|York Chapter House|
Chapter House of York Minster and its vestibule stand as a high point in
English architectural design. Built during the 1280s under Archbishop John
Romeyn (1286-96), the Chapter House was swiftly completed and by 1291 work
was underway on the Minster's nave. The
Chapter House's octagonaldesign is achieved without a central column, a
tour-de-force of engineering skill and aesthetic grace. Seven sides of the
buildings are glazed with five-lancet windows, each with tracery lights
of three multi-lobed circles. A series of seats long the walls served as
places for each of the cannons. Significantly, the archbishop was not a
member of the chapter, and did not have a seat.
The vestibule of the chapter house, where Kempe waited for her interview, shows an elegantly arched entrance with two doors, surviving with their late 13th-century ironwork. In the center, the statue of the Virgin holds her child. Since the statue is carved with the stone block behind it, if proved difficult to iconoclasts to removed. Above the vestibule is a second-story loft built to serve as a planning site for subsequent construction of the cathedral. It is known today as the masons' loft and contains original timber roof dating before 1290. The major feature of the loft is a long rectangular room where templates - exact size drawings - were prepared for the laying out of windows and other elements of stonework. Tracings corresponding to windows in the Minster have been uncovered; a protective second floor now preserves these markings.
The modern viewer now sees only the windows in their bright color but in Margery Kempe's time all wall surfaces were treated with some form of decoration. Indeed the Chapter House was one of the richest areas of the entire Minster - comparable to the combination of stained glass, painted walls, sculpture, and enamels that can be seen in the Sainte-Chapelle of Paris of 1243-48. Above the door, the blind tracery was painted as if it were a window, presenting kings and bishops, as recorded in a drawing of the Chapter House about 1795 by Joseph Halfpenny. Below were depicted Christ and the twelve apostles. The ribs and the vaults were also colored, apparently similar to their 19th-century Victorian design seen today. A series of large single figures painted on wood were originally set into the lower segments of vaults, now painted white. Descriptions allow us to identify St. Peter, St. Paul, probably St. William, St. Edmund, St. John the Baptist, St. Catherine, Moses, Mary Magdalene, and the allegorical figures of the Church and the Synagogue. The image of the Synagogue is still largely intact and a few other important fragments remain.
Clearly the building was made in impress, showing the power of the cathedral clergy through images of Moses as giver of the Law and the Church, now supplanting the Synagogue, continuing Moses's power. Peter and Paul were patrons of the cathedral, William was the York bishop whose shrine Margery Kempe had come to venerate, and Edmund was the king and martyr killed by the Danes. These saints appear again in the window cycles. The central window, opposite the entrance, is dedicated to the Passion of Christ, followed on the north by windows dedicated to the Virgin Mary, St. William, and, closest to the entrance, St. Catherine. To the south are St. Peter, St. Paul, and then a window with five saints, Thomas Becket, Margaret, Nicholas, John the Baptist, and Edmund, their stories told in each of the five lancets. All of the windows also show shields of arms in their tracery light, subjects that would be highly identifiable to a medieval viewer. Likewise, the vestibule was richly decorated with painted walls and windows showing rulers, clergy, and saints.
The Chapter House was one of the most public locations within the cathedral. Serving the cathedral clergy as a site of business deliberation, the building was secular enough to serve as a venue for a meeting of Parliament in 1296. In book 51 Kempe describes how a priest who "seemed a respected cleric" had asked her how long she would remain in York and commanded her to appear before him in the Chapter House. On the day of her appearance, she had friends to support her and a priest came through the busy area to take her by arm to lead her into the Chapter House. One can imagine the press of a crowd in the spaces in the vestibule and Kempe waiting until the doors were open. Doors were unusual in chapter house architecture. York apparently needed doors to seal off the discussions from the busy activity in the north transept and vestibule. She notes that many other clergy were there and when asked the reason for her visit she replied that she had come to venerate the shrine of St. William. After examining her on the articles of faith, they demanded that she be examined by the Archbishop of York at the Episcopal residence at Cawood, just south of York. The following day she was taken by a good man and his wife the "7 miles" to Cawood for her interview with Archbishop Henry Bowet (1407-23).
The shrine mentioned by Kempe was that of Archbishop William of York, whose body was transferred from his tomb in the Minster's nave to the choir in 1284 (the shrine was replaced in 1472 by a larger structure now surviving in remnants). At the time of Kempe's visit to the shrine of St. William, an extraordinary window had just been completed nearing its completion. In one of the most brilliant accomplishments of the cathedral, 95 panels narrate the life of St. William and the many miracles accomplished at his tomb. The donor of the window was presumably Beatrice de Ross (d. 1415) the mother of William sixth Baron Rosof Helmsley, long associated with the construction of the cathedral. Images of stained glass are courtesy Crown Copyright.
York, Chapter House, 1280s, rear of entrance wall showing blind tracery that was originally painted to look like the windows. ©Raguin MMK