Monday, February 2, 2009

The West Front


The West Front of the Cathedral was, beyond doubt, the last portion of the original design to be carried out, for among its details the ball-flower, a typical feature of the decorated style, frequently occurs. The governing idea of its façade is indefensible. Not merely because in common with Wells, Lincoln, and other churches, it does not emphasize the construction of the nave and aisles, and hides them by a screen, but because the screen itself poses as an integral part of the building. Even considered solely as an architectural composition, without regard to the building it professes to decorate rather than hide, it is hardly good. The two western towers it unites are, in themselves, not sufficiently important in comparison with the rest of the edifice; in fact, they are little more than finials to the screen. In many similar structures the unity of effect gained at the expense of theoretical consistency justifies the departure; here it is merely a huge surface adapted to display a great number of statues. Rich as it appears now that its long empty niches are again repeopled, it is of no remarkable [26]excellence either in mass or in detail. Its worst fault, however, is that unlike Exeter, it does not content itself by frankly assuming to be nothing more than a screen, but at first sight appears to be the legitimate finish of the nave and aisles. A recent critic, defending the façade in spite of its architectural isolation from the building in its rear, points out that the chief objection to the west front is that it is wanting in that repose and refinement of detail which characterize the rest of the building, and that its design is entirely out of keeping therewith, and also complains that "the ragged outline at the angles produced by the high relief and rather clumsy sections of the decorative detail has a very bad effect." It has been suggested that as from the position of the site there was never a chance of the building being seen from a distance—owing to the level country around it, the projection of the transepts and the group of the whole pile could never tell out as they would had it been on a hill, therefore the form chosen was deliberately adopted to give a factitious importance to the west front on its own merits. The continental builders with much more lofty nave and aisles, and with their habit of making the west door the principal entrance, were able, by enriching its portal and decorating the natural divisions of the building, to attain a stately form that honestly fulfilled its purpose; here the magnificence is secured by masking the low aisles of the nave with a wall that is a mere theatrical adjunct, its simulated windows and its stringcourses marking stories that do not exist. Apart from theoretical criticism, it is not quite admirable in itself; the three doorways are hardly of sufficient importance, the central window is somewhat larger than it should be to accord with the scale of the whole façade, while the apparently built up windows above the genuine windows of the nave aisles, whose roofs have their apex about on a level with the sills of the large central lancets, are as much frauds as any of those sham windows in symmetrical Renaissance work, which so excite the ire of ardent champions of Gothic purity.

It consists of five bays, of which the lateral ones are square turrets, covered with arcades, and terminated by spires. The lower story of the central