What a mouthfull! No wonder people refer to this magnificent cathedral as “The Minster”. The Anglo-Saxon word “mynster” means to bring knowledge (of Christianity), and York was a centre for missionary activity in the 7th Century. I spent two hours there yesterday, marvelling at the spectacle.
I walked on the ramparts of the city wall. From here you can see the Minster arising from a higgledy-piggledy, mass of red-tiled roofs. It was built on the site of a Roman encampment, Eboracum, which is now three metres below ground level. But outside the south transept of the Minster you can see a statue of Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor, who took on his dead father’s purple cloak in York in AD306.
The central tower looks solid enough to support a spire, but the wooden one constructed in 1400 collapsed and when the architects looked into erecting another, they found some worrying cracks in the walls, so they decided to leave well alone. With the largest expanse of medieval stained glass windows in the world, there was no need to have a needle pointing the way to heaven.
Normally, I don’t like joining tours or listening to audio guides. But this time, I joined a group led by an American lady who was one of the 300 volunteers who work at the Minster. It was worth it. Her anecdotes brought some humanity and humour into the sanctity of the place. For example, she explained how the stained glass in the West Window is topped by a heart shape. On St Valentine’s Day, there are droves of couples popping the question beneath the window.
The lowest row of figures in the window are the eight Archbishops of York during the time of the construction of the Minster, from 1215 to 1472. The next layer shows the Apostles, but there are only eight slots available, so they had to double up at the ends of the row, and Judas Iscariot missed the cut.
Below this window, there is a modern sculpture of headless saintly figures doing semaphore. The message is that you don’t need your head to know Christ. Terry Hammill donated the work to the Minster in 2004. The message spells out “Christ is here”. When a new archdeacon named Christopher was appointed, some wag altered the figures so it read “Chris is there”.
The nave’s ceiling is astonishing. There is a central spine with ribs arching to the walls. The ceiling collapsed in the 19th Century but luckily all the decorations could be accurately rebuilt. Apart from the illustration of the Baby Jesus breast feeding – the Victorians substituted a bottle.
I always thought that the stained glass windows served as cartoons for common folk who could not read to see the Bible stories illustrated. This window shows St Peter holding the Minster, but take a look at the lower part of the window. On the right, there is a stag chasing a greyhound, in the middle section there is a fox with a chicken on its back, and on the left there are lots of monkeys, one of whom is examining a flask of urine, just as medieval medics used to do.
The next window is like a gigantic billboard advertising the original bell maker, whom you can see with a bell on his belt and bells adorn the panels around. You can also see a female bell caster in one scene.
After this profusion of colourful stained glass, it was odd to see the “five sisters”, five 16m high windows mainly containing grey glass with no images. Five sisters refers to the five great Cistercian monasteries in Yorkshire. Cistercians were rather austere and did not want to be distracted from their prayers by beautiful windows telling stories. The windows were built at the time of the Crusades, so perhaps the abstract patterns indicate some Islamic influence.
Facing the sisters is the Rose Window, celebrating the end of the Wars of the Roses between Lancaster (red) and York (white) with the Tudor dynasty. This window was destroyed in a fire in 1984. It has been rebuilt along with the ceiling decoration – instead of using the old designs, they asked the children’s TV programme, Blue Peter, to canvass opinion. So there is a “Save the Whales” decoration, one depicting the Tudor ship, Mary Rose, and another showing children being fed.
On the side of the Minster is the octagonal Chapter House, where church business was done. The carvings are fascinating. Two show haughty Queen Isabella, who would not learn English. In one, a devil is sitting on her head and in the other an eagle is pulling up her nose with its beak. Another carving shows a priest with his girlfriend, putting his hand over her mouth to ensure silence.
The guide pointed out where the architects bodged it up. The nave is a metre out of true for example. This isn’t surprising, considering the Minster took 250 years to build. This does not detract at all from the wonder of this medieval marvel. Go and see it if you have the chance.