In recent years, St Bartholomew’s, in the shadow of Smithfield Market in the City of London, has become most famous for its appearance in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). Next time the film is on television, look out for the scene where Hugh Grant ditches Duckface at the altar. In the background is the chancel, begun in 1123, the greatest Norman set-piece in London. There you’ll see, writ large, the two most crucial things to remember about Norman buildings: round arches and big, fat stone columns.
Wherever you see great big semi-circles of stone, the chances are you’re looking at Norman work. The Normans, for all their brilliance, never worked out the crucial principle of the pointed arch – that it could support more weight than a round arch, and so could allow for more window space and less supporting structure in stone.
The pointed arch was one of the great innovations of Gothic architecture – which hit England in the late 12th century, and will be the subject of next week’s column. Flying buttresses – where supporting buttresses stood free of a building – were a Gothic invention, too. Norman buttresses – attached to the wall – were weak things. That’s why the columns, like the ones in the picture, had to be great big, chunky things – in order to bear the weight of the walls and roof. On top of all this, the chunky columns were badly designed. Full of loose rubble, they weren’t as strong as columns made of sturdy cut stone all the way through; so, to be at all robust, they had to be even thicker.
Another name for Norman architecture is Romanesque, because of its supposed similarity to the Roman, round-arched style. The Romanesque style, inspired by early Christian basilicas, flourished under Charlemagne on the Continent two centuries before the Battle of Hastings.
Norman architecture wasn’t uniform throughout Britain. Norman builders in the West Country plumped for particularly obese columns with unusually small arches on top; Normans in Peterborough liked rather taller columns.
This fat look was exaggerated by the capitals – or the tops – of the columns. Handsome as the ones at St Bartholomew’s are, they look a little primitive and undersized; like trifling little scallops round fat necks; especially when you compare them with the delicate Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite capitals of the classical world.
The end you’re looking at – the altar end – is the oldest part of the church. That’s how churches and cathedrals were built – starting at the east, moving west. In some cathedrals, there is a gap of many decades between the east end and the later west front.
At the crossing of St Bartholomew’s – where the nave meets the transepts – a fascinating thing happens. The two nave arches are round, as you’d expect of a Norman building. But the transept arches have a slight point to them – the Gothic has arrived! So they must be a little later, perhaps the mid-12th century. Pevsner says they may be the earliest major pointed arches in London.
Norman architecture came over with William the Conqueror in 1066. William, Duke of Normandy, carved mammoth chunks out of the skyline of our cities with his churches, castles and cathedrals. To be strictly correct, there had been little glimpses of the Norman style on these shores before the Normans arrived. Edward the Confessor introduced Norman elements at Westminster Abbey in 1050–65.
But it was William the Conqueror who popularised the style across Britain: notably, in the 1070s, at the cathedrals of Canterbury, Winchester, Lincoln, Rochester and Old Sarum. After he died in 1087, Gloucester, Chester, Chichester and Old St Paul’s followed. This picture of St Bartholomew’s also shows the classic three-floor structure of larger parish churches and cathedrals.
On the ground floor, on either side of the nave, you have the arcade, with all those great, chunky columns. The first floor – with smaller arches, also round, and smaller columns – is called the triforium. Thrillingly, the triforium at Westminster Abbey – which celebrates its 950th anniversary this December – will open to the public, as the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries, in 2018.
The second floor is called the clerestory because – as at St Bartholomew’s – it is usually heavily glazed, as in “clear story”. The clerestory here is 14th century. St Bartholomew’s is an astonishing survival; not just because of its great age, but also because it was spared the Great
Fire of London in 1666. The fire torched Newgate, only a few yards south, but didn’t reach St Bartholomew’s.
John Betjeman adored the church so much that he lived next door, in a charming little street called Cloth Fair. The great man was so trusting that he threw stamped, addressed envelopes out of his window in Cloth Fair, counting on Londoners to do the posting for him. They almost invariably did.
Harry Mount’s ‘Odyssey – Ancient Greece
in the Footsteps of Odysseus’ is out this month (Bloomsbury)
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