CREATURES AND CROSSES – The carvings of durham cathedral (Part One)

Our wonderful building has a plethora of magnificent carvings in both wood and stone. Volunteer guide Peter Lowis has made it one of his special subjects on the cathedral tour, and in the first of a two part blog he takes us round with him on a virtual tour, pointing out some of the carvings that he finds particularly interesting.

Invariably all churches have carvings in stone, marble, brass or wood. Durham Cathedral is no exception, with most telling a story. For instance, approaching the church across Palace Green, the exterior of the eastern transept bears a carving of milkmaids with a cow. As the story goes, the body of St Cuthbert was brought to this plateau in 995 by monks following milkmaids and a cow.

We can all marvel at the efforts of those craftsmen who left a reminder of skill via their chisel. Around 1000 carvings are to be found in and on the cathedral walls and its ancillary buildings. Stone figures – for example, St. Cuthbert with the head of Oswald and the Virgin with the infant – contrast with carved wooden green-men in the cloister vault.

A green man on the wooden ceiling of the cloister.

The highest of the Durham carvings are situated 218 feet above the ground, at the top of the central tower. There, surveying the city from each side of the tower are grotesque faces, something which medieval masonry appeared to thrive in, perhaps an imprint of devilish work.

Two roundels atop the external face of the North Transept stare across Palace Green. Originally depicting Priors Fossor and Castell, the images were recarved by Nicholson in 1799 in the guise of a Prior and Bishop Hugh le Puiset.

Entry and exit doors have also been visited by the craftsmen. The north, west and south doors surrounds have examples of skilful incised carving, purposefully clean and clear-cut. One might argue that that at the apex above the west door, bears the features of a devil.

The nave also bears witness to much carving, mostly in stone. Above the head of visitors some 20 plus “catmasks” watch our every move. These really do look like the faces of cats!

The memorial to James Britton in the nave of Durham Cathedral

Monuments are relatively few in the body of the church, but three surely stand out. James Britton, Headmaster of Durham School in 1828 lies recumbent purporting to be studying whilst opposite him, on the south side are two Neville burial tombs. That of Ralph Neville, with his wife to the east, has little to offer but the other of John and Maud is different. For here, on all sides are depictions of weepers, mostly facing outwards but one facing inwards.

Headless weepers on one of the tombs of the Neville family

The only substantial wooden carving in the nave is the font. 40 feet high with an eagle perched atop – those being baptised may take fright at another heavenly dove peering down at them!

Sometimes one must look hard and possibly to the curiosity of one’s fellow, to stare at a location. For instance, the carved quire furniture boats several misericords on the underside of the seats, though four are generally open for all to see. Most of those at Durham Cathedral date from the 17th century and were crafted by James Clement (1641 to 1690). The South Transept however has a gem, one misericord from the 13th century which survived a dark period in the cathedral’s history when Scottish prisoners were incarcerated in the cathedral in 1650.

A wooden carved misericord under a carved seat in the quire.

We hope you enjoyed part 1 of Peter’s tour of some of Durham Cathedral’s beautiful carvings. Part 2 will be coming soon!

Durham Cathedral is open to all visitors. Our opening times and more information about which areas of the site are open can be found on our website. We hope to welcome you soon.

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