Abstract: The Salisbury Chapter House and Its Sixty Old Testament Scenes

The octagon at Salisbury ranks among the best examples of English polygonal chapter houses. Yet because the scholarly literature has treated it mainly as building patterned on the better-known chapter house at Westminster, the Salisbury octagon and its sculpture have received only cursory attention. In the interior, sculptural ornament of the highest quality and interest abounds. Besides a profusion of foliate capitals often inhabited by fanciful and antic beasts, sixty exceedingly fine heads act as label stops in the blind arcade that frames fifty-eight seats for the canons. Most noteworthy of all, sixty Old Testament scenes fill the spandrels formed by the arches of the arcade framing the canons’ seats.

In 1855 the chapter undertook a complete restoration of the building and its sculpture, which had been mutilated during the Reformation. Until then, the history of the fabric and ornament was one of neglect and unarrested decay. Information culled from the cathedral archives, from early prints and drawings, from observations made by travelers, antiquarians, topographers, as well as by architects from the sixteenth century forward document that history and attest to the steadily deteriorating condition of the building, its figurative and decorative sculpture, and the loss of much of the medieval glass.

An archaeological examination of the sculpture was undertaken to determine precisely what has survived from the thirteenth century and what is attributable to the atelier of nineteenth-century restorers. The results of the examination are encoded in diagrams superimposed on photographs of each Old Testament scene.

The accumulated archaeological evidence now permits valid discussions of the style and iconography of the Old Testament carvings. In the surviving thirteenth-century work, two distinct styles indicate that two artists, indubitably English, had worked together in the chapter house. The analysis also revealed the artists' connections with continental art. Whether through first hand knowledge or through familiarity with portable objects such as ivories, both artists were conversant with aesthetic ideas expressed in sculptures of Amiens, Reims, and Paris. The Old Testament scenes at Salisbury represent one of the first insular expressions in monumental sculpture based on stylistic concepts formulated in the Ile-de-France during the fifth decade of the thirteenth century-a style that did not become truly international until the 1270s.

As a narrative cycle, the Old Testament scenes also reflect the intellectual climate of thirteenth-century theologians who showed renewed interest in the historical as opposed to the typological relationship between the Old and New Testament events. In effect, the Salisbury scenes lie in the French tradition of the second half of the thirteenth century when narrative sequences of biblical scenes proliferated in relief sculptures decorating portals and choir screens. Even so, the imagery in the Salisbury scenes has perpetuated typically English iconographical elements traceable to Anglo-Saxon biblical illustrations. The continuity of those ideas emerged as one of the most striking characteristics of the Old Testament cycle. Legendary material from a Middle English ballad also informed many of the scenes in the lengthy Joseph cycle. Even though predominantly narrative in character, certain scenes include exegetical elements emphasizing Salvation and Redemption through Christ's sacrifice. Those interpolations enlarge the meaning of the cycle as a whole.

Over a century and a half has elapsed since William Burges made his notes on the condition of the scenes and attempted to reconstruct the iconography of the sculptural program. Since then, an ever-expanding store of information has furthered our understanding of medieval thought and its expression in art. Consequently, some of Burges's interpretations needed revisions. Further, a comprehensive program in the chapter house encompassed not only the spandrel carvings, but also the heraldic and figural glass in the windows, as well as the sculpture on both faces of the inner entrance to the chapter house-coherence that Burges never recognized. On analysis, the program accords well with the uses of the chapter house and the symbolism adhering to such buildings.

The Salisbury spandrel carvings are the most extensive and most complete of the four pre-fourteenth century Old Testament cycles carved in stone that have survived English iconoclasm. They embellish a building that Nikolaus Pevsner called one of the finest examples among English polygonal chapter houses, an architectural group that he considered an English specialty and one of the happiest achievements throughout the history of English art. Viewed in the aggregate, the reconstruction of the Salisbury chapter house as it looked in the thirteenth century, the elucidation of its imagery, and the history of its damages and repairs through the centuries reflect in microcosm the history of ideas and attitudes in England from the late thirteenth century into the middle of the nineteenth century.

Copyright Pamela Z. Blum

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