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“Cathedral Splendour Beckons”

Writer Alan Day reflects on his recent visit to Exeter Cathedral. 

Visionary, Richard Hooker, dressed in Elizabethan clerical robes, sits on his granite plinth. Propped on a knee, his open book. For a moment, he lifts his eyes to the middle distance where he is absorbed in thought. Behind, cathedral splendour beckons. This luminary figure, in white Greek marble, is so imposing it inspires the visitor. Perhaps they might inherit his discerning eye, magically gifted for the occasion, to see better the historic treasure within its walls.

From the west doors, stretches a wonder of vast space. The longest vaulted roof in existence astonishes with its exquisite tracery of unique, crisscrossed arcs. Over five hundred connecting bosses amaze with their array of heroic carving and colour: what celebration is made of woodcraft when medieval imagination is unleashed. Heaved seventy feet in place, some bosses weigh up to two tons. A papier mâché, four foot life size replica, of knight on battle-dressed horse, his sword raised against mythical beast, demonstrates how deceptively small they appear from the floor. Another, better appreciated with binoculars, depicts the murder of Thomas Becket. Artisans, working at less vertiginous height, display the finest English oak and stone carving.

Yet another masterpiece of imagination and craft is the famous colourful, medieval minstrel gallery. It is unique amongst cathedrals. A silent company of twelve angels play a gamut of bizarre archaic wind, string and percussion instruments. In their day, not fantastical but real. Some beyond recognition as precursors of their modern counter parts. Since long unheard, let our fancy conjure with what melodious sounds might they have filled the cathedral. 

Here, is the glorious fourteenth century, bishop’s throne, sixty foot high; it too, a gothic masterpiece. Its many thousand pieces so intricately pegged together that, after dismantling during the war, they were beyond the wit of modern minds to fit back. Restorers discreetly used screws and bolts. The nineteenth century saw detailed copying of additional choir stalls with wonderful bird and animal motifs, and restoration of original misericords that offered a comfortable perch for infirm clergy against long, dutiful standing. 

Here sleep, in solemnity of stone and marble tomb, bishop with mitre and ecclesiastical robe; armoured knight, protecting sword at rest, reposing side by side with his lady. There are monuments to martyrs, statues of kings and saints. Some, strangely, have lost their heads. Not the ravages of time but the licensed vandals of the Reformation; zealous re-forming to sad effect. 

Two legendary paintings, da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks and Raphael’s Madonna of the Chair, are a surprise of a different kind. Convincing, but less surprising, copies; intriguingly, with provenance unknown.

The fascination of light blazing through stained glass focuses the eye: glistening on marble effigy; burnishing curl of gilded wood on meticulously crafted screen, twinkling on metal twirl of elaborate gate and finialed rail. Within this house is a rare example of decorated gothic where the dance and play of light make a journey rich with discovery.