Llandaff Cathedral – lettering heaven!

Llandaff CathedralLlandaff Cathedral is situated on one of the oldest Christian sites in Britain, and was founded where the River Taff was crossed by the Roman road. The present cathedral building dates from 1107 when the first Bishop appointed by the Normans, Urban, replaced the earlier church.

 

Norman arch

There is evidence of this church in two arches, one to the St David Chapel, shown on the right, and also the arch behind the high altar. The characteristic zig-zag pattern of Norman architecture is shown clearly here, as well as the beautiful semi-circular Romanesque archway. Note the figure of the head at the centre of the arch. This archway may have been the original west doorway.

 

 

 

Jasper TowerThe North West tower, called the Jasper Bell Tower was established by Jasper Tudor in the fifteenth century, and is named after him. Those who followed The White Queen series on tv last year may remember that Jasper Tudor was the husband of the Lancastrian Red Queen, Margaret Beaufort, and they were both the parents of Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII (father of Henry VIII), the founder of the Tudor dynasty.

 

 

 

Christ in Majesty, LlandaffA period of decline of pilgrims and supporters of the church resulted in the structure decaying, and a bomb destroying the roof in the Second World War did not help! A revitalisation of the church since then has taken place, including the wonderful Epstein Christ in Majesty, supported on huge concrete arches – quite a stunning sight!

 

 

 

Llandaff CathedralBut it is the wealth of wonderful lettering that caught my eye when I visited. This is the lively cut lettering in the Welsh Regiment Chapel, and records their campaigns. This is an interesting style of Roman Capitals, which are not always consistent in height (note the letter T in the top line). As well as this, the convention is that the numerals, when capital letters are used, should echo the x-height, but here the number 1 is higher than other numbers on occasion, and the other numerals are ranged (vary in height) rather than being consistent. The overlapping of letters, as shown here is an attractive and eye catching feature of these panels, as is also the painted red colour.

 

Llandaff CathedralThe overlapping letters, however, do not always work, in my opinion, where legibility seems to give way to style, as in this panel. The space at the base for an additional line may have eased the somewhat awkward combinations of letters on the bottom line. The letters were cut by ‘Mr Kaye of York’, but I have not been able to find any more information about him.

 

 

 

 

Llandaff CathedralThis stunning cast metal lettering is really eye catching, standing out from the wall as it does. The round rivet fixings of the horizontal metal struts make a satisfactory ‘dot’ to emphasise word separation. The slight overlapping of letters here and there does not hinder legibility. The problem with having a block of text centred like this is that the eye is often caught by the shape of the lettering, rather than what the words say. This is not the case with this lettering, and the whole effect is very pleasing indeed. This lettering is by Frank Roper.

 

Dean Williams plaqueThis simple, yet most effective slate plaque to Dean John F Williams was cut by Alec Peever. It looks very classic, and the various elements of the plaque are positioned perfectly. Remember, in Italics at the top, leads in to the name, with the surname emphasised in capitals with the letters spaced so that this line is the widest of all. And at the base, Lord, on a separate line, gives greater emphasis to this word, and creates a visual as well as an actual pause.

 

 

 

Llandaff CathedralA high standard of lettering continues with the plaques to denote the seats of various officers of the church. These are beautifully executed in painted brush letters with wonderful flourishes. Sadly we know only that these were provided by the architect in 1994, and although I have tried to find out whether ‘R H M’ indicates the lettering artist, I have not been able to do so.

 

Llandaff CathedralThis strikingly designed combination of four panels of the Bishops and Deans of Llandaff Cathedral is made all the more eye-catching by the supporting wooden struts. So often panels like this are simply attached to a wall individually. This combination makes it almost an artwork of its own. The lettering is by calligrapher John Smith.

 

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The work is on vellum in blue, red and black lettering.

 

 

 

 

 

I am most grateful to John Bethell, Honorary Cathedral Archivist, for supplying information about the lettering at Llandaff.

There are often so many examples of lettering in churches and cathedrals with rarely any indication of the craftsperson who executed it. Perhaps this could be the start of a campaign to record those whose work adds so much to the beauty of our places of worship.

