Carvings and inscriptions

Stone figures on the exterior of Exeter Cathedral: some are becoming fragments – some look like mummies, you can see form but no features – others are incredibly fresh, and individual.

The cathedral has the longest continuous vault in the UK (with towers on either side, no spire breaks the line). It also features a fourteenth-century ‘minstrel’s gallery’, decorated with angels playing various instruments, and carved and painted bosses on the ceiling which depict a variety of subjects, including the murder of Becket, circling dogs, a knight beset by dragons, and the founding bishop offering a blessing.

More stone figures in the form of effigies: medieval knights; a gravity-defying Dorothea; a bishop vandalised over many years following the Reformation, different scripts from different generations… (Looking at him from this angle, I’m reminded of primary school, kids mis-hearing/mis-singing ‘I will make you fishes of men’.)

On the hour, a moment of physical stillness while a prayer is offered from the pulpit. Years ago I would have tolerated this as part of the price of admission, but now I like it. You need this deliberate reconnection with the sacred here. The cathedral is active, touristed – respectfully, but nonetheless… Its meditative state needs to be reinforced. It’s a different situation from most churches: almost every church I stepped into on a weekday in England was unpeopled; you open the door and know you’re interrupting something – breaking into an active stillness; it was generally accommodating, but if you upset it you had the sense that it would in any case restore itself quickly after you left.

One of the hidden treasures of the cathedral is the book of Anglo-Saxon riddles from the tenth century. A selection of the riddles appears in a sculpture in Exeter’s main street. The words are cut, in reverse, into metal panels, so that you read them reflected in an adjacent polished panel – an expression of the fact that they’re not straightforward communication, and are works in translation.

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