The Medieval Art, Architecture and History of Bristol Cathedral: An Enigma Explored

By Thurlby, Malcolm | The Catholic Historical Review, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

The Medieval Art, Architecture and History of Bristol Cathedral: An Enigma Explored


Thurlby, Malcolm, The Catholic Historical Review


The Medieval Art, Architecture and History of Bristol Cathedral: An Enigma Explored. Edited by Jon Cannon and Beth Williamson. [Bristol Studies in Medieval Cultures.] (Rochester, NY: Boydell 8c Brewer. 2011. Pp. xviii, 350. $95.00. ISBN 978-1-84383-680-3.)

The ten essays in this beautifully produced book evolve from a conference held at Bristol Cathedral (the medieval St. Augustine's Abbey) in September 2008. The approach is interdisciplinary and provides important new insights on the topic, not least in the last essays in the volume that address "The Monastic Community in the Late Middle Ages"; "The Conversion of St Augustine's, Bristol, to a Cathedral"; and "Secreta mea mihi: The Wall Paintings from the Old Deanery of Bristol Cathedral." Yet not everything is covered; ideally, the book should be read alongside 1Almost the Richest City": Bristol in the Middle Ages, ed. Laurence Keen (Leeds, 1997). Beth Williamson and Jon Cannon articulate the "enigma" in the introduction, and Williamson returns with some new observations and questions in the epilogue. Roger Leech examines the early-medieval landscape setting of St. Augustine's, whereas John McNeill in "The Romanesque Fabric" provides the most complete study of the twelfth-century work to date. He presents unequivocal evidence for a high rib vault in the south transept and concludes that the presbytery must have been vaulted. He associates aspects of design variety with the work of Roger, bishop of Salisbury (1102-39), and Henry of Blois, abbot of Glastonbury (1126- 71) and bishop of Winchester (1129-71). Such analogues could have been taken further. For instance, the Romanesque nave aisle vault responds, with their paired half shafts to carry the transverse arch flanked by recessed nook shafts for the diagonal ribs, are paralleled in the chancels of the churches of St. John and St. Mary, Devizes (Wiltshire). Both of these may be products of Bishop Roger's patronage. Discussion of the place of the Bristol work in the so-called West Country School would have been welcome, with reference to such works as Worcester Cathedral chapter house for the segmental backs to the dado arcades, a feature also recorded at St. Philip and St. James, Bristol. Ideally, the influence of St. Augustine's on the nave doorways at Llandaff Cathedral and aspects of local parish churches should have been included. In Sarah Jane Foot's essay, she explores Marian symbolism of the Elder Lady Chapel and the documentation associated with it.

A large part of the volume is devoted to Christopher Wilson's examination of the eastern arm of St. Augustine's. Wilson's essay is better read after the contributions by Paul Crossley and Jon Cannon. Crossley's "Bristol Cathedral and Nikolaus Pevsner: Sondergotik in the West Country" provides a concise historiography of the place of the eastern arm of St. Augustine's, Bristol, in the context of European architecture. In "Berkeley Patronage and the Fourteenth-Century Choir," Cannon presents a carefully researched and even-handed assessment of the documentation associated with the building. …

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