Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Norwich Cathedral - the exterior

click photo to enlarge
In a recent post I hinted that on my first viewing of the exterior of Norwich Cathedral I was a touch disappointed. This post is an attempt to articulate why.

The first thing to say is that many visitors to Norwich are likely to think that either the Cathedral Church of John the Baptist (R.C.) (1884-1910), or the town's market church, St Peter Mancroft (begun 1430), is the Anglican cathedral. This is due to its low position near the river. Most provincial medieval cathedrals, even today when high rise flats and offices abound, still dominate their cityscape. Despite a spire of 315 feet (96m), the country's second highest after Salisbury, Norwich does not tower over its surroundings except from nearby and a few particular angles.

Then there's the west front. For many cathedrals, both Gothic and Romanesque, this is a richly decorated, tall, wide, imposing "front" that is frequently the first elevation that a visitor sees. It is often the west front that distinguishes a cathedral from a church. Norwich does not have an elevation to compare with Peterborough, Ely, Lincoln, Durham or any of the classic English cathedrals. There are no west transepts or towers. Consequently the feel is more of a major town church than a cathedral. I'm aware that it did have bigger towers, and that post-Norman architects have diminished its size and power, but what remains can only be described as underwhelming.

There's also the problem of the nave. It looks too long for the rest of the structure. The relatively narrow dimensions of the tower do not "anchor" it, the tall spire notwithstanding. As for the tower itself, the odd, geometric decoration is unique to Norwich. When I first saw it I thought it might have been a seventeenth or eighteenth century elaboration, but apparently it is twelfth century. I'm not keen. And finally there's the rather repetitious arrangement of windows on the sides of the nave: a touch mechanical for my taste.

Now that's not to say there aren't things I like about the exterior. The apsidal east end with its chapels and flying buttresses is good. The composition reminds me of some French cathedrals. And the view across the school playing fields from near the river is a fine one where the spire really comes into its own. Perhaps I'm being a little judgemental after only one viewing. However, I have visited most of England's cathedrals, have a long standing interest in church architecture, and these are the things that immediately hit me when I saw Norwich. I haven't been so taken aback by a cathedral since I first laid eyes on Ely!

One thing I will say is that I found the interior very impressive, and my thoughts on that will feature in a blog post soon.

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Photo 1 (Photo 2)
Camera: Lumix LX3
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 7.4mm (35mm/35mm equiv.) (5.1mm (24mm/35mm equiv.))
F No: f5.6 (f4)
Shutter Speed: 1/800 (1/1000)
ISO: 80
Exposure Compensation: -0.66 EV
Image Stabilisation: On