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Guided by a Stone-Mason

Exploring the Cathedrals, Abbeys and Churches of Britain


Thomas Maude


London: Tauris, 2010

Softback, 176 pp. £11. ISBN 978 1 84885 547 2


Reviewed by Hugh Clout

University College London


This brief guide to Britain’s religious buildings has the unusual characteristic of being written by a master-mason who has worked on some of Europe’s most prestigious restoration projects, including Salisbury Cathedral and Wells Cathedral. The first words of his preface define his approach to the whole work:

A force-ten gale is blowing, the temperature is minus 8, and I am on top of a swaying scaffold, suspended 108 feet above the ground. The weather is cruel and unforgiving. It is mid-February and the top of the south-west tower of Wells Cathedral is not a place for the faint-hearted.[9]

Having established his credentials, Thomas Maude recalls his time studying alongside wood-carvers, fresco painters, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, stuccoists and sculptors at the European Centre for Craftsmen in Venice, and explains “For a time the sky-scapes of Venice, Rome, Jerusalem, Egypt and many other places became familiar to me as I helped restore the wonderful stone structures that lay within them” [10]. Armed with a box full of tools and a far greater understanding of buildings, he returned to England to undertake essential restoration work.

His guide is structured into six chapters, which examine the building of Norman and Gothic cathedrals, before outlining fundamental principles of construction and reviewing the range of building stones to be found in Britain, concluding with a discussion of monasteries, abbeys and parish churches. Thomas Maude instructs readers how to sit and observe, and then to ask how the assemblage of arches, pillars, stained-glass windows and vaulted roofing came into being. His emphasis, not surprisingly, is on stone: how it was sourced, transported, carved, assembled and decorated. Unlike the stark stonework we see today, the interiors of medieval cathedrals were brightly coloured, with reds, blues, greens and yellows being obtained by mixing earth pigments, and gold leaf being applied if funds permitted. ‘True frescoes’, painted on the same day that lime plaster was applied and thereby fixing the colour deep into the plaster, were rarely undertaken in Britain; ordinary frescoes were painted after the plaster had dried and thus were superficial and peeled off easily. Durham Cathedral is explored to demonstrate Norman and Romanesque work, typified by “heaviness, solidity, round arches, thick massive pillars, dim interiors, small windows, masons cutting stones with axes, and French-speaking master-masons and bishops” [39].

To exemplify light and airy Gothic cathedrals, which may be divided into Early English (1150-1270), Decorated (1270-1370), and Perpendicular (1370-1650), Maude moves south to Wells and Salisbury where “there is not a hint of a round arch to be seen anywhere. Everything is pointed, more slender, and lighter” [42]. It was master-masons who were responsible for ensuring the structural stability of towers and soaring roofs. The author shows how the natural world had an immense impact on medieval craftsmen as they shaped capitals and decorated them with designs evoking flowers and leaves. He also explores countless wooden features that continue to grace medieval cathedrals: choir-stalls, rood screens separating the clergy and the laity, misericorde carvings, and the thrones of bishops.

Having presented England’s Norman and Romanesque cathedrals, Maude discusses the responsibilities of master-masons, the training they received during their seven-year apprenticeship, and the influence of the guilds that shaped their subsequent activity. The magic of medieval lime mortar is revealed: “a soft, porous and malleable material, [which] helps the building to move and even crack without major damage. It acts like a cushion to every jointed stone and helps the structure breathe” [88]. Then, Maude identifies the main sources of building stone (limestone, sandstone, granite, flint, and brick) and some of the major abbeys and cathedrals constructed from them. Unfortunately, two of the categories on the geological map, reproduced on page 92, appear to have merged, making it impossible to distinguish areas of granite from those of limestone. Of course, the explanatory text overcomes this visual frustration.

In the final chapter, the reader is introduced to monasteries and abbeys, the main religious orders (Benedictines, Cluniacs, Cistercians, Carthusians), the monastic way of life, and the typical components of a monastery (the church, chapter-house, dormitory, refectory, and cellarium). The book concludes with a brief review of external and internal features of medieval parish churches, including gargoyles, ‘scratch dials’ (which informed congregations of the time of the Mass on a particular day), anchorite cells, hagioscopes, and piscinas. Thomas Maude concludes his journey through Britain’s religious buildings at the little parish church of Saint Andrew at Winterborne Thomson in rural Dorset, dating from Norman times. “Here before us … is a building dating from nearly a thousand years ago, which in turn was based on what existed a thousand years before, in the earliest years of Christianity” [171].

Illustrated throughout with black and white photographs, and having a handful of diagrams and one rather unfortunate map, Guided by a Stone-Mason is a fascinating and always engaged presentation, which is direct and clear in approach, and never boring. The present version is, in fact, the second edition of a text first published in 1997.




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