Probably one of the most famous monuments from the ancient world, Stonehenge is the subject of countless poorly-thought out bucket lists, cheesy picture calendars, and is partly responsible for spawning this History Channel “ancient aliens” meme.
An unfathomable number of tourists swarm this 4,000 year-old stone circle sandwiched between pasture and a busy expressway.
There’s a huge parking lot for tour buses that haul around these gawking apes before they’re driven off to the next of God knows how many “must-see” destinations on their whirlwind tour of England. Presumably they’ll show off their instagram-ized shots of Stonehenge and boast to their friends about how there is so much more to England than London.
Given the immense crowd of visitors milling about, the noisy construction of an additional visitors’ center nearby, and the extortionate cost of nearly 15 pounds for a ticket (I didn’t pay and dodged the security cordon, but that’s a story for another blog post), you won’t catch even a glimmer of the ageless pagan spirit out there amidst the hills of Wiltshire.
The hair on my skin crept up just a tiny bit, but not much more—unfortunately, Stonehenge has been swallowed up by the beast known as tourism, and just like Notre Dame in Paris or the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, a once-sacred monument has been profaned by idle chatter, the ceaseless clicking of cameras, and innumerable selfies by people who are only there because their guidebooks tell them to go.
Only 8 miles away from Stonehenge is Salisbury, or Sarum during the Roman days, home to a monument that is much more imposing than Stonehenge yet with a fraction of the visitors. In fact, I’d say the word is towering — by some measurements Salisbury’s cathedral has the tallest Medieval tower in Europe.
I came to Salisbury to see Stonehenge, but first on my list was this spectacular Gothic cathedral constructed here in just 40 years, which is lightning-fast by 13th century standards. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s about the same amount of time it took for the majestic cathedral of Bourges — arguably my favorite in all of Europe — to be built.
A hallmark of these quickie cathedrals is that because they are built rapidly, they feature an extremely unified design.
There are two main reasons for the uniform look: architectural and aesthetic tastes and/or innovations rarely happened overnight and took many decades to implement; also, it was possible that the original architect may have lived long enough to preside over the entire construction, or most of it, ensuring no alterations of his master plans.
The façade of Salisbury features mostly 19th century neo-Gothic statues of your garden variety Old Testament giants such as David and Moses, random minor saints and anonymous clergymen holding scale-model churches in their hands, and a run-of-the-mill Virgin and child scene over the central portal, flanked by an Annunciation scene straight out of the Art History textbooks.
There are a few holdovers from the original sculptors who decorated the façade, but for the most part the original pieces are lost to history.
Since this is a post for Via Lucis and I know you all want to learn something, a few comments about the façade at Salisbury and how it’s typically English Gothic: First, note the three lancet windows in the central bay of the façade, corresponding with the nave. Unlike French Gothic, English churches usually feature lancet windows instead of rose windows. This was probably an aesthetically-driven choice on the part of the architect, rather than an indictment on the English stone carvers’ ability to carve complex bar tracery in the shape of a circle.
Second, despite the contemporary introduction of gables into French Gothic, Salisbury hardly features them. In this case, the lack of rose windows is probably part of the reason why there is little gabling — apart from the 19th century annunciation scene—at Salisbury. Gables were used in France to feature sculptural scenes that usually were set into portals. However, as the century progressed the French became more and more addicted to placing rose windows in as many places as possible (see Reims cathedral for an example of this), whereas the English never got into it, rendering gables relatively useless.
These days you enter the cathedral via the cloisters, which lead to the immaculate chapter house (sadly, it was closed when I was there) that holds one of the original copies of the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta was signed in 1215 and is acknowledged to be a cornerstone document in the progression to representational democracy by thousands of trivia players who know nothing else about it.
I won’t get into the meat and potatoes of the Magna Carta, but it was signed by the hapless King John — of Robin Hood lore — who was, in the words of my immortal medieval history professor William Kapelle, “a creep.” Ultimately he pissed off the barons in his court to the point that they forced him to sign a pact that checked a monarch’s powers for the first time in modern history and ensured certain basic rights to subjects, including a prohibition against arresting someone without a valid cause for suspicion. It didn’t matter too much in the short term because John asked the Pope to annul this earthly document, and the Pope, glad to uphold the Divine right of the monarchy, complied.
If you’re still awake, let’s get back to Salisbury.
Upon entering the nave, one notices the linear quality of Salisbury. A hallmark of English Gothic is that unlike its French counterpart, English Gothic emphasizes horizontal length rather than vertical height.
The difference boils down to aesthetic preference more than any sort of lack of architectural know-how; indeed, we know of more than one case where the master architect in an English Cathedral was a Frenchman.
Here’s a great comparison for you to understand what I mean:
The top image depicts the nave elevation at Salisbury; the bottom depicts Chartres. Immediately apparent is that Salisbury’s height is much less than that at Chartres, but also that the visual effect of the architecture draws the eye forwards more than upwards. The opposite is true of Chartres. This isn’t hocus pocus; the reason why Salisbury has a lateral effect is because the gallery is separated from the arcade below and the clerestory above with an uninterrupted sequence of horizontal stone bands. At Chartres, we see the same unbroken band hugging each massive column as it soars upwards to the vaults. In both instances, the lines formed by these bands create a movement which our eyes follow; to the choir in Salisbury and the vaults in Chartres.
I would go on, but I think you get the point: Salisbury Cathedral is an incredible holdover from the Middle Ages, doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to enter (donations optional), and isn’t flooded with oblivious tourists. So if you do make it out to the neighborhood, by all means pay Stonehenge a visit and whet your appetite, but save Salisbury for the main course.
Postscript: Nathan, my own experience with Stonehenge occurred many years ago, probably around 1961 or 1962. My family went to visit near dawn on the day of the Summer Solstice. Even at such an auspicious time, there weren’t more than a hundred visitors on the chilly morning and there was nobody there to charge admission. Many of the visitors were faux druids, dressed in various togas and shifts. There were the usual assorted bearded priests and barefooted pagan worshippers, but one woman I remember particularly, a wild looking thing with very pale skin and long, undressed red hair flying all over, a white sheet as a shift of some kind, and enormous bare feet. It all seemed very silly to me, even at that tender age of 13.