Toward a Medieval Architectonics: Reading Wells Cathedral
Medieval English Studies, Vol. 9 (2001) No. 1
Abstract: Wells Cathedral is the most complete of England’s medieval cathedrals. The articulation of its different parts in time and space forms a kind of complex text that can be read in a variety of ways. In similar ways, the multiple contents of medieval manuscript miscellanies and anthologies, and The Canterbury Tales, can be better read in relation with one another. An initial reading of the building recomposes the historical narrative of its origins, with different portions being built in different centuries in different styles, within a particular social context. A second level of reading is mainly aesthetic, that made by the attentive tourist. A final reading considers the building as a specifically Christian work intended to communicate a Christian meaning.
The way in which space is defined, contained, directed and mastered in a building has long been recognized as a paradigm for a great variety of human activities, so that music, literature, scientific systems, gardens and landscapes, paintings, and the multiple heavens of many religious cosmologies all have acquired their “architectonics.” It is hardly a new idea to suggest that memory and the interpretation of meaning are only possible when patterns have been established that impose a form of systematic, “semiotic” order, an architecture. Without such formal patterns, without organized systems, nothing relates to anything, nothing “stands up.” Such patterns are at times too simply perceived as essentially aesthetic affairs, intended primarily to please the eye or senses, as in music or landscape gardening. Yet it requires little thought to realize that there is much more to be said.
Buildings are built for a variety of reasons; the outer form and interior layout, as well as the materials employed and style of applied ornamentation, all invite the analytic observer to “read” carefully. There are clearly a variety of very different readings possible of a work, be it of literature or of architecture, whether it be examined in itself or in terms of its mechanics, or its social and historic contexts. The same work was not perceived in the same way, not evoked in the same terms, not “understood” with the same frameworks in every century. The mechanical engineer explaining why a building does not fall down has a very different tale to tell from the historian commenting on the society that built it and neither can explain what makes people find a given building beautiful.