Saturday, November 16, 2013

The beauty of church vaulting

click photo to enlarge
The vaulting that graces many a church and cathedral ceiling, especially inside a tower, is a recurring topic on this blog. I am fascinated by the variations on a theme that medieval masons and carpenters wrought in their desire to beautify the space above the worshippers' heads such that an upward glance really did feel like a glimpse of heaven. Architectural historians have created a whole specialised vocabulary to describe the development of vaulting down the centuries from its beginnings in simple barrel vaulting, to groin vaults, rib vaults, quadripartite and sexpartite vaults, vaults with tiercerons and liernes, culminating in the glories of stellar vaults and fan vaults.

The purpose of vaulting is to take some of the weight of a roof or tower above and distribute it laterally on to arches, walls, piers and columns. In the crossing vault shown above the ribs that form fans stretching from the centre to the four corners are instrumental in achieving this weight transference. However, this vaulting also has a central star pattern made by the addition of short decorative ribs called liernes. Clearly it is a design that seeks to impress with its beauty as well as do an architectural job of work. In fact, all is not what it seems with this vaulting. The tower of Holy Trinity was built during the period 1500-1530 on a raft of oak trees for the lack of any firm bedrock below. These were replaced by concrete in 1906. The vaulting, however, was erected as late as the 1840s, and the beautiful, rich paintwork must surely originate from that time - a mixture of medieval ideas and Victorian interpretation and development of those ideas. When I magnify my photograph I can see that the infill is timber planks so I imagine the ribs must be timber too. This vaulting will have replaced an earlier ceiling. That may have been stone, but is more likely to have been timber too. I've often seen fine Victorian work that replaced an insensitive, flat Georgian ceiling (itself inserted in place of the medieval original) though I've no reason to believe that is the case here. In fact, timber roofs were more widespread in England during the medieval period than in any other North European country and exhibit a unique ingenuity and beauty. Here, at Holy Trinity, the wood mimics painted stone and is none the worse for that.

The organ pipes on north and south sides of the crossing belong to the largest parish church organ in Great Britain. The oldest of the more than 4,000 pipes date from 1756 and are by Johannes Snetzler.

photograph and text © Tony Boughen

Camera: Sony RX100
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 10.4mm (28mm - 35mm equiv.)
F No: f1.8
Shutter Speed: 1/30
ISO: 800
Exposure Compensation:  0 EV
Image Stabilisation: On