The ribs of Durham Cathedral
The single, most important factor in the evolution of Gothic architecture was the invention of rib vaults. Among the earliest examples are those in the English cathedral of Durham, which has the unique benefit among all Norman churches in providing accurate dates for both the start and the completion of construction (1093 and 1130). Further, Durham is one of the most, if not the most, spectacular surviving building of the Romanesque period.
This research project was completed in 2003.
The results are now being written up for publication with the help of Daniel Beasly.
The aims of this project are to
1. Provide an accurate analysis of the construction history of Durham with each separate stage of construction defined, and to list the methods and design qualities for at least five of the master masons responsible for the design and construction.
2. Relate these construction campaigns to the cathedral's known dates to determine a precise chronology for every part of Durham.
3. Use the above to show when the five contrary decisions were taken to include and then exclude rib vaults. This will augment research previously funded by the ARC on a European-wide study of the evolution of the rib vault.
4. Identify which masons were in charge when each decision was taken. This should enable me to analyse any differences in attitudes to rib vaulting between these masons, and possibly between the masons and the clergy.
5. With the key innovations dated at Durham, some other buildings in England, Normandy and France may be more accurately dated.
This investigation aims to clarify our understanding of the stylistic evolution of Romanesque architecture, and in particular those elements for which Durham is most famous: the giant piers, the decorative chevrons and the rib vaults. Nowhere else in Europe does the combination of documented dating, primacy in the use of rib vaults, and an extraordinary building combine to provide such a unique opportunity for this depth of study.
Aim 1: This consists of accurately dividing the erection of the cathedral into its construction phases and precisely determining the boundaries between the building campaigns. To achieve this I will apply the techniques of Toichology that I successfully worked out at Chartres and have used on many other buildings since [16, 23 and 24]. Toichology is the study of standing stones structures, in which the techniques are necessarily different from those used in belowground archaeology.
Some of the most important information lies within the four service stairs and around the ground floor dado and gallery arcades. This includes the type and colour of stone and the masons' marks on them, the shape of the slot windows and the doors, the shapes of the treads and the height of the risers, the distinctive ways of arranging the coursing of shafts and arches.
Though the differences between the nave and the choir are considerable, no one has been able to ascertain the exact chronological relationship between them; only that the nave was later than the choir. In earlier investigations I have found that the phases of work within the spiral access stairs and their connections into adjacent galleries can resolve this, because the two in the transepts have the same sequence of details in the upper levels as the western stairs have in the lower.
My study of Durham made in the 1970s showed that it has as many 'changes' and 'errors' to elements and profiles as does Chartres . In this Durham was no different from any other church of the period, with at least twenty distinct campaigns between 1093 and 1133. These campaigns would seem to have been the work of less than a dozen masters, some of whom worked three of four times on the building.
Aim 2: Concerning the dating, Durham is the Chartres of England. The first trenches were dug, according to a contemporary document in July/August 1093, and the nave vaults were completed between 1128 and 1133. Within these four decades I should be able to pinpoint the precise date for each of the thirty-odd building campaigns, and through them, of each invention and innovation. The value of this is inestimable, for it provides a firm matrix against which similar work elsewhere may be compared.
Aims 3 and 4: New ideas usually involve a struggle between innovators and traditionalists, and often are introduced against the will and interests of those who have worked all their lives in more traditional methods. Durham displays the signs of such a struggle in the fabric of the cathedral.
In the transepts, for example, the lowest courses were not set out for ribs. In the next level, the gallery, the eastern side was designed for ribs, but in the next building campaign the western side was designed in a more traditional way that precluded ribs. This non-rib design was continued almost to the level of the roof. A number of years later, some of this stonework was ripped out so that ribs could be inserted. A similar story is evident in the nave.
When any new idea was broached it would not have been unusual for the majority who did not desire it to easily thwart those who did. Ribs would have been a contentious issue, not only for practical reasons but for powerful aesthetic ones as well. As masters supplanted one another fairly rapidly the likelihood of installing ribs when only one master in a region wanted them would have been small indeed, if not negligible. However, following some years of canvassing the idea and preparing for it, and as the number of masters favouring it increased, the likelihood of actually installing ribs increased markedly. As more minds were directed to this novel task, innovation would have accelerated. This would help explain the unexpected competence shown in the Durham aisle vaults compared to the uncertain and even incompetent work in the high vaults: the former were constructed by a team that had already built ribs and had thought deeply about the particular problems they engendered while the latter were being finished by those new to the system.
Aim 5: The identification of the master masons at Durham will provide a set of identikits, which will assist in the discovery of where else they may have worked. I have already used this technique successfully with a number of creative masters, including the man who invented tracery . I suspect that one of the Durham masters worked in the vaults at Peterborough and Romsey, and another at Winchester after the collapse of the tower, and in the Gloucester crypt a few years later. Their dates at Durham may help to make firm the chronologies of these and other important buildings in England, Normandy and France.
One of these is the Norman abbey of Lessay, dated from a tomb discovered during restoration after the war. That date was earlier than Durham, and its significance has been largely ignored since then. Some of the vaults are like Durham, though not as well constructed. If it could be shown that the ribs in both buildings were by the same master, the earlier dating for Lessay may be confirmed and a number of important issues on the origin of rib vaults could be reconsidered.
As at least five masters appear more than twice at Durham, I can study the evolution of their personal styles over time. Where one has worked more than once in the same building the levels at which they worked indicate the chronology of these inner stylistic changes. This will assist in the dating of other buildings. Thus the sequence at Durham may act like the known chronology of Egyptian Pharaohs to date events in distant places. My work in France over the past thirty years illustrates this method.
The overarching aim of this project, and hence its significance, is to provide a firm grid of campaigns into which every decisive moment in the construction process may be fitted. This will produce a rigorously and systematically organized understanding of the entire building process. It is reasonable to believe that the information for this may be gathered in two years.
Durham has had almost as many books and articles devoted to its history as Chartres Cathedral in France, but has never been subjected to the same lithic analysis. Histories from John Bilson a hundred years ago to Malcolm Thurlby and Laurence Hoey today are based on piecemeal observations. None has attempted to order the entire construction process by disentangling all the complexities within the stairs and along the dado arcades, in the galleries and the clerestories. They have limited themselves to a few accessible elements, such as the piers or the vaults.
The history indicates that Durham was a battleground on which the masters left the imprint of their struggle to introduce the rib vault. By identifying which masons were in charge when each decision was taken, I will be able to analyse their personal attitudes to rib vaulting. Inconsistencies may point to possible differences between the masters and the clergy. In my 1984 article I set this out as a concept, but had not been able to collect enough data to conclusively prove it at that time .
This research project should result in
· The first monograph to be published on the construction history of the greatest surviving Romanesque cathedral,
· A better understanding of the complexities of medieval building procedures, and how differing views and intents were handled over a thirty-year construction period, which may open new vistas into the politics of architecture,
· Analysis of the geometry used in the templates. Fruitful outcomes are expected from comparing these methods with those employed a century later in France.
· The development of a more personal view of medieval history in which individual masons may be identified and followed from one building site to another. Flowing from this, on a wider scale, will come a deeper understanding of the process of transmission for new ideas.
It may provide some answers to the intriguing thought that in the furthest reaches of the civilized Christian world a building of such magnificence and originality could have been conceived, and that it could have been completed in less than 40 years.
John James bibliography