frequently delighted by the fertility of the masons' minds. I have never found two exactly the same, and one senses a conscious desire on the builder's part to come up with something different.

Today's photograph shows the tower vault of St John the Baptist, Morton, Lincolnshire, quite a large village church with a tall crossing tower that dates from the 1300s at the bottom and the 1400s above. The vaulting comprises a central circle (with trapdoor), connected directly and indirectly to three ribs that spring from the corners of the tower. These ribs are moulded into four sets of four cusped daggers, one in each corner. Interestingly there are no bosses masking the points where the ribs meet. The great temptation in photographing tower vaults is to point the camera vertically from directly below the centre, then crop the image to make a symmetrical shot that mirrors the four lines of symmetry on display. I usually do this by laying on my back with the camera clamped to my face! Here I decided to place the centre of the vault towards the top of the frame, giving a single line of symmetry that extends down through the nave roof and tall tower arch.

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 11mm (22mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f2.8
Shutter Speed: 1/20
ISO: 800
Exposure Compensation: -1.3 EV
Image Stabilisation: On