York Minster


The York Minster is quite famous, and deservedly so. As one of the largest Gothic Cathedrals in Europe (it’s about the same size as the Cathedral in Cologne) the church is home to the second-highest office in the Church of England, the Archbishopric of York.  The full name of the church is The Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of St Peter in York, but don’t ask me what metropolitical means, because I don’t know. The church is really massive, and takes up the entire central square. It’s so big it’s hard to grasp in pictures, because you simply can’t get far enough away to see the whole picture!

Alex and I were wondering why this particular building was called a Minster, where usually it’s just called a Cathedral. Luckily, wikipedia has an answer: “The title ‘Minster’ is attributed to churches established in the Anglo Saxon period as missionary teaching churches, and serves now as an honorific title.” So now you know. Interestingly, the church on this site pre-dates Saxon times by quite a bit, and there are archaeological excavations from Viking and Roman times on the same site.

There has been a Christian church on the site since the early 7th century, although there were some struggles to maintain the wooden structure, and a fire or two, that kept the site from becoming popular. In 1070, the first Norman Archbishop arrived, Thomas of Bayeux (of the famous tapestries). In 1080 he arranged for the church to be restructured using stone, in a typically Norman style. In 1215 a new Archbishop decided to build the church in the newly-developing Gothic style (it is said that he wanted to compete with Canterbury!).

This is a plan of the Minster. The color coding shows the various ages when construction occurred, which might explain some of the inconsistencies in the building alignments.

The Chapter House was built in the second half of the 13th century, although the roof was only finished about 100 years later. Like many chapter houses, the room is octagonally shaped, although there are no central columns to support the roof, which is wooden and light enough to be supported by buttresses. Most of the decorations in the Chapter House are geometric patterns, including the stained glass and floor tiles.

The Chapter House is where the monks or brothers of the parish would gather to discuss church business. Think of it as the meeting room, or boardroom, for weekly discussions.  Each man would sit in one of the marked alcoves. The room is amazingly bright, because of the really tall windows that go almost the whole way around. The stained glass was really light, without many of the heavy colors and lines common to Gothic-type glass.  In the picture below you can get just a glimpse of the beautiful ceiling.

During the Reformation the cathedral underwent some pretty major looting, including tombs, windows, and altars that were taken or destroyed. There were several fires, including major ones in 1829 and 1840 left the structure damaged.  In the 1850s services were suspended, and in 1858 began a long process of regeneration that has cost bazillions (yes, that is the technical term) of pounds.

A 1967 survey determined that the structure was about to collapse, largely because it was built with limestone, which decays very quickly when exposed to moisture. More money was raised, and reinforcements were added to the walls and ceilings. You can see from this picture that the stone is still badly eroded, even inside! The Minster employs 24 stone masons to repair and replace the stone, both inside and out.

It was during the 70s that construction workers found the Roman ruins beneath the foundations. These ruins are now open to visitors, who can enter through the crypt. Unfortunately the posters and signs in the basement area were written by someone with poor language skills; I was horrified by the bad writing. No pictures were allowed, so I can’t show you any examples, but trust me when I say it really is a travesty to have such a great site with such bad grammar!

Both Alex and I commented on the ceilings in the north and south transept. One of them was built with dark wooden beams, while the other one appears to have been plastered over in white.  I liked both of them, although the dark wood with the white beams was really striking.

There seems to have been a great deal of construction throughout the cathedral’s lifetime, including pretty much every new Archbishop wanting to change something to put his own stamp on the building. I think this is fairly common in architectural history, as new designs came into fashion, and as structural techniques developed. What is really striking about the York Minster is how obvious these changes are.

At first Alex and I could not put a finger on what was wrong with the layout, until we realized that nothing really lines up correctly.  If you stand in the aisle of the nave, and look down the columns to the choir, you’ll see a big shift in the archways. It’s subtle, but once you realize the problem, it’s all you can focus on. In the picture below, you can actually see that some of the stones may have shifted. We were debating whether the arches were originally lined up, but have shifted over time, but I say that the shift is too great to be from natural subsidence. Besides, why would only half of the building have moved? Look at the stone on the right half of this arch. What happened?

Despite the slightly drunked off-centredness of the place, there were lots and lots of thing we totally loved about the York Minster. The stained glass in particular was stunning. The picture below is of the famous Five Sisters window, which is one of the oldest stained glass pieces in the world.

This is a close up of the central window. You can see that the design is largely geometric, using teeny tiny pieces of glass, and a limited range of colors.

York Minster also has the Great East Window, which is unfortunately being renovated at the moment. The church has taken an interesting stance in the meantime, and had a really big picture of the stained glass created to hang in its place. So you can get an idea of what it looks like, yet the effect is rather odd. In the picture below you can see the large black hanging depicting the window, peeking out from behind the altar. The Great East Window is the largest medieval stained glass in the world.

I can’t resist posting one more picture, showing the altar and how it is not lined up with the transepts. When Alex took this picture, he was standing directly underneath the central beam of the transept. Yet if you look at the altar, it is clearly shifted to the left! How anyone can listen to a service here without shifting over by about 6 feet is beyond me!

The picture below is of the famous Jesse Window, which depicts the family tree of Jesus. At the bottom you can probably make out King David with his harp. Apparently the entire idea of a family tree, or geneaology represented graphically, started from this window design. You can also see that larger pieces of glass were used, as well as more colors available to the glaziers who made this window.

Okay, this is the last stained glass picture I’m going to post. This is called the Rose Window, and was placed here to commemorate the ending of the Wars of the Roses. (The war ended because Henry Tudor — a Lancastrian — married Elizabeth York — a York — and thus sealed the rift between the two families. Henry Tudor was known as Henry VII once be became King.)

The central tower, which dominates the Minster, was built in the Perpendicular Gothic style. These interior windows are an excellent example of the elongated vertical lines popular at the time. I don’t know what that maroon wall is doing behind the windows — or when it was constructed — but it’s a pity that the windows aren’t open to the exterior.

This picture was taken looking directly up into the Great Tower. It’s really tall! Once again, it’s hard to get a good picture of such a massive structure, simply because its sooooo big. Very nicely, they put an angled mirror in the center of the hall, so you could actually take a picture of the reflect of the ceiling rather than kill your neck by craning upward.

The picture below was the best I could do to capture the Central Tower’s perspective to the rest of the Minster. A great deal of light comes into the church from the windows in the upper part of the tower. It really does a lot to lighten up the space. I’m always amazed by how well-lit some of these old cathedrals are, especially when you try to imagine visiting in the middle of winter, in the middle ages, when there was no electricity and no sun!
And last, but not least, here is a door!  (I know, what a surprise.)  But look at what a kooky door it is! It’s not even, not centred, and not really usable.  And the fact that there is a smaller door within the bigger door really kills me. It’s a little difficult to sum up something like the York Minster. I liked it because it wasn’t perfect, yet it seems that something so huge, and so important, really does need to be perfect. If any architects out there can explain to me what happened, I’d love to know!


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Posted on 24/08/2010, in Exploring the UK, travel and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Wow, what a photo presentation from this beautiful cathedral.

    Thank You.

  2. Wonderful Collection of Clicks of a Beautiful & Majestic Cathedral !!
    You have a very good hand of Photography & an Excellent Camera !!

    Thank You! I Enjoyed your Article!
    CHEERS 🙂

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