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

tirsdag 7. februar 2012

God in the details

Though he had wont to search with glazèd eyes,
As though he came to kill a cockatrice
- Elegy IV - The Perfume, John Donne

God is in the details.
- Old saying

The origin of the saying quoted in the epigraph is obscure and throughout the ages it has been reiterated by a number of persons and in a number of varieties, perhaps most notably its mirror image "the devil is in the details". The latter rendition is to me very apt when considering Medieval architecture richly furnished with gaping monsters, personified sins, sufferers and devils punishing them. These figures tend to comprise the most noticeable features of Medieval masonry, but they only show the reverse of the coin. We also find, in great quantity saints, angels and humans worshipping God and His universe and, occasionally, God Himself in one manifestation or the other, carved amid the many details of the didactic unit we know as the Medieval church building.

I for myself like the expression very much, both as a Christian and a lover of poetry. For some reason I have not yet fully grasped, but which is by no means inexplicable or difficult to understand, I came to think of this saying when I learned of a structure in York called St.Lawrence's tower. At the time I became aware of it I was back in Norway but still longing very deeply back to the UK and I recalled, when reading about it, that had myself passed the tower once on my way from the library back into town. As I learned of its carvings I became desirous to return, to see these details for myself, presuming I would find God there one way or the other.

The tower is what remains of a Medieval church from 1316, but certain elements are remnants of the 12th century church once situated here. It is labelled a defunct church, out of use but still maintaining a serene dignity so common to the grey-stoned parish churches of England. The Medieval church was demolished in the late 19th century, because a bigger chuch was needed, and a modern church erected in its place, now looming tall in its Medievalesque Victorian opulence.

The top storey of St. Lawrence's tower was put in place in the 15th century. About two centuries later the church was badly damaged by cannonfire during the Siege of York in 1644, when the Parliament army attempted to open Walmgate Bar, hitting both St. Lawrence's church and adjacent houses in the process. Restoration of the church did not commence until 1669.

The doorway is of Norman origin and once embellished the old Church of St. Lawrence.

Sadly I am not sufficiently well-versed in Medieval art to describe the carvings of the doorway in any great detail, so I shall have to let the pictures speak mainly for themselves.

The above pictures show the two outermost of the doorway's concentric arches, perhaps depicting or alluding to some story we no longer can read or understand due to centuries of wind and rain and cultural evolution.

A cockatrice hast thou hatch'd to the world
Whose unavoided eye is murderous
- The Tragedy of Richard III, William Shakespeare

the basilicok sleeth folk by the venym of his sighte
- Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer

The second innermost arch is slightly more comprehensible, if only for the fact that its monster theme can be more clearly detected than the carvings of the outermost arches. Both the columns appear to be decorated with snakes - or wyrms, to use an older and probably more correct term - and the arch begins and ends with a monster I believe to be a basilisk or a cockatrice. These two monsters were originally distinct in their appearances but in the course of time they were increasingly confused with each other and sometimes the terms have been used interchangeably. Geoffrey Chaucer, for instance, merged the two names when he wrote of the venomous basilicok.

Whether the monsters depicted on this doorway are meant to be basilisks, cockatrices or some other creature I do not know, but I take great pleasure in them, being overly fond of Medieval imagery.

And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?
- And did those feet, William Blake

There are also some very interesting columns to be found in the doorway, some of which have undergone fairly recent restoration by the look of it. The first depicts of course Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, one of the most iconic representations of Christ in Christian iconography. The second column depicts a saggitarius and some scene I don't recognise.

Although St. Lawrence's tower sadly is closed due to its status as defunct, it is nonetheless an interesting architectural feature and one of York's many hidden gems.

From that moment the serpents were my friends,
Because one of them wound about his neck
As if to say: "I want you to say no more"
- Inferno, Dante Alighieri (translated by Charles Sisson)

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