061119.Bath, King: “I Had a Dream!”November 19, 2006 at 12:32 AM | Posted in Architecture, Bath, Bath Abbey, Cathedrals and churches, Chisel Marks, Conservation, Crowns, cumulus clouds, gargoyles, Ladders, Light and Shadow, Olive Trees, Preservation, Restoration, Ruins, Sculpture, somerset, Stained Glass, stairs, Towers, towns | 7 Comments
Then he [Jacob] dreamed, and behold, a ladder was set up on the Earth, and its top reached to heaven; and there the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.
Firstly, don’t even think of looking up the skirts of these angels: they’re genderless…and God will know if you try. Weekends typically kill viewership so I was going to play it easy but here’s the story on the west façade (although it was briefly mentioned back in the first Hokusai post):
When the former secretary to Henry VII, Bishop Oliver King, came to his new diocese he found the old large Norman Church in a state of grave disrepair and so endeavored to get the King to pay for a new Cathedral.
Owing his ecclesiastical office (See earlier “Investitures Conflict”) to his former secretarial duties and far from being concerned with civil rights in 1499, King had a dream in which angels ascended and descended a ladder from heaven and a voice spoke to him proclaiming: “Let an olive establish the crown and a king restore the Church.” (See the built image here.) I should add that by King, I mean Bishop King. And that the actual king probably responded by having an equally vivid dream in which God told him to let his former secretary pay for it. Anyway, the royal master masons (Robert and William Virtue) were used, which explains the similarity between its fan vaulting interior and that of Cambridge’s King’s College Chapel. It is the last large scale medieval cathedral constructed in England.
It’s all very confusing since not only is there a King, king, Oliver, and olive in this story but the actual king, Henry VII, was eager to shore up his “crown” image since he had just established his dynasty. This Tudor dynasty was born out of overthrowing the “evil” Yorkist Richard III* and ended the War of the Roses (dynastic civil war) by “uniting” the families of Lancaster and York. (Actually, he just married a York and then the happy couple spent their Honeymoon and subsequent marriage executing the wife’s entire family on trumped up charges.) His son was Henry VIII so you can just imagine the mother-in-law jokes of the Tudor Court!
Clearly Bath Abbey wasn’t just a dreamed folly (built) but part of God’s divine plan. God willed a Cathedral there, or rather a new cathedral there (3rd on the site!), or rather a new bi-cathedral there (since the “cathedra” is split with Wells, making it the diocese of Bath and Wells.)
Or as Bishop Jocelin would put it: “…the folly isn’t mine. It’s God’s Folly. Even in the old days He never asked men to do what was reasonable. Men can do that for themselves. They can buy and sell, heal and govern. But then out of some deep place comes the command to do what makes no sense at all–to build a ship on dry land; to sit among the dunghills; to marry a whore; to set their son on the altar of sacrifice. Then, if men have faith, a new thing comes.” (Excerpt from William Golding’s The Spire, 1964…pick up a copy, much better than Lord of the Flies)
And new things did come: Reformation, which made this structure redundant and caused it to be sold at auction a mere three decades after King’s dream.
My favorite aspect of the Jacob’s Ladder is its uninterupted spanning of the windows. And despite their stone wings, the angel’s share a valuable safety lesson with us mere humans: NEVER CLIMB A LADDER WHILE HOLDING ONTO THE OUTSIDE RAILINGS SINCE IF YOU SLIP YOU WILL SLIDE DOWN. (Somewhere on this facade must be the equally famous Nilda instruction: NEVER EVER SHAKE A BABY) God bless the angels and fundamentally basic safety procedures.
There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west
And my spirit is crying for leaving
In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees
And the voices of those who stand looking
Woe oh oh oh oh oh
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven
*Please note Paul Trevor Bale left a concerned comment on this ironic characterization that is well worth reading.