Thursday, 29 May 2014

Malmesbury Abbey

It would be impossible for me to visit  Abbey House Gardens and not include the Abbey itself. Malmesbury Abbey was built in 1170 AD but founded as a Benedictine Monastery in 676 AD. Much of the building was destroyed when its crossing tower collapsed in the early 16th century destroying both the crossing and the chancel. Then in the 17th century the Gothic west tower fell, taking with it the three west bays of the nave. However, enough of it still remains today for it to be the home of the local parish church. 
The large porch has within it some of England's most outstanding Anglo-Norman sculpture
The outer Norman portal has eight arches, including three of sculptured reliefs set in roundels. These depict the Creation, scenes from the old Testament, and the Life of Christ
 In its day it must have looked magnificent, now sadly degraded having being subjected to hundreds of years of weathering
The inner doorway is crowned with a tympanum showing Christ in Majesty surrounded by a rainbow supported by two angels
Most remarkable of all are the glorious carvings along either side of the interior walls of the porch. Each side showing six apostles at Pentecost, with an angel flying overhead
The 12 apostles are all shown seated in exaggerated poses with sinuous draperies. They are big highly expressive sculptures carved in situ, and are great treasures in what is now the local parish church of a small town
Inside further treasures are to be found
 Beautiful Norman galleries - the arcading originally  would have been open
A celebration of both early and late Norman stonework
The lower arcades are late Norman. These show the period when Gothic builders worked on the abbey and added decorative details such as heads, naturalistic foliage, and pointed arches 
The abbey's proudest possession is the tomb of the Saxon King Æthelstan - died 939
Æthelstan 'the Glorious', grandson of King Alfred the Great
A great military and political leader he expanded his kingdom by winning battles, marrying off his half sisters and striking deals with other kings. By 927 AD he had united and created the kingdom of all England, then ten years later he led his English and Welsh forces to a decisive victory over the Scottish, Danish, Norse and Irish at the great Battle of Brunanburh. His coins were inscribed with the words "Ruler of the whole of Britain".
Looking down from the south gallery and resembling  an opera box is an abbot's oratory. The window is by Morris & Company
The figures were all designed by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones for an earlier Morris & Company window. It commemorates 2nd Lieutenant William Scott Luce who, aged 20 years, was killed in action at Diamond Hill, South Africa during the second Anglo-Boer War.
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England's earliest aviator - Elmer - the 11th century flying monk. 
He made himself wings, and took off from one of the abbey towers. In his youth he had read and believed the Greek fable of Daedalus. He made himself a pair of wings for his hands and a pair for his feet. He flew for a furlong (201 metres) if you can believe that, but agitated by the violence of the wind, the swirling air, and awareness of his rash attempt, he fell, broke both his legs and was lame for ever more. He blamed his failure on forgetting to provide himself with a tail!!!
In the 11th century the abbey contained the second largest library in Europe and was considered one of the leading seats of learning. As a religious centre it rivalled both Canterbury and Winchester and had a continuous history from the 7th century to the Dissolution of the Monasteries.  Fortunately Henry Vlll spared the abbey any further damage during the dissolution.

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The abbey as it was and the small section as seen today.
Salisbury Cathedral has the tallest spire in the UK, Malmesbury's spire was 23 feet taller. It just so happens that I am visiting Salisbury Cathedral today (Thursday) with my Fine Art Society. I have scheduled this Malmesbury Abbey post to publish whilst I am absent, so if you are reading this it has succeeded. Hopefully I will have some photos of Salisbury's spire on my return.

52 comments:

  1. Hello Rosemary,

    The abbey carvings are truly magnificent. The wealth of detail is incredible, the expressions and the clothes are wonderful. Treasures indeed for this church which are definitely worthy of a cathedral. One can only imagine the physical difficulties of carving such ornate sculptures in situ. Patience and a strong back would be required at least!

    Salisbury is such a lovely town. We trust that you are having a good time there. We dearly wish to see the Beaton exhibition in the museum but doubt that we shall get there.

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    1. Hello Jane & Lance - tired but safely back home. No time for me to see the Beaton exhibition at Salisbury Museum as we then continued our journey to Wilton House. However, they too have an exhibition of photographs from the Sotheby's Cecil Beaton Studio Archive which has been beautifully curated and presented by Jasper Conran - a very enjoyable and unexpected bonus .

