Modern and medieval: cathedrals as perpetual works of art

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‘An art that has life does not restore works of the past’, said the artist Auguste Rodin in his book-length love letter to the Gothic period, Cathedrals of France (1914), ‘it continues them’. I’m thinking about this as I stand on the scaffolding at Exeter Cathedral with my friends and former stonemasonry colleagues, looking at the replacement stones that they’ve carved and fixed into place. The work is exceptionally good, and carries a sympathetic medieval spirit but there is something undeniably contemporary about them too. This is as it should be, and indeed, unavoidable.

Stonemasonry may be a ‘heritage’ craft skill but us stonemasons are alive now, in a world often separated by several centuries to that of the work we replace. The  modern stonemason can copy the work of the past to the same or even a higher standard, but he or she adds something too. That something is a personal and unique way of doing things. No two stonecarvers will produce identical stones, even when carving the simplest profile. If a craft tradition exists to instill and pass on ‘the rules’ then that same tradition also allows for the individual stonemason’s spirit to come through. This is one of the perplexing things about a craft tradition: the rules exist to train the hand and the eye, but they also exist to help you find your own way to the material. Technique is closely linked with individual style, and individual style persists.

There’s something to be said too for style being the product of sheer bloody-minded persistence. Craftsmanship, a word which denotes a high degree of skill, is hard-won, the result of hours and hours of practice. It often begins, as the potter Carla Needleman says (in The Work of Craft, 1979), ‘with disillusion’. It’s these rules again, imposed by the nature of the material, which has its own ways and idiosyncrasies. Yet the same disillusion, as Needleman elaborates, ‘the recognition that I am not what I thought I was, that I don’t know what I thought I knew, that I can’t do what I wish to do’ is also ‘the payment that opens us to the creative dialogue’.

The new work to the St Edmund Chapel at Exeter Cathedral illustrates well what happens when technique and creative expression are harnessed. These are new works that fit into their fourteenth-century context, replacing weathered stones, but they are also new work in the obvious sense of not having existed exactly like this before. What they do is reaffirm the cathedral as an ongoing project, both a contemporary and a medieval work of art. To paraphrase Rodin, in restoring the works of the past the stonemason continues them, uniting the past with the present, and ensuring that creative practice continues to live on in the very fabric of our historic buildings.

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