Standing on a cliff overlooking the River Wear in England, Durham Cathedral began construction in 1093 A.D. and was finally completed in 1133. It was intentionally built just to the south of Durham Castle so that the two buildings together would present a formidable defensive position against attacks from the north. Because of the constant threat of violence, the architect who designed it was slow to incorporate the light and airy Gothic style present in cathedral design throughout the rest of England.
Thick carved pillars dominate the nave of Durham Cathedral, and the relatively few small windows leave the interior dominated by a damp gloom more characteristic of a castle than a church. The carved stone vaulting of the aisles and nave give an idea more of sheer strength rather than ornamental delicateness.
It is not clear how much the building was meant to glorify God and how much to stand up to the persistent Scottish invaders, since at the time of the cathedral’s construction, the city of Durham stood as one of the most important northern outposts for the Normans, so it was targeted for incursion quite frequently. The Cathedral is now considered by many to be the foremost example of late-Norman cathedral architecture.
The Saint who is buried in Durham Cathedral made it one of the greatest centers of pilgrimage throughout the middle ages, because of his extravagantly decorated shrine. “The entire immediate area around St. Cuthbert’s tomb was once adorned with green marble and gold gilding, along with other jewels and relics associated with the Saint.
However, during the Reformation in 1540, the shrine was dismantled and the relics buried on the spot where it had stood.” (Schutz). Bishop Thomas Hatfield was also entombed in the Cathedral and contributed to its renown. His burial place is covered by an alabaster sculpture made in his likeness.
“The present Cathedral structure was built on the site of the earlier Saxon ‘White Church’, to be both a magnificent shrine for the body of St. Cuthbert, and also home for a community of Benidictine monks”(Shipley). Planned and begun by Bishop Carileph (1081-1096), the Cathedral was completed in four main stages:
•The Nave, Transepts and the Choir:1093-1133
•The Galilee Chapel at the west end:1173-1189
•The Chapel of the Nine Altars:1242-1274
•The Central Tower largely rebuilt:1465-1490.
Most visitors to the Cathedral would have entered the building from the north door, on which there is an imposing bronze sanctuary knocker. It features the face of a gruesome lion-like beast and represents the ancient privilege of sanctuary – once granted to criminal offenders at the cathedral. Criminals could seek refuge at Durham by loudly banging the knocker to alert the attentions of the watchers who resided in two small chambers overlooking the door.
Directly inside the entranceway to the cathedral lies the 900-year-old Nave, which measuring 61 meters long. It is separated from other sections of the church by two rows of massive, well-proportioned pillars, alternating between cylindrical and compound in shape. Each pair of cylindrical pillars is decorated with a simple design carved into the stone, consisting of vertical grooves, spirals, zigzags, or diamonds. Each pillar supports one of the huge, rounded arches along the ceiling. The enormous amount of weight resting on these arches is relieved by the triforium at the second level and then by the clerestory at the third level.
The Galilee Chapel lies on the western edge of the building. It was thought to have received its name from the fact that it was the final stage in the great procession from the high altar, which signified Christ’s return to Galilee. It is also known as the Lady Chapel.
Bishop Pudsey originally began to form it at the east end of the Cathedral, however, shortly after commencement, cracks began to appear in the walls. This was taken as a sign that St. Cuthbert did not want to have a Lady Chapel so close to his tomb. The bishop then ordered the craftsmen to cease work at the east end and move to the west end of the Cathedral, where they built the Galilee Chapel.
By the time of Cardinal Langley, in 1406, the Galilee Chapel had developed some major flaws. Langley re-roofed it, added stone shafts to each of the marble pillars, and prevented it from slipping into the river by strengthening the foundations with huge buttresses on the outside. The Galilee Chapel is also famous as the home of the black marble-topped tomb of St. Bede, who was the first historian of England.
The Chapel of the Nine Altars was laid on the eastern side of the Cathedral, instead of the Galilee Chapel. It was originally planned by Bishop le Poor and its construction eventually took place between 1242 and 1274. There were so many pilgrims wishing to attend Mass and to receive blessings each day that nine altars were provided, which is how the Chapel got its name. “Unlike the main body of the cathedral, which is representative of Romanesque architecture, the Chapel is built in the later, early English style of Gothic architecture” (Maude).
The impression of height is obtained by sinking the floor of the Chapel below the level of the main body of the church, by the tall narrow windows, and by the slender ribs of the vaulting. Several buttresses were built on the outside of each of its walls to support the weight of the roof. One of the most prominent features of the Chapel of the Nine Altars is the huge Rose Window which is ninety feet in circumference, with a central image of Christ surrounded by the twelve apostles.
The interior of the Central Tower, on the south-western side of the cathedral, contains thick ribbed vaulting, which decorates the top of the 45-meter high roof. The original Norman Tower was set on fire and largely destroyed by a bolt of lightning in 1429. The rebuilding of the Central Tower between 1465 and 1490 was the last major work done to the Cathedral before the Reformation began.
Above the ribbed vaulting is the bell-ringers’ chamber, and above that, the belfry with its ten bells. The total external height of the Central Tower is 67 meters, holding 325 steps to the top. Durham Cathedral remains an excellent example of medieval Norman architecture, in addition to still functioning fully as an ornate place of worship and tribute with its many prominent features.