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  2. How wonderful to think you are visiting Salisbury Cathedral, Rosemary, and how I wish I could go too!
    Malmesbury Abbey is indeed fascinating, and the 12 apostles are incredible. I was immediately struck by the personality shown in the variety of poses, quite unlike anything I have seen, and it is fantastic that it has survived all these centuries. The stained glass figures are so distinctively by Burne-Jones, and beautiful to see. Thank you for sharing this precious building.

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    1. Considering that such a large proportion of the building has been lost, it is amazing just how much still remains. It must have been absolutely glorious in its day.

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  3. Great history and pictures of the Malmesbury Abbey and the gardens are a real paradise. I am looking forward to your story about the Salisbury Cathedral, we were there last year.

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    1. I wonder if you did a post on Salisbury? I should be interested to see it. In its heyday Malmesbury would have been the size of Salisbury, if not bigger.

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  4. Rosemary, the Abbey in it's heyday would have been magnificent, it still is by your photos. It never ceases to amaze me how people managed to crave all of that decorative bit, must have taken years.
    Regards,
    Margaret

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    1. Dear Margaret, I am also amazed at how they actually lugged all of that stone up so high when they had no cranes or any of the mechanical devices that we take for granted today. I showed the illustration of how the building had been so that it was possible to envisage just how much of the building is actually missing today, but even so it is still very impressive.

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  5. Dear Rosemary,

    There is so much to admire in this posting, and every time I see a Gothic ruin like this, I want to create a Gothic folly in my back yard. I would have guessed the stained glass was by Morris & Company; that rich green underbrush is gorgeous, and the light diapered background looks as though it could be a Morris wallpaper. I wasn't aware of poor Elmer, and I appreciated reading of Æthelstan. The statue reveals that he wore something akin to cloth Mary Janes.

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    1. Dear Mark - when I do the Salisbury post that will be the one for you. Salisbury cathedral was seen as an ideal opportunity in the development of Early English Gothic architecture and as such it is the only totally Gothic cathedral in the country. Pointed arches and lancet shapes are in abundance - you will love it. Just hope that my photos will do it justice.

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  6. Many details. Love the stained glass.

    Greetings,
    Filip

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  7. What a beautiful building Rosemary, and so fascinating to hear some of the history of the Abbey and now Church. It is lovely to see these places and all of the carved details that they contain. The arches are magnificent aren't they. Hope that you enjoyed Salisbury Cathedral and had a good visit. xx

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    1. Thank you Amy - I have returned tired but had a good visit. It is fortunate that the stone carvings of the apostles are well within the porch as they have had the added benefit of protection over the hundreds of years.

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  8. Oh what a lovely post Rosemary...
    A beautiful building and a fascinating story!
    Have a great weekend and take care,
    Titti

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    1. That is so kind of you Titti - I am delighted that you enjoyed seeing Malmesbury Abbey - thank you.

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  9. Hello Rosemary, I was just thinking of some buildings that I wanted to visit in the States, but you have trumped that with a genuine ruined abbey! The carvings and architecture are magnificent, and it would be wonderful to spend a day exploring this building. I do wonder whether the refined Burne-Jones window is slightly jarring in its ancient setting full of Norman vigor.

    Looking forward to the Salisbury photos.
    --Jim
    P.S., In America, clerics were more aerodynamic--there actually was a television program called The Flying Nun.

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    1. Hello Jim - I tend to agree with you - I love the Morris window, but most of the abbey is stonework without any colour or embellishment which looks very pure.
      I see from Google that The Flying Nun is a sitcom!!!

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  10. Dear Rosemary, What sensational carvings! Thank you also for always telling the "rest of the story". It is a fascinating story and your photographs are worthy of publishing. ox, Gina

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    1. Dear Gina - you are always so generous with your comments, but I am pleased that you enjoyed seeing Malmesbury Abbey - thank you very much.

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  11. So many beautiful details! Amazing carvings. Thank you for introducing this place, Rosemary.

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    1. The carving is exceptional and I think worthy of being a national treasure.

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  12. Dear Rosemary,
    It's been a few years since I was in Malmesbury. I went there specifically to see King Athelstan and expected to see not much else but was pleasantly surprised. What a magnificent building it must have been in its heighday! And of course if you walk a little further on, you come to the Avon.
    Thank you for reminding me of some very pleasant memories.
    Kirk

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    1. Dear Kirk - the Monks used to baptise people in the River Avon which as you know flows just below the hill with the abbey stands on. I showed the River Avon in Malmesbury on my previous post, perhaps you didn't see it.

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    2. I missed it! That's what working with children all day long does to you. I sensed there was a previous post but thought it must have been some time ago. Now I will go off and take a proper look!

