Wednesday, 3 May 2006

A Glimpse into Pre-Reformation England

Having dined at Mells, Fr Robbie (my friend from the Archdiocese of Sydney) and I went on to Wells, to visit its beautiful Cathedral (and its moated Bishop's Palace). The Cathedral interior is not particularly outstanding (the usual collection of tombs, chantry chapels and hideous Anglican altar frontals), but the thirteenth century West Front (as seen above) is its true glory. This is not just fine architecture, but a glimpse into 'Old Catholic England.'

Imagine it is May 1506. The West Front of Wells would have been a riot of colour - all 500 statues painted and gilded and resembling a three-dimensional Book of Hours, a theological vision in stone. There are even secret singing-galleries behind some parts of the West Front - on great feasts and processions, the statues would not only have been a feast for the eyes but also the ears!

Wells is a vivid example of the 'incarnational' character of medieval Catholicism - and it served to remind me of just how much we have lost. At the Reformation, the 'reformers' covered the statues on the West Front with white limewash, though, thankfully, 300 of them survived more-or-less intact. The stained glass was also smashed, although the fragments were later re-arranged in the windows in rather abstract designs - a powerful image of the religious and cultural chaos of the times!


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