Somewhere between the Medieval Climactic Anomaly and the Little Age Age a nineteen-year-old and not-yet-sainted English king had the notion to found a chapel at Cambridge as a pendant to that of Eton College near Windsor –– a chapel, one of the quieter glories of English Perpendicular architecture, roofed with the largest fan vault in the world, which I had lectured about but never visited.
Sometime after the beginning of the Age of Global Warming, the Celt and I stepped out of the family car into horizontal rain that, in essence, is winter on the fens of East Anglia during the dark days before the equinox. Loathsome weather but, somehow, masochistically nostalgic.
We were there for the Celt's brother's fiftieth birthday party – a surprise for the brother, a family reunion for the Celt, and a chance for me finally to visit the College roial of Oure Lady and Seynt Nicholas or as it is more generally known, King's College, whence each year is broadcast the Celt's favorite radio programme of the season – A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.
"They are buildings of extremely simple exteriors and plans, but with plenty of masterfully executed decoration. The contrast is especially poignant at Cambridge. To design this long, tall, narrow box of a college chapel no spatial genius was needed. There is no differentiation at all between the nave and the choir. The decoration is repetitive, the same window tracery is used twenty-four times, and so is the panel motif for the fan-vaulting. They were rationalists, the men who designed and enjoyed these buildings, proud constructors, of a boldness not inferior to that of the Catalans. Yet they succeeded – and here we are faced with the same problem as in the contemporary German churches – in combining this practical, matter-of-fact spirit with a sense of mystery and an almost oriental effusion of ornament. Standing at the west end of the nave one can hardly think of the supreme economy with which this effect of exuberance has been attained. The fan-vault in particular helps, wherever it is used, to create an atmosphere of heavy luxuriance. Yet it is an eminently rational vault, a technician's invention, one is inclined to surmise. It originated from the vault designs of chapter-houses and their development into the palm-like spread of bunches of ribs towards a heavily-bossed ridge ...
"To translate the fan-vault from the small scale of a cloister into the terms of the height and width of a nave was, it seems, not risked before the later fifteenth-century. A little later, during the years of the sixteenth, the King's Mason, John Wastell, adopted the fan-vault for King's College Chapel."
Pevsner's beautiful, if dry, prose describes the building perfectly – but what he does not impart, rationalist that he is, is any sense of the atmosphere of the place – not that there was room to do that in a wartime paperback of around 250 pages.
Atmosphere, surely, derives from historical and romantic associations, but for me that day any atmosphere, romantic or not, was driven away by my wondering how long I could endure the cold inside the building and trying, as I shivered, to absorb what I could see of the roof – that great geometrical sacred grove, as it seemed to me, eighty feet above my head.
I sat, that afternoon, near the altar above which hangs Rubens' Adoration of the Magi, wrapped in overcoat and scarf, cap in hand (I'm old-fashioned enough to uncover my head in church even as a tourist), listening to the strange and genteel officialese used by people setting things up for the coming festival, and as the day turned from dark to darker there came a moment when the sun shone and the colors of the glass at my back flickered on the walls opposite – colors that only resolved into something recognizable once captured in a photograph.
A quiet glory indeed.
Quotation from An Outline of European Architecture, Nikolaus Pevsner, A Pelican Book, Penguin Books Ltd., first published 1943. Fifth edition, revised and enlarged, 1957.
The title of the post is from here: the Second Reading.