Gazing at Glass in Durham Cathedral

On our way to Hadrian’s Wall and the Lake District, my husband and I stopped in the small town of Durham to see their towering, world-class cathedral.

Elvet Bridge in Durham

Durham Cathedral is a great example of Norman or Romanesque architecture. It was built to house the shrine of St. Cuthbert from Lindisfarne. The cathedral you see today was erected over St. Cutherbert’s tomb in 1093 and completed in a remarkable 40 years.

Durham Cathedral

There’s another famous figure associated with Durham Cathedral: The Venerable Bede, an eighth century monk who wrote the first history book of England. Fun fact: his Ecclesiastical History of the English People was the first work to use the AD dating system (anno Domini, meaning the year of our Lord or when Christ was born).

Tomb of Venerable Bede in the Galilee Chapel

Romanesque or Norman Architecture

Rounded arches and vaults are characteristic of Romanesque architecture (meaning “from Rome”). In Britain, however, it’s more common to call this architecture “Norman” because it was the Normans who came to England from Normandy (France) who introduced this style.

Compared to the Gothic-style York Minister I blogged about last week, Durham Cathedral impresses you with its bulkiness and solidity. You can immediately notice the difference. There’s a weight and heaviness to the nave with those chunky stone pillars that you don’t experience in the lighter, airier York Minster nave. Because churches in the Romanesque period were made of stone, they had to be very thick and the windows small to prevent the building from collapsing. Over time, a leaner style was achieved that led to the Gothic style of ribbed vaults, flying buttresses, and pointed arches.

Geometric patterns were common Norman decorations and I enjoyed spotting different markings in the stone pillars of the nave (e.g some had a chevron pattern, others a honeycomb).

Durham Catheral’s website states that during the monastic period (1093-1539), the walls would have been painted and the windows filled with stained glass. After the Reformation, however, the walls were all whitewashed and the stained glass removed. The stained glass you see today is almost all Victorian. I wonder if this section below is a remnant of the monastic wall paint showing through like old wallpaper.

Stained Glass Windows

My favourite part of Durham Cathedral isn’t the architecture but the numerous stained glass windows that give more colour and life to this dark and sombre structure.

Of course there are the classic stained glass windows showing Biblical scenes like the crucifixion:

The Rose Window and 3 stained glass windows above the Chapel of Nine Altars

. . . but you can see those in practically any cathedral. What’s different about Durham Cathedral is its abundance of contemporary stained glass windows and how well these modern artworks complement the traditional ones and even combine with them in such a historic building.

The millennium window

The Millennium window is a great example of an artwork blending classic and contemporary motifs. Installed in 1995 to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of St. Cuthbert’s shrine arriving at Durham, it begins with imagery of St. Cuthbert’s tomb and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, moving through England’s history with depictions of coal miners, cows, and a computer (bottom left) printing out a 12th century account of moving St. Cuthbert’s coffin.

The TraNSfiguration window

I couldn’t make out many scenes in The Transfiguration window, but I loved the use of the orange and blue complementary colours centered around a swath of blazing light. The window seamlessly integrates representational figures in the lower half with abstract representations in the top half. It was designed by Tom Denny and contains Biblical stories and scenes from Durham’s history.

The Daily Bread window

The Daily Bread window was a gift in 1984 from Durham’s Marks & Spencer department store, of all places! Mark Angus is the artist. It’s a modern interpretation of The Last Supper seen from above. I had a wonderful chat with an elderly docent about this window, where he asked me questions to help tease out more of the meaning. Instead of literal people, the artist represented the apostles as circles resembling worlds with their own colours, uniqueness, and personalities.

“Which one do you think is Judas?” the docent asked me.

“That dark greenish black one on the left.”

“I would agree. And notice how it’s painted further out than the other circles are, as if he’s in the act of leaving the table. And which one do you think is Jesus?”

“Centre bottom.”

“The brightest one. What do you think the green and blue colours refer to?”

“Water and land?” I venture.

“Or earth and sky with stars twinkling in the night, emphasizing that Christ is Lord of heaven and earth. And the colour purple?”

“Royalty.” I gaze more at the wave-like pattern in the background and it brings to mind folded clothes or the loose robes that hang from the cross at church after Easter.

I loved looking at this painting of the Last Supper because I’ve never seen one like it before. It’s simple yet rich with symbols. I also love that I got to talk about it with someone who’s probably looked at it a hundred times and who deepened my experience by sharing his insights with me. There are often docents posted in galleries and museums—if you get a chance, pick their brain because they have a lot of knowledge and are usually happy to share it!

Another moving artwork in Durham Cathedral: this sculpture of The Pieta by Fenwick Lawson. It breaks with tradition by depicting lying at his mother Mary’s feet instead of in her arms.

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