Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Westminster Abbey

Yesterday the class met for a tour of Westminster Abbey. I'd visited the Abbey once before, years ago, and I remember that it seemed much smaller, dimmer, and more crowded than I'd expected. It hasn't changed since then, and our recent visit to Canterbury made the impression all the more stark. As Kiley noted in her blog post, Canterbury feels open, celestial, and its identity as a parochial church and pilgrimage site is still an integral part of the space. The halls seem almost endless, stretching both upwards and forwards, and even the crypt felt airy and bright, despite a steady stream of tourists and pilgrims.

Westminster, by contrast, feels cramped and crowded, overfull of both the living and the dead. Tombs and memorials are stacked one on top of the other in a hodgepodge of styles, all competing for prominence. Every aisle and chapel is stuffed to the brim with composers, scientists, privy councilors, and knights, from the front of the nave all the way to the walls of the cloisters. Even the royals can't find a free space: Elizabeth I and Mary I actually share a tomb (although it would be easy to overlook Mary's presence, given that she receives only passing mention on the side of Elizabeth's grand monument-- certainly by design). The whole building is a fascinating display of artistry, pageantry, and civic and religious devotion.

Rather than rehearsing all the notable monuments we saw today (you can find a list of most of them on the site's website), I thought I'd make a list of my top 3 of the Abbey's more easily overlooked attractions.
  • The main draw for pilgrims is the shrine of St. Edward the Confessor, which sits on a dais behind the high altar. The shrine is roped off now, due to its fragility and the tight confines of the raised platform, but visitors are invited to attend an intimate prayer service there twice daily. Several members of our class chose to participate, and I'm so glad that we did. It was an extraordinary experience, sitting at a remove from the crowds circling around the shrine that both lies at the heart of the Abbey and remains unseen by most visitors.
  • Most of the Abbey's monuments and decorative schemes post-date the medieval period, but we did see a few examples of the original wall paintings. In the Chapter House, some panels of a 14th century cycle depicting the apocalypse survived bombings during WWII, and a few monuments have been removed from the wall of the south transept, revealing vivid 13th century paintings of doubting Thomas and St. Christopher carrying the Christ Child. It makes you wonder what other treasures lie behind the enormous baroque monuments.
  • All throughout our tour of the main Church, we kept wondering, "Where are all the monks buried?" After all, the Abbey functioned as such from 960 until its dissolution in 1540. We finally found a handful of Abbots' monuments on our way out, tucked halfway beneath the stone benches in the cloister. Here's one example.

I hope to return to Westminster for Evensong later on in the month. I imagine the space will feel very different, once it has been cleared of tourists and filled with music. For now, onward to Oxford!

No comments:

Post a Comment