 

Durham Cathedral – place of saints

St Cuthbert's crossIt is said that St Cuthbert was the most revered saint in northern Europe before Thomas Becket was killed by the four knights in Canterbury Cathedral on 29th December in 1170. Cuthbert must have been a remarkable man for no other reason than Britain’s greatest treasure (in my opinion!) was written for ‘God, St Cuthbert and all the saints of the island’. This was, of course, the Lindisfarne Gospels, and they were written and decorated by Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne, before 720. St Cuthbert was buried with great pomp according to the custom, and in his coffin were placed not only the St Cuthbert Gospel, but also a small portable altar and his pectoral cross above right. This delicate little jewel was made of gold and garnets, and is in remarkably good condition.

Durham CathedralViking attacks made the monks move from Lindisfarne, and they took the Lindisfarne Gospels with other books and St Cuthbert’s coffin with them. The White Church at Durham was put up by the successors of those monks when it is said that St Cuthbert’s coffin stuck and refused to move any further. This church was replaced by the Norman Romanesque building, started in 1093. Amazingly that building took only 40 years to complete. This was because much of the work was done off site. The magnificently decorated huge stone columns had their patterns cut into them away from the church building, and they were assembled in the cathedral, each pattern fitting neatly in to the one above. This is explained here. The best view of the cathedral must surely be from the railway, and it is a wonderful sight as the train slows down into the station to view the cathedral on its high hill opposite.

St Cuthbert's ShrineSt Cuthbert’s Shrine itself is very plain and simple now, with a greenish stone slab and at floor level. A description of it as it was indicates that previously it was made of gilded marble. There were four spaces at the base where pilgrims could kneel to venerate the saint. The shrine was covered by a precious cloth (see below for a board painted according to a description of this cloth; this board now hangs over the tomb) and on special days this cloth would have been lifted so the coffin itself could be seen in all its glory.

It was not only his many miracles that mean that St Cuthbert was so revered. The story goes that when his coffin was elevated to the altar and it was opened, St Cuthbert’s hair had grown, there was flesh on his body and his joints were still flexible.

Durham CathedralIn fact, this continued right up until the Reformation when Henry VIII’s commissioners in around 1539 came to smash faces on tombs and strip the church of its treasure. An eye witness gives this account: Dr Ley, Dr Henley and Mr Blythman brought with them a goldsmith who, when he had taken off the gold and silver and precious stones, climbed up to a chest strongly bound in iron. The goldsmith took a hammer and smashed open the chest. St Cuthbert was ‘lying whole with his face bare and his beard as if it had a fortnight’s growth’. In smashing the shrine the goldsmith said that he had broken one of the saint’s legs. He was told to throw the bones down, but replied that this was impossible because they were still joined. 

Durham CathedralSt Cuthbert is not the only saint here. Bede, often known as the Venerable Bede, is regarded by many as the father of English history. He was born in around 672–3, and lived and worked around Monkwearmouth (now Sunderland) and Jarrow. He entered the monastery at Monkwearmouth when he was seven, and was taught by Benedict Biscop, and later by Ceolfrith, the Abbot of the twin foundation. Bede wrote over 60 books, including a little of his own life contained in a chapter at the end of his Historia Ecclesiastica, (a history of the church in England).

Codex LaudianusWe do still have a book that is said to have been owned by Bede. This is a sixth-century Greek and Latin manuscript of the Acts of the Apostles. It’s called the Codex Laudianus and is now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Latin is on the left and Greek on the right. It is written in Uncials, similar to the St Cuthbert Gospel, but these letter-forms are not as fine.

Bede died on Ascension Day in 735 and was buried at Jarrow. It is likely that Bede’s remains were transferred to Durham in the eleventh century. His tomb was looted in 1541, but it is thought that the contents were probably interred in the Galilee chapel at Durham where his tomb now stands.

 

St Vitale, Ravenna – secret pens and ink pots

16436-san-vitale-basilica-ravenna-view-northRavenna is one of the most amazing places I have been fortunate enough to visit. I was so bowled over the first time we went there that this year we went again, and if you haven’t been yet, don’t leave it too long before you go! For me one of the best places was the Church of St Vitale, the patron saint of Ravenna. The building was begun in 526 and finished in 547 – an amazing feat of craftsmanship in just over 20 years.

It is octagonal in shape and is a mix between Roman styles (dome, shape of the doorways, etc) and Byzantine styles (the capitals to the columns and narrow bricks).

