And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

onsdag 16. mars 2011

Durham Diaries - Forests raised by Faith

As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.
- Psalms 42:1

Son of man, What is the vine tree more than any tree, or than a branch which is among the trees of the forest?
- Ezekiel 15:2

When he [Bede] had finished this prayer, he breathed his last; whereon a fragrance ensued that filled the nostrils of all present - no scent of cinnamon or balsam, but a fragrance of Paradise, and such as all Nature breathes in the gladness of spring. At that time he was buried in his own monastery, but now, it is asserted, he lies at Durham with St Cuthbert.
- The History of the English Kings, William of Malmesbury

My main reason for coming to Durham was its cathedral, a work of outstanding architectural beauty dating back to 1093 when work on the current building was initiated. Legend tells us that the site of the cathedral was chosen due to divine intervention. The story begins in the late 9th century further north. Due to the repeated attacks from Norsemen the monks of Lindisfarne Monastery brought the relics of St. Cuthbert to the mainland and perambulated Northern England for more than a century. In 955 the monks came to the area close to present-day Hetton, east of Durham, and for some reason could not get the wagon with the relics any further, regardless how hard they tried. St. Cuthbert later appeared in a vision and told them to look for the place Dunholm where he wanted them to settle. Having learned their intended destination they went on in search for Dunholm, not knowing where it was. After searching in vain for this locality they accidentally overheard two milkmaids talking about a dun cow, a cow of grey colour, which one of the milkmaids had lost. The other replied that she had seen the cow near Dun Holm. The monks followed the milkmaid and erected a church for St. Cuthbert.

Whatever the amount of truth in this legend it is no doubt the monks had found an excellent place for a church. Situated on a ridge high above the river valley and rimmed by a forest it was an ideal spot for religious as well as defensive purposes. The first church was, according to the story, a temporary solution raised from boughs, later replaced by a church built of whitewashed wood. This was in turn replaced by an Anglo Saxon minster in white stone. When the Normans took control in the late 11th century a Norman bishops were installed, later to be known as a Prince Bishops due to their military privileges which were necessary as the Scottish border was not too far away. The work on the current cathedral was initiated by bishopWilliam St Carileph in 1093 and it was a work of cutting-edge architectural sophistication.

As will be seen in the pictures of this blogpost Durham Cathedral, or the Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert of Durham, is an architectural wonder. Sadly, photographing inside the building was prohibited but the reader will have to trust me when I say I was awestruck by the deeply religious and historical atmosphere of the place.

Entering Durham Cathedral is like stepping into a dark forest, knowing nothing sinister resides there. The lighting is scant, save for the quire, and besides a few lightbulbs the major source of light is the sunlight peeping through the several stained glass windows. This darkness is a friendly darkness and when you stand there amidst walls breathing history and decorations reminding you of the piety that raised this forest in the first place, you can't help feeling an immense awe. Standing in the western end of the nave looking eastward to the rose window beyond the quire, you first think the church to be very small and the nave very short, because the window seems to be so close. But when you walk up the nave towards the window, passing slim but strong pillars of stone blossoming into a petrified foliage overhead, you understand that the window is far away and that the nave is very long, and it all appears like a perfect allegory of God, ever present, visible and close in a sense, yet seated far away and beyond the physical world of man. It is all very beautiful, especially when you have recently heard the congregation singing like birds amid dark trees and you know that they are still there, although they are silent, and the image of the Cathedral as a forest is complete. 

 The rose window of Durham Cathedral

For a historian, and especially to a medievalist, Durham has another attraction apart from the building itself, namely the tomb of the venerable Bede. The tomb is situated in the Galilee chapel, also called the Lady Chapel, in the western part of the Cathedral and I discovered it by chance, although I knew the tomb was located somewhere in Durham Cathedral. The Galilee Chapel is a beautiful chapel whose space is now partly dedicated to some pieces of modern art that didn't really resonate with me, but the architecture is a case in point for the imagery of the cathedral as a forest. Here the pillars are slimmer and lighter, like birches, and when you walk about in the chapel you feel very much as if among trees. In this chapel I broke the mundane rules of the Cathedral and took two pictures without flash, because I couldn't leave Bede's tomb without paying him some homage in the historian's spirit. Poetic justice, however, senteced my mind to go awry a brief moment and thus thwarted my schemes. The picture below shows what I believed to be the tomb of Bede, but is situated in the wall behind the tomb of Bede. How I could miss that is a bit beyond me, although I blame my Christian humility.

(...) and spending all the remaining time of my life in that monastery, I wholly applied myself to the study of Scripture, and amidst the observance of regular discipline, and the daily care of singing in the church, I always took delight in learning, teaching, and writing.
- The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Bede

And the rest of the trees of his forest shall be few, that a child may write them.
- Isaiah 10:19

I was informed that there would be evensong at 15.30 so after strolling about the cathedral for a while I went to Durham Castle, now the site of one of the colleges of Durham University, and took a guided tour through a number of fascinating rooms. After the tour I returned to the cathedral, eagerly anticipating evensong. 

At 15.30 I returned for evensong and I had great expectations since earlier I had heard the final hymn of the mid-day service, beautiful like the birds of the forest. However, since this was the first Sunday of Lent things were slightly altered. In addition to the song there were several readings, not only from the Gospel of Mark, which was the main text from Scripture that day, but also from a number of poets from early modern period, such as John Donne, George Herbert and Thomas Traherne. It was unusual, but I enjoyed the concept heartily, particularly since all the previously mentioned are among my favorite poets of the 17th century. Unfortunately I had walked about for too long without any proper food so I was not able to enjoy the event to its fullest - oh the irony! - and admittedly the readers did not give excellent renditions of the texts, but all in all it was a memorable experience.

When I emerged from the cathedral the sun was low in the sky, casting a golden veil about the western front, enhancing its magnificent beauty. As I walked along the river I was dazzled by the splendour. 

At last about the setting of the Sunne,
Him selfe out of the forest he did wynd,
- The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser

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