king's college chapel, cambridge, 1446-1515.
architects: reginald ely (1438-1471), john wastell (1460-1515), simon clerk (1434–1489), william vertue (d. 1527)
this is more or less the conclusion to gothic architecture in england and as such, the final flowering of the french style as it was known before renaissance propagandists decided a more derogatory word was needed. I have heard the perpendicular style, the english term for late gothic architecture, called inferior to what came before it, but inferior was not the first word to cross my mind as we entered the chapel and spent some time there by ourselves before other tourists arrived.
yes, if you judge it strictly by the defining categories of gothic architecture set up by ruskin, you'll find it lacking. here is little of the savageness, the changefulness or variety, the naturalism, or the sense of the grotesque he described. in fact, ruskin called the chapel a table turned upside down with its four legs in the air, an acute image of its less celebrated exterior, but he also admitted elsewhere that his attack "took no account...of its superiority to everything else in its style".
one underlying aspect of mediaeval architecture was an ambition of the church to match the classical monuments it had grown up among, the very monuments it had torn down in its early, taliban days but not quite erased from history. several surviving texts ask the same nagging question: how could pagan romans outshine the righteous?
abbot suger who had been instrumental in the very birth of gothic at st. denis - he also wrote a book with the unpromising title the deeds of louis the fat - claimed success in his memoirs in which a traveller brought the happy message that st. denis had superseded even the roman hagia sophia in constantinople. in itself, a learned echo of justinian's "O solomon, I have outdone thee" when he saw hagia sophia completed, but...suffice to say, either the traveller or the abbot was a liar.
epochs of architecture show such different qualities and priorities that they can be difficult to compare (or indeed to supersede, mr. suger) yet with the gothic, invitations to compare abound. monastries and cathedrals were built as fragments of an ideal city, but looking at their atriums, octagons, and basilicas, they are clearly fragments of an idealized rome, not some abstract city of god. now imagine them as they were intended, full of men wearing dresses, speaking latin, collecting art and books, hoarding wealth, burning incense, and buggering choirboys. I know, I know. its classical.
and so is king's college chapel, all order, repetition and symmetry. those vaults, those spectacular fan vaults, are a great physical presence in the space, not some distant gothic apparition. to my mind, it is as classical as anything the renaissance produced in britain. no wonder, ruskin had to dismiss it. romans would feel right at home here, though they would not hesitate to replace that silly organ with a pool and install underfloor heating. it is never too late, one might add as a note to the locals.
on a more serious note, king's college chapel is the finest building in cambridge and the real reason we went there. built by four master masons or architects over almost a century (if you include the stained glass windows), its unity of design is striking. it was the end of gothic, but it doesn't look like the end of anything. if we had only managed to see that one house, our trip to england would still have been justified. just go.
autostitch of several photos.
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