Sirens and centaurs
PUBLISHED: 09:00 21 March 2014
Gemma Clapp discovers the stunning sculptures on show at Exeter Cathedral
Photography by Mark Ware
Devon is home to a vast amount of amazing architecture, from the Tamar Bridge to the buildings that surround Exeter’s Cathedral Green. But it is the building that lies in the heart of the Green that is arguably its crowning glory – the beautiful, gothic Exeter Cathedral.
Thought to have been completed in the late 12th or early 13th century, the Romanesque Cathedral is full of medieval sculpture, from human heads and angels to dragons, fish, sirens and centaurs.
The Cathedral’s tombs bear a lot of the stunning sculpture on show. From the 13th Century tombs of Bishop Marshall and Bishop Simon of Apulia, to the 16th century tomb of Precentor William Sylke, just walking through the Cathedral is an education in how architecture has changed through the centuries. Marshall’s tomb, carved in Purbeck marble, features Gothic lobed leaves and seated clerics, while the tomb of Sylke illustrates the later medieval trend of presenting the deceased as a stylised corpse on top of the tomb.
Biblical figures and saints are also featured in - and indeed on - the Cathedral’s walls. It’s fortunate that, unlike so many other Cathedrals, Exeter’s sculptures of regilious figures have remained relatively untouched. Christ and the four Evangelists - St Matthew, St Mark, St Luke and St John - are featured several times, as is the Crucifixion of Christ. Five ‘roof bosses’ are carved with the scene of the Crucifixion - the earliest of which dating back to the early 14th century.
It’s not surprising that, given the vast history of the Cathedral and its interesting architecture, it is the focus of a new book published in Exeter. Of Sirens and Centaurs: Medieval Sculpture at Exeter Cathedral, written by Alex Woodcock, was inspired by his love of architecture, sculpture, and the city.
“The carvings represent some of the best decorated Gothic sculpture in the UK, and images such as the Swan Knight and the Double-Headed Green Man are unique to Exeter. But many are difficult to see because they are in places difficult to access (the roof bosses for example), hence the need for this book,” explains Alex.
“Among my personal favourites are the intricately carved foliage and plants in the east end chapels, some of the angels on the west front - which break with traditional poses - and the high proportion of exceptionally well-carved monsters, including sirens, harpies, dragons and centaurs, represented on the misericords.”
Why not visit the Cathedral to see the stunning sculptures for yourself? It is open from 9am Monday-Saturday, with last entry and 4.45pm, and from 11.30am on Sundays, with last entry at 3.30pm. An entry fee applies. See exeter-cathedral.org.uk for more information.
Of Sirens and Centaurs: Medieval Sculpture at Exeter Cathedral is published by Impress Books, impress-books.co.uk