Andreja Brulc's Blog

30 Nov: Happy St Andrew’s Day

Posted in Things of the Past by andrejabrulc on 30/11/2016

Every year, on 30 Nov, my mum reminds me of my ‘name day’ – Catholics, traditionally, have their names given after saints (or, more likely, these days at baptism if you are given whatever posh sounding name as your first name!) Perhaps I ought to move to Scotland, as at least I share something with the Scots. Happy St Andrew’s Day!

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The day also reminds me of my favourite example representing the martyrdom of St Andrew in visual arts: the famous architectural detail from my best-loved English Cathedral that I saw together with my parents – the scissor arches, also known as St Andrew’s Cross, supporting the crossing tower of the Wells Cathedral (Somerset), which were constructed between 1338–48 in the Decorated style by master mason William Joy. The Cathedral, dedicated to St Andrew, is the first English cathedral to have been entirely built in Gothic style, mostly in the Early English Gothic from late C12–early C13, with a few later additions, most notably the top parts of the western (front) towers done in the Perpendicular style.

Andrew the Apostle is believed to have been martyred by crucifixion at the city of Patras. According to early texts, such as the Acts of Andrew known to Gregory of Tours, the Apostle is described not to have been nailed but bound to a Latin cross like Jesus; yet a tradition has it that he had been crucified on a cross of the form known as crus decussata (X-shaped cross, or saltire) – as the heraldic symbol, St Andrew’s Cross, in the Scottish flag is informally known – according to his own wishes as he did not deem himself worthy to be martyred in the same manner as his master!

The scissor arches – therefore, evoking the crucifixion of St Andrew – were not intentional, i.e. as part of the overall architectural design, but were an engineering solution to the problem arising from the central piers of the crossing (where the two transepts cross the nave) sinking under the weight of the crossing tower as the foundations were too unstable (the tower had been heightened and topped by a lead covered wooden spire between 1313–1322).

I studied English Gothic architecture – and the aesthetic of the scissor arches has rather been disapproved in art history on the basis that it ‘brutally’ ruins the unified and restrained interior! A bit of snobbism of the discipline I must say but I just LOVE the detail! It is one of the most memorable details I have ever seen! Also, it was only at Wells that the cathedral complex gave me a better understanding how English cathedrals – originally based on monastic foundation until they were dissolved under Henry VIII in the late 1530s – actually work due to its exceptional number of surviving buildings, including the secular ones associated with its chapter of secular canons (Bishop’s Palace and Vicar’s Close). Undoubtedly, the Wells Cathedral is, in my opinion, one of the most architecturally beautiful and poetic cathedrals in England, in addition to the three examples of fan vaulting ceilings representing the culmination of the English Gothic – Perpendicular: the Bath Abbey and its west front showing angels climbing the Jacob’s Ladder, the cloisters at Gloucester Cathedral and the King’s College Chapel in Cambridge.

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