Welcome to Wells Cathedral

Meditation Monday

by Christine Sine
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by Christine Sine

On Thursday last week Tom and I enjoyed the wonder of a visit to the magnificent Wells Cathedral which sits on the western slopes of the Mendip Hills in the medieval city of Wells. It is an absolute masterpiece. Built in the 12th century it is both beautiful and historic and still attracts pilgrims and visitors from all over the world. What amazed me was the calm serenity of the space, so much in contrast to other great cathedrals which are often far more crowded and bustling with noisy activity. 

I was inspired by the unique scissor arches in the nave, a stunningly beautiful design that one can be forgiven for mistaking to be a frivolous flourish to the already awe inspiring architecture. They were actually added in the 14th century as a medieval solution to sinking tower foundations. As well as that there is the incredible vaulted ceiling which I could have stood and admired for hours. Extremely beautiful but also very functional. How often I wonder do we dismiss artistic masterpieces as frivolous and with little value because they seem on initial examination to have little functional purpose? I think that God intends beauty and functionality to go hand in hand. In fact it seems to me that when we lose sight of God and move away from an understanding of the sacredness of all things, we often design for functionality at the expense of beauty.

I vividly remember three visits I made to Budapest during the 80s and 90s when Hungary was moving away from the Soviet Union and the iron hand of communism. There  was a growing interest in spirituality amongst the people we talked to and part of the way it seemed to be expressed was in a moving away from the drab greyness of Soviet architecture to a joyous use of colour and vivid designs. Maybe one sign of our closeness to God is our appreciation and creation of beauty in every possible aspect of our life.

Would love to hear your opinion on this.

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Another aspect of the cathedral that intrigued me was the West Front with one of the largest galleries of medieval sculptures in the world. The lower niches are filled with biblical scenes but as we look higher we move through images of kings, bishops and angels to the twelve apostles with Christ reigning overall. It’s amazing to think that these figures, carved more than 800 years ago are still in such good condition though it is probable that back then they were even more resplendent as some of the carded figures were probably adorned with red, white, blue and green paint. 

Much as I admire these incredible sculptures, I struggle with the hierarchical view of our world and of God that they seem to depict. Christ is a distant, untouchable figure. Definitely not the loving, compassionate companion and friend I have come to see him as. Nor do these images draw me closer to the God of love whom I increasingly see as a down to earth, garden loving, vulnerable God who is intimately entwined through every aspect of our world and deeply concerned for every part of it.

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Another spectacular part of Wells cathedral is the chapter house, the place where church authorities met to discuss ecclesiastical affairs of supervise legal proceedings. Octagonal in shape and with a fine ribbed-vaulted ceiling, it has been described as “architecturally the most beautiful in England. “ Along its perimeter walls are 51 seats or stalls for named dignitaries and the steps that lead up to it are well worn by the passage of hundreds if not thousands of feet over the centuries. This is a well used structure, though I must confess I would not have enjoyed the stone seats to sit on. 

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The last feature that caught my attention was the astronomical clock, circa 1390 which is one of the oldest mediaeval clocks in the world. And it still works. How is that for craftsmanship? It was wonderful to watch the jousting knights go round as in a tournament while above and to the right, Jack Blander chimes the quarters with his heels and strikes the bell in front of him for the hours. I am amazed not just by the detail and the whimsy (one of the knights gets knocked of his horse time and time again) but also by the endurance of this incredible clock. The loving work of the crafters who created it is incredible. I can imagine the pride taken in its creation and the delight it would give to its creator to see it still in use today. 

Wells Cathedral gave me much to reflect on. I rejoiced at this symbol of faith and worship that gave glory to God hundreds of years ago and still today. It has endured for so many years, through good times and hard. and still stands as a testimony to the greatness of God. However I also grieved the journey into wealth and prestige taken by the heads of the church and the images that show how church leaders separated themselves and their impressions of God from the common people. Is it surprising that people find it hard to draw close to our loving God today? What I wonder can I do to change that and to introduce others to a God who craves intimacy with all of us?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

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