York Minster has something new to discover with every visit
- Credit: Joan Russell
York Minster has been a place of Christian prayer and pilgrimage for more than 1,300 years. But the daily work to maintain the magnificent building has brought together people of many different faiths.
They are among the millions of visitors who have travelled not only to marvel at the splendour of one of the only surviving Gothic cathedrals in Northern Europe but to discover its forgotten legends and lessons often with the help of the latest technology.
York Minster as a building has a pretty chequered history. The present building was begun in about 1230 and completed in 1472 although a church has been on site in some form since 637. The minster you see today is built with creamy white magnesium limestone quarried from nearby Tadcaster. Work inside and out to restore and repair the minster is an ongoing programme. Rebecca Thompson, Superintendent of Works responsible for conservation, restoration and maintenance said: ‘Working on such a magnificent building requires skill and time and with such an old building there will always be maintenance and repairs to do’ she says
Precious windows Glazier and stained glass conservator Helen Bower is one of the team working on the medieval Great East Window, thought to be the most ambitious stained glass restoration project in the country. The window, the size of a tennis court, has been taken down panel by panel to be restored and allows a not-to-be missed opportunity for visitors to see the glasswork close at hand for the first time.
These priceless stained glass panels are on display in the Orb, a 10-metre tall metallic dome-shaped gallery directly below the now sheeted Great East Window, for the duration of the restoration.
Inside the Orb are five newly-repaired panels from the window, four of which will be permanently on display and one which will change each month during the next three years.
The window, described by some as the English equivalent of the Sistine Chapel, is believed to be the biggest of its kind with 311 individual and unique panels. Of its108 major panels, 81 illustrate scenes from the last book of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation (Apocalypse) and which describes, sometimes in graphic detail, the end of the world.
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Revealing York Minster If restoring the Great East Window is one of the greatest conservation challenges, then consider the latest minster project. Revealing York Minster tells the story of the last 2,000 years on this site and includes artefacts never seen before on public display. The project is staged in the minster’s underground chambers where the remains of a Roman barracks, an Anglo-Saxon cemetery and the foundations of the original Norman Minster, were uncovered during excavations in the 1970s. ‘York Minster has stood at the heart of the city for centuries, but even before that, this site was instrumental in the growth of York, from a military barracks into a major conurbation,’ said the Dean of York, the Very Rev Vivienne Faull. ‘This means that the land upon which the cathedral now stands has been a centre – military, political, social and theological – for that whole time, influencing not only regional but national history. ‘For the first time, Revealing York Minster brings together the archaeological discoveries and the written archives dating back to the 7th century. But this is not just a story about the past: it provides visitors with an insight into the evolution of the city, and York Minster’s central role within that, right up to the present day with a glimpse at the people who work behind the scenes, making use of the very latest technology.’ The York Minster Revealed project in the Undercroft is a five-year project scheduled for completion in early summer 2016. It is the largest restoration and conservation project of its kind in the UK. The cost of the whole project is £20 million, of which £10.5m has been generously supported with a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). The remainder of the fund has been raised by York Minster.
The Carvings Around a corner at the east end of the minster is the Chapter House, an intriguing architectural treasure built between 1260 and 1286. It’s where Edward I and Edward II held Parliament during campaigns against the Scots. It is still used for meetings by the College of Canons. The ceiling is magnificent but so is the collection of the faces, hairstyles and hats of the people of York, other comic faces together with animals and mythical beasts found above the stone seats that line the Chapter House walls. Look for the stone image of a crazy looking man wrestling a sheep with claws. It could be King Richard getting to grips with a lion but the sculptor had never seen a lion so added the claws to a snarling sheep to complete his work.
Central tower Be prepared to climb 275 steps of a steep spiral staircase to reach the top of the minster’s central tower at 230ft, the highest point in York. It’s worth the effort to see the city in a very different way. Step out on to a walkway about halfway up, take a breather and then appreciate a close up of the minster’s stonework including the arching buttresses and medieval gargoyles. Climb the remaining steps to the top and step out into the daylight and a wonderful panoramic view of York.
Volunteers York Minster would be lost without volunteer guides like Chris Adams who probably knows everything there is to know about the architecture including its very many quirks. Tag along one of his tours and you will discover cherubs blowing bubbles and a bum-baring grotesque. Don’t miss the Semaphore Saints created by artist Terry Hammill who donated the work to the minster in 2004. The headless saints are signaling with halos each representing a letter in the semaphore alphabet. The message reads Christ is here. Just above the saints is heart shaped stone work surrounding a stained glass window which has become know as the Heart of Yorkshire.
Coffee morning There is probably no other meeting place for coffee or tea with as grand an interior as York Minster. Volunteers serve refreshments in a space on the way to the Chapter House.