I’m sitting here feeling slightly dazed – and perhaps it’s not surprising. I’ve just spent five hours in Wells Cathedral taking photographs (okay there was a pause for a very moorish ginger and chocolate tray bake which contained absolutely no calories what-so-ever and a cup of tea.) Aside from the scissor arch, the medieval crazy patchwork stained glass and the cathedral cat – a glorious and imperious ginger called Louis I spent an awful lot of time craning my neck for some capital shots.
A capital coming from the Latin capitulum meaning of the head refers to the top bit of a column – so it’s load bearing. A very nice guide even talked me through the different parts of a capital this morning. The very top of the capital is flat – that’s called the abacus. The abacus tends to be plain – though by the late Gothic masons were decorating them as well. Then comes the necking which thins to join the shaft of the column beneath it. Sometimes the necking runs straight into the column but more often than not there’s a thin moulding to separate the column from its capital.
It’s possible to tell the age of a capital in an English church by the kind of decoration on the necking. Norman capitals are solid and largely undecorated – those are the Romanesque ones. Having said that the Normans do decorate their capitals often with symmetrical patterning and rather chunky looking people if my memory serves me correctly.
In any event the next stage in the evolution of the capital involved foliage – in some cases foliage that looks rather like a tree drawn by a small child – one stem and one leaf in neat rows. Somehow the Gothic evolved out of the Romanesque so that by the thirteenth century masons were running riot carving sinuous leaves, green men, strange birds, beasts and odd little figures.
In Wells there are doves, dragons and lions as well as a fox running off with a goose in its mouth. The fox is being pursued around the capital by a very cross farmer. There’s a spoonbill swallowing a rather plump frog; a devil who has caught a fish; a pedlar with his pack and a string of beads; a man with terrible toothache; a cobbler; a man removing a thorn from his foot; a thief; assorted Old Testament types; someone being martyred and rather a lot of different kinds of leaves as well as a bewildering collection of heads peering down from their hiding places. The more you look the more that you see – English Gothic at its best – at least that’s what the very nice guide told me and I’m not going to disagree.
So next time you go to a church or cathedral if you’re not crawling around on your hands and knees attempting to photograph misericords without moving them or crossing any barriers that have been erected to keep the public at a safe distance you can vary your posture by standing on tip-toe developing a crick in your neck while trying to hold your camera steady in order to capture capitals.