York Minster unveils restored grotesques
The first collection of new grotesques to be carved for York Minster’s 11 year project to conserve and restore its South Quire Aisle are being returned to the cathedral today.
The four carvings have been based on the Judgement of Solomon and include King Solomon, two women – one carrying a baby – and a dragon holding a goose between its teeth.
Work on the South Quire Aisle, which dates from the 14th century, began at the start of 2016 and will involve an £11m investment over the next decade to repair and replace stone and glass in 15 window bays.
The grotesques are being returned to a newly restored pinnacle, to replace four weathered carvings which are believed to date from the 1700s. Although badly eroded, the cathedral’s stonemasons could make out two women – one holding a bundle – a male figure and evidence of a winged beast with a bird between its teeth.
“Where possible, we replace like for like in the carving work we do,” explains York Minster stonemason Richard Bossons. “Historically, carvings decorating the Minster might have referred to stories in the bible, so using the surviving fabric as a starting point we settled on the idea of the Judgement of Solomon.”
The story comes from the Hebrew Bible and is used as an example of wisdom. When asked to rule between two women each claiming to be the mother of a baby, King Solomon declares the child should be cut in two with each woman receiving half. The real mother begged the child be given to the other woman to save its life, therefore revealing herself as the true parent.
“All three grotesques are wearing clothes in keeping with the style of the 1400s, reflecting the age of this part of the cathedral,” added Richard. “We try to put back carvings which are done in a historically accurate style but obviously with a modern twist because they are done by modern carvers.
“Historically, grotesques would also have often had a humorous or satirical bent to them. They need to be seen from a distance so often have exaggerated facial features – for example the baby in this story has an exaggerated screaming face.”
Each grotesque has taken between 180 and 200 hours to complete by three stonemasons – Richard Bossons, Dave Willett and Victoria Darley. It’s the first carving Victoria has completed for the cathedral after joining the Stoneyard team as an apprentice mason seven years ago.
After agreeing the theme for the carvings each craftsperson researches their subject before producing drawings from which to create a replica in clay. These are reviewed by the Master Mason and cathedral architect, and then measurements are taken from the clay models which are then used to carve directly into the stone.
As well as replacing the grotesques, the cathedral’s Stoneyard team has rebuilt the shaft work of the pinnacle and fixed courses of new stones, including some huge pieces which weighed 600kg when they arrived from the quarry.
The York Minster Fund is currently raising funds for the restoration of the South Quire Aisle. Find out more here.