Canterbury Cathedral is a striking feature of the city’s skyline, one which I never get tired of seeing. I have been resident of Canterbury for some six years and have visited Canterbury Cathedral on countless occasions; as an expectant student exploring my new home town, as an unofficial tour guide for friends and family, and as a graduating student twice over. But it is different with each visit, altered by the time of day, the light, the point of view. It is inexhaustible.
Our last Material Witness session Material Process: Constructing Holy Space offered another new experience of the Cathedral as we climbed up the scaffolding of the Great South Window to see the current conservation. This window, the widest of the Cathedral, was originally built in the 1420s in Perpendicular Gothic and contains medieval stained glass from as early as the 12th century. This session made me appreciate the transformative nature of the building and its materials. The window is tilted, its materials having failed and been repaired over many years. The current project involves rebuilding the whole window, using materials and processes which replicate those of the fifteenth century. The stonemasons still carving the stone by hand, the stone still being quarried from northern France, connecting this reconstruction to the original window’s building processes and to the people who made it. This construction represents the Cathedral’s continued use as a place of worship, from its original foundation in the 6th century, to the modern day, the Cathedral is a living, changing, space, and so no two visits can be the same.
I was more than happy then, to be offered another new experience of the Cathedral as part of the bi-annual CHASE Encounters conference which took place on Friday 6th May. On an early summer’s evening on Thursday 6th May we were invited into the locked Cathedral by Canon Librarian, the Revd Christopher Irvine, who led us, key in hand, on ‘An Artful Wander’ of the Cathedral’s contemporary sculpture.
This included the remarkable altar by artist Stephen Cox (2005), carved from Aosta marble and commissioned by the people of Aosta, Italy for the St Anselm chapel of Canterbury Cathedral. The altar reflects the environment from which it was created, the valleys and mountains replicated in the stone. This piece also connects modern day worship with the medieval Saint Anselm and the construction of holy space, as it is Anselm who, born in Aosta in c.1033, expanded the Cathedral’s choir during his time as Archbishop, 1093-1109, effectively doubling the building’s length.
The piece that I found most astonishing however, was Antony Gormley’s ‘Transport’ (2010). Made from the discarded iron nails taken from the rotted medieval timbers of St Anselm’s 12th century building, Gormley’s sculpture is suspended from the roof of the Cathedral’s Undercroft, from above the site of St Thomas Becket’s first tomb, on display to pilgrims in the Cathedral’s crypt until 1220 when it was moved to the newly built Trinity Chapel. This sculpture embodies the transportation of Becket’s bones and is an evocative reminder of the transmutable, temporary state of the body, and the transport of the soul from life into death. The sculpture itself slowly moves, as air and light also moves through it. Its re-use of material connects the building to the body in a way which is both provocative of the historical use of the space, and that of the modern Cathedral.
This post originally appeared as a blog post for Material Witness, an interdisciplinary doctoral training programme for the interrogation of physical objects, spaces and environments by humanities researchers. You can view the original article here.