July 25: Glorious Swan Song

2016/07/25 § 2 Comments

On this day in 1446 King Henry VI laid the first stone of Kings College Chapel.

The young King had a great vision for the greatest college chapel ever.  Rather than follow the model of chapels that looked like dowdy little parish churches, he directed his master builders to seek inspiration in the choirs of cathedrals, adopting the elongated apse ends of great scale, structural derring-do, and richer ornament than the typical idea of “chapel” would inspire.

Sadly, things did not go well for Henry, what with the War of the Roses breaking out, and then the part with him dying in the Tower of London and everything.  Then a bunch of other kings came and went, sometimes tinkering at the chapel, most often times not.  It was finally finished by a later Tudor, Henry VIII (yes, that Henry), although his dad had done most of the heavy lifting (and laid out most of the buckets of scrilla that this thing required).

The chapel is one of the great Gothic interiors anywhere, ever.  Its proportions are tremendous: 290 feet long and 40 feet wide, with a ceiling cresting 80 feet above the floor.  Its vaults were constructed in just three years starting in 1512, and they are something special.  The Gothic architecture in most cities and states is characterized by some local idiom.  In Bohemia it is the claw-like roofs and net vaults, in Florence the polychrome revetment, in Spain the very tall side aisles.  In England it is the fan vault, first seen in the mid-fourteenth century, that defines its Englishness.  The fan shapes are created by the treatment of piers rising up in expanding cone-like shapes with elaborate ornament.  The visual complexity is more a function of the sculptural treatment that the stereotomy.

It’s one of the great last gasps of Gothic; consider  that by the time its vaults were finished, Bramante had started raising piers for the New St. Peter’s and Inigo Jones, who would deliver the Renaissance to the Stuarts, would be born in about fifty years.  But the little British island stayed Gothic longer than most places, and before admitting influence from Rome, splashed out with a few final buildings featuring highly elaborate sculpture, structure whittled down to a minimum, expansive sheets of glass opening up interiors washed in light.  The outward thrust of the vaults would be tough on those big windows if it wasn’t for the clever articulation of pier buttresses outside, so configured as to avoid the fussy intrusions of flying buttresses, which would, after all, be just far too French.


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