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  13. Dear Rosemary,Malmesbury Abbey is a very beautiful building !I like the stained glass ,and the story is very interesting!I really enjoyed your pictures!
    Dimi...

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    1. Our ancestors were wonderful builders Dimi, both here and in your country. They have left us all a wonderful legacy.

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  14. Oh wow, yet another wonderful building I really must visit, Rosemary. I've always loved Norman and Gothic architecture - in fact anything up to the Baroque - and this is a marvellous example in wonderful stone. What a shame we only have a fraction of the splendid original.

    PS I forgot to mention in my comment on your last post that I too would have stripped the ivy from that superb Saxon archway.

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    1. In its heyday it must have been spectacular Perpetua, even today the small part that remains is wonderful to see and admire.

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  15. An amazing and interesting icon from the past Rosemary! Thanks for sharing. Looking forward to Salisbury abbey and already wondering what and if there will be many differences with this abbey. Hope you had a great visit. How wonderful to have a fine art society and be part of it.
    Marian

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    1. Salisbury Cathedral is nothing like Malmesbury - it is pure Early English Gothic.
      The Fine Art Society that I belong to actually has one society in Brussels, but I suspect Brussels is probably too far away for you, but if you are interested in the details email me.

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  16. Thank you for the 'tour' of Malmsbury Abbey and all the accompanying photographs, especially the detail.
    I will be looking forward to Salisbury Cathedral...
    Ms Soup

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    1. Thank you for your visit and your kind comment - I shall look forward to hearing from you again.

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  17. Malmesbury Abbey is an architectural treasure. I've been to visit several times including a day with a group in my student days. I do miss being so readily near the ancient churches and cathedrals in the south of England. I'm sure you had a wonderful day visiting Salisbury Cathedral.

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    1. I am pleased that you know Malmesbury Linda - I always enjoy visiting it too. Salisbury was a delightful trip - set off in pouring rain which did not bode too well, but it had stopped by the time we arrived although rather overcast, and typically the sun came out on the return journey.

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  18. What a wonderful place - the carvings are so skilfully done and show up really well on your photographs. And that oak door - what tales it could tell. Such an interesting history surrounds the abbey too - those Norman builders certainly knew what they were doing.

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    1. I love Norman stonework especially the boldness of its Romanesque round arches and its strong but simple pillars.

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  19. Hi Rosemary, the Abbey carvings are magnificent indeed. You captured the details perfectly. Enjoy todays trip too. Olive

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    1. The carvings are wonderful Olive especially when you reflect on the fact that they are over a 1000 years old.

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  20. I always marvel at how they succeeded in creating these marvelous buildings in times when they didn't have all the machinery we have today !

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    1. Don't you sometimes wish that you could visit that period and be a fly on the wall to see how they did achieve all the great feats that they have left us with?

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  21. Dear Rosemary,
    first time I heard of that flying monk! Maybe he should have read Daedalus till the end - didn't work out too well either...
    I love those very grown-up Norman angels - beautiful! (As the whole Abbey). I hope they find a way to save the sculptures and protect them against sour rain.

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    1. He should have equipped himself with a tail Britta and then things would have been all right. I wonder if the outer porch could be restored, it is something that should be considered.

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  22. Hello Rosemary
    You describe both written and with images how beautiful Malmesbury Abbey is. You would be an excellent professor and perhaps you are. I have added it to my list. I did get a laugh reading about the flying monk and felt he perhaps should be called Elmer Thud.

    Have a wonderful week

    Helen xx

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    1. An excellent name for Elmer, Helen. It is amusing the way he put his failure down to not having a tail. The building is glorious and I am sure that you would be very happy to visit it. In fact the whole of this small town is well worth calling in on.

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  23. The gallery is very like that in St Mary's Church, Nun Monkton, formerly a Benedictine priory. It also has glass by Burne-Jones for Morris & co. I wonder if Malmesbury was the inspiration for this lesser known building's renovation work.

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    1. I had a look on wiki for Nun Monkton, but it did not give any internal views - may be you could do a post on it sometime Nilly when you are passing? I for one would love to see it.

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  24. Wow the architecture is absolutely amazing and those stained glass windows, fabulous x

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    1. It is a little gem Patricia and just imagine what it would have looked like if the two towers had not collapsed and destroyed so much of the abbey.

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  25. I do sometimes wish we could travel in time for a few hours and return to see the great cathedrals of England before Cromwell's lot came and smashed them up. Super photo essay. Thank you.

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    1. Thank you Jenny - glad that you enjoyed seeing the photos. I too am always wishing that I could travel back in time - I am sure that we would discover some amazing revelations.

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