Winchester Cathedral is one of our most rewarding churches, a treasure house of art and history that is also a textbook in stone of architectural styles, from the Romanesque period to the last flowering of Gothic. It also epitomises the English preference for length over height, being the longest medieval church in Europe.
The earliest parts of the present building are 12th century Romanesque, begun in 1079 to replace the smaller Saxon cathedral (whose foundations can be traced in the churchyard) and comprise the unusually squat central tower and both transepts. The Norman crypt also survives under the choir, but suffers frequently from flooding.
The Norman nave also partially survives, but is totally unrecognisble since the late 14th century remodelling of the western limb, which now appears entirely of that date. This Gothic makeover was an immense success internally, beautifully proportioned with a magnificent sweeping vault studded with foliate bosses.
By comparison the choir is much shorter, and is the result of seperate 14th and 15th century rebuildings. It too has delicate vaulting with bosses, though here all is of wood. The dominant feature by far is the towering altar screen reredos dating from 1455-75. It’s original statues were destroyed at the Reformation and are now replaced with Victorian figures; fragments of some of the original 15th century figures survive in the cathedral museum and show them to have been of very high quality indeed, a grevious loss.
Behind the great altar screen in the retrochoir stood the shrine of St Swithin, lost at the Reformation but today marked by a more modest modern replacement. This part of the building with it’s chapels dates mainly from the 13th century, with the main Lady chapel remodelled in the 15th century (still possessing a sequence of early 16th century murals, hidden today under modern reproductions).
The cathedral is packed with items of interest, from the superb and amazingly preserved choir stalls of c1308 to a sequence of magnificent chantry chapels, mostly ornate late medieval creations and the largest collection in any English cathedral, the Wykeham, Beaufort , Fox and Waynflete chantries being among the finest examples of the English Perpendicular style. The Gardiner chantry is also of interest as the very last, showing a transition from Gothic to Renaissance forms.
Earlier works of art in the cathedral include the 12th century black marble font, carved with scenes from the life of St Nicholas, and some superb late 12th/early 13th century murals in the chapel of the Holy Sepulchre and the vault of the Guardian Angels chapel. Most famous of all is the exquisite Winchester Bible, one of the finest of 12th century illuminated manuscripts, on show in the cathedral library. Visitors to the library can also access the museum in the south transept gallery which contains many superb fragments of medieval sculpture.
Most of the stained glass is Victorian, the medieval glass having been mostly destroyed during the Civil War. The huge west window still shows the patchwork of fragments installed at this time, and other pieces from the 14th and 15th centuries can be found scattered throughout the building. More substantial work however survives in several of the higher choir windows but is very hard to see; the east window is still largely filled with the fine early 16th century glass installed by Bishop Fox, somewhat restored but surprisingly complete (some figures not in situ, brought from other windows to fill gaps) and remains largely unappreciated because of it’s inaccessibility.
More recent artworks include some beautiful glass made to designs by Edward Burne Jones by Morris & Co in the north transept chapel. More recent still are the striking series of nave banner paintings that are often hung from the nave pillars with rich batik designs on a theme of Creation and Redemption by the late Thetis Blacker.
The former monastic buildings have mostly disappeared, the site of the cloister is still apparent on the south side (where modern buttresses were built as part of the campaign to secure the cathedral’s failing foundations in the 1900s) and a nearby group of Norman arches are all that remain of the chapter house. the cathedral is still fortunate though in being seperated from the city by the relative peace of the Cathedral Close.
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