It happened today - April 8, 2016
On April 8, nearly a thousand years ago in 1094, the new Winchester Cathedral was consecrated. Which might seem uninteresting to an era in which going to worship in a cathedral is among our less likely activities, especially an historic Anglican one dedicated to the Holy Trinity and to Saint Peter, Saint Paul, and Saint Swithun, and the churches we do attend often appear to have been designed by militant atheists. But take a second look.
I mean that literally. For Winchester Cathedral is one of the stunning achievements of Gothic architecture under the Normans. Using hand tools and lumps of rock they created buildings of astonishing beauty, grace and uplift, airy and fantastical visions that defy physical gravity as the Church once inspired men and woman to seek to defy moral gravity instead of celebrating it. We sneer at the Dark Ages and use “medieval” as a crushing insult. Yet our schools look like insecticide factories, our high-rises are as soulless as our parking lots, and even our churches built with the latest materials, machinery and mathematics are squat and dismal beside marvels like Winchester.
One of the largest cathedrals in England, and the longest Gothic cathedral in all of Europe, Winchester soars toward the heavens and every nook and cranny is carved in loving, intricate detail. Moreover, most of it still stands nearly a millennium later. Do you think anything we build now, from our motels to our suburban housing developments to our airports, will still be there in 2938? Or should be?
To be fair, Winchester Cathedral’s original crossing tower did collapse in 1107, an accident medieval chroniclers ascribed to the burial of William the Conqueror’s dissolute son William II “Rufus” there. And frankly if the tower did collapse in protest at his bones, I cannot blame it. Many of our own buildings might appropriately consider doing too on aesthetic if not political grounds.
Incidentally I have been to Winchester Cathedral, though not inside it, because we were filming at the statue of Alfred the Great. It’s appropriate for a place so steeped in history that the “new” cathedral begun in 1079 replaced a building dating back to 642. And can I just mention in passing that it took some kind of guts to come to Anglo-Saxon England and try to convince these marauding maniacs who performed “blood eagles” on captives for fun that a dead Jewish carpenter was God? We pat ourselves on the back for our extraordinary courage in favouring social change today. Perhaps we are too easy on ourselves. But I digress.
Or do I? Is it really possible to gaze at such a place as Winchester Cathedral and deduce on the spot that we are so enormously superior to the people who built it that we can mock their aspirations, their dedication ceremonies and their architecture? Are we so certain we know which are the barbarians?
Well, the statue of Alfred, by the way, is now situated in a rather squalid car park. And if that’s progress, I say it’s clearly overrated.