San Vitale RIt is the mosaics that are the most spectacular though to me, and perhaps the most famous is that of the Emperor Justinian and his court to the left of the high altar, and his Empress Theodora opposite him. Justinian is wearing a deep Tyrian-purple robe, dyed from a liquid which comes from the murex brandaris mollusc. Each sea creature gives only one or two drops and it’s been estimated that 12,000 molluscs were required to dye a single robe. It’s easy to see why the colour was restricted to the most important people and even Roman Senators had only a broad purple stripe on their white togas!

San VitThe Empress Theodora with her court is depicted on the wall opposite her husband, and she is dressed in a rich purple cloak, but this time hers is embellished with a gold pattern and figures processing at the base. As her hand reaches out to hold the gold and jewelled bowl, it pushes her robe aside to reveal a white dress with a magnificent gold thread and coloured border. Of course, all this decoration, the expressions on the faces, and the richly patterned dresses and headdresses are not painted, but are mosaics. The workmanship is simply incredible! Look particularly at the patterns on the clothes of the woman on the right in this picture.

 

Ravenna mosaicIt is interesting in such an old church to see within the mosaics, if you look closely, examples of writing equipment – perhaps an indication of the importance of the written word to Christians. The man to the right of Maximianus in the Justinian mosaic above is holding a jewelled book (more on Golden Books), but there are also images of writing paraphanalia. Here is John the Evangelist holding an open codex, and beside him on a little pedestal table is his quill, quill knife, ink pot, and probably an ink horn. Note the red tabs on the book which are just dropping down. These were used to secure the bouncy animal-skin pages when the book was closed. Quite a few manuscript books had hasps and clasps, though not all have survived still attached to the binding.

 

29205-san-vitale-basilica-ravennaIn this mosaic the Evangelist Luke is pointing to his symbol, the calf (though looking more like a full grown bull here!), and holding his Gospel. You can make out the hasps and clasps a bit better here. At his feet is what looks a bit like a hat box with a strap to carry it. In fact this was a container in which to keep scrolls, as you can see they are tightly wound and stacked vertically inside – and remember that all of this is made up of tiny pieces of tile.

 

 

 

San VitaleThe Evangelist Mark indicates a very ferocious lion as his symbol, and again, on a pedestal table, are his quill, quill knife, ink horn and ink pot.

 

 

 

 

 

San VitaleAnd lastly, here is Matthew with his winged man symbol. Perhaps rightly so as the first Evangelist he has both writing equipment and a box of scrolls. Note the lock on the front of his scroll box.

 

Durham Cathedral all lit up!

Durham Cathedral 1Durham Cathedral like you have never seen it before. This wonderfully majestic Romanesque Cathedral, put up by the Normans to replace the original Anglo-Saxon White Church built to house St Cuthbert’s shrine, was more than colourful when, as part of the Durham Lumière Festival, images from the Lindisfarne Gospels were projected on to the building.

 


Durham Cathedral is illuminated as the Lumiere Festival opened in Durham City, UK, on 17 November 2011. The biennial festival of light, which runs until 20 November, features works by 30 international and British artists. Ross Ashton's Crown of Light installation seen projected onto the cathedral.
The Gospels themselves are stunning, but when shown as enlarged as they are here, the true artistry of Eadfrith is emphasised.

 

This is an interesting reference to it, albeit in the Daily Mirror!

 

 

 

 

Are columns always straight?

Columns at the British LibraryColumns have been used for thousands of years to make impressive porches over significant buildings, or to record something important, such as Trajan’s or Nelson’s Columns, and the impression is that if they weren’t straight we would notice. However, if you look really carefully at columns, such as these from the British Museum, you’ll see that they have a very slight bulge just below half way.

 

Temple of Vesta, Rome

 

Parthenon in Athens

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is, of course, not new. This shape for columns was also used for those on the Parthenon in Athens (left). The columns on the beautiful Temple of Vesta in Rome (right), have a similar slight bulging just below half way. It is more difficult to make this out, though, with the railings in the foreground and the metal supports to the columns.

Pantheon in Rome

 

More obvious perhaps are the columns at the front of the Pantheon in Rome, the temple to all gods. Let your eye focus on the black space between the columns and it may be easier to make this out.

 

 

This shaping is called entasis, and is defined as the slight convexity of the column shaft which is introduced to correct the visual illusion of concavity. If the brain believed what the eye was telling it, without entasis the building would look as if it could not be supported by the columns.

lettering by Michael HarveyNow the space between the columns is the ‘counter space’, and this shape is thus slightly concave, going in just above halfway down. This is the shape that most good letterers use in their downstrokes. In drawn letters, this is quite easy to see as here. In this alphabet by Michael Harvey the swelling on the downstroke of the outlined letter B is quite obvious, so, too, is the increased width at the base of the outline stroke on the downstroke of the letter N. However, this shape to the downstrokes can also be seen quite clearly in the smaller letters in the black alphabet.

