Review – The Romanesque Abbey of St Peter at Gloucester

2 mins read

Carolyn Heighway and Richard Bryant, with Malcolm Thurlby
Oxbow Books, £24.99
ISBN 978-1789254143
Review Eric Fernie

This book is a model of its kind. The extent to which the structure of St Peter at Gloucester has been altered – as with all large Norman churches in England – requires, on the one hand, a close analysis of the remains and, on the other, clear and justified reconstructions. Heighway and Bryant excel in both these aspects. They have arranged the investigation starting with the major parts of the building, from the eastern arm through the transepts to the nave, followed by the claustral buildings, polychromy, and carving. It is superbly illustrated, with images well placed in the text.

Taking their sections in turn, and selecting a few points in each, that on the eastern arm identifies the original masonry, uses it to establish other features, and then provides soundly based reconstructions of the crypt, the ground floor, the tribune gallery, and the clerestory. Where the evidence does not provide a clear solution alternative possibilities are presented, as with a groin vault or a barrel vault over the main space.

The transepts are problematic, not only because of their extensive 14th-century reworking, but also because they were very complex in their original arrangement. This applies particularly to the stair turrets and wall passages, which include the oddity of there being no connection between the turrets, which are in the western walls, and the passage in the clerestory of the nave. The passages of the north transept, which are even more complex than those of the south, are clearly described and the change in levels very reasonably left without an obvious explanation. The corner turrets of the crossing tower are too narrow to have contained stairs, except possibly one, that on the south-east, as a stair to the upper parts would have been essential.

The reconstructed elevation of the nave shows the columns at their full original height, ignoring the current bases, which were provided because of the raised floor-level. The longer westernmost bay is best explained by assuming a deeply recessed entrance arch, as at Tewkesbury. As elsewhere in the book, there are frequent references to the work of Christopher Wilson.

The layout of the original surviving claustral buildings follows the standard formula. The chapter house is barrel vaulted (and, as it is the same width as the east arm, there may be an intended parallel). The room above the west slype, which was probably the abbot’s chapel, is also vaulted. Enough traces survive to indicate that the church was brightly painted, especially with fictive blocks. The painting on the interior is directly onto the stone, with no plaster base, such as is provided on the exterior. The carvings range from forceful animals’ heads, a moustachioed human face, and foliate patterns to architectural features such as a worked-up capital with scallops, and voussoirs with delicate blobs and patterned foliage.

The study concludes with a deft overview by Malcolm Thurlby of the church and its elements in their Anglo-Norman, Norman, and wider French contexts. A couple of questions do, however, suggest themselves: (1) why is there no discussion of the crossing, and (2) the passage-like form in the triforium in the reconstructed cross-section of the nave and north aisle (Figure 75) will be restricted to each bay, but it would be helpful if it could be explained how it relates to the plan in Figure 79. There are also points for the publisher. Why are the chapters not numbered? Numerous references are printed in the body of the text, which can be distracting; and why is there no index? Given the focused and subdivided character of the text, this may not have been considered necessary, but it is an omission that Oxbow might wish to reconsider.

These observations do not detract from the clarity and thoroughness of the book, though, which marks a significant advance in our understanding of the building.

This review appeared in CA 360 To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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