 

Letter F in British Library manuscript

 

 

This letter-shape was also used in mediaeval manuscripts. The downstroke (or minim as used by academics) of the Lombardic Capital letter F here in this British Library manuscript shows distinct signs of swelling at the top and bottom of the double stroke. (Note, too, the slight discolouration of the vermilion pigment at the top and on the right-hand stroke.)

 

 

Peter Thornton calligraphyIn Calligraphy, when using a broad-edged nib to make just one downstroke rather than those above which use two or more strokes, the technique is called ‘pressure-release-pressure’. So there is pressure on the pen to start the downstroke, this is then slightly released just above half way between the guidelines for x-height, and then pressure is applied again nearer the base guideline. British calligrapher Peter Thornton, now living in the US, is one of the best practitioners of this technique (see above right). It is, though, one that can be learned and applied after practice, and it does make a great deal of difference to how letters look. If you’ve not tried it before, then why not get out your pen and have a go?

Here lies the beautifully lettered gravestone …

Langar 3It is rare to get a whole batch of beautiful gravestones, and even rarer to be able to spot the hand of real craftspeople at work. This is clearly the case in the graveyard of St Andrew’s Church in Langar, Nottinghamshire. The church is a Grade I listed building, and is quite wonderful inside, and large, too, for a small country parish. But nowhere on all the records of the church does it mention these wonderful stones, such as the one on the right. Carved in slate, the lettering is still as crisp as they were when first made. This one to William James is dated 1809, and although it has little text, the decorative surrounding is quite wonderful. A grieving woman tugs on a rope or swash from an urn, and this is balanced on the right hand side by the same swash being caught up on the branch of a tree.

Gravestone from Langar Church

This early gravestone dated 1720, some 80 years before the one above, is not quite so fine. Here a rather Chinese-looking sad cherub spreads its wings with wonderfully carved feathers to protect Anne James, who died when she was only 42. The curly letters in the words of ‘Here’ and ‘James’ contrast with the fairly restrained lettering of the rest of the gravestone, but see how the letter carver has had a bit of fun by extending the serifs into spirals on some of the ascenders, such as the l of lies, and the B and d of Body in the first line.

 

 

Gravestone at Langar ChurchThis one from 1730 is very interesting, and again not of the same quality as some of the later others. I did tweet about this soon after we had visited the church (follow me on Twitter) as I find it so interesting. This, too, has a delightfully sad angel at the top, with eyes this time that are remarkably similar to those in the Lindisfarne Gospels. There is a great deal to learn from this stone about forward planning and the need to sketch something out to resolve any design issues before you start. So in the larger capitals at the top, there are conventional abbreviations and contractions with the letter e tucked into the v of the y to make ye, the letters h and e conjoined in he, and a slightly smaller letters at the end of the second and third lines. But what happens towards the bottom? Choosing that size of lettering has meant that the letter cutter has not had room to complete the lines, and so the remaining one or two words in each line have been squashed above or below. Charming though it is, it really doesn’t work!

Gravestone at Langar ChurchBut this one certainly does! A wonderfully vibrant and lively border of swags, foliage and flowers really draw the eye in rather than distract from the lettering. The exuberantly flourished H of Here at the top contrasts with the second line, and the third again with the fourth. The advantage of planning is also shown at the base where the four lines of lettering sit neatly within the left and right borders, although the last two lines have slightly smaller words, but this doesn’t detract from the overall feel. And we have a name! W Barnes was the sculptor. This is rare indeed to have this information.

 

Langar 5And the high standard continues. It seems that W Barnes had a workshop where he was able to pass on his skills. The name Wood has been carved near the base on the right of this later stone of 1810. The unusual curved lettering, sitting neatly into the flourishes or just underneath contrasts with the conventional straight lines of the rest of the citation. It is likely that the gravestone was carved in one hit, even though Richard died just a few days short of a year after his wife, but it is interesting to see the two ways in which his named has been carved, once in Copperplate and the second time in Small capitals.

 

Graveyards can be a rich source of inspiration for letterers when they include stones as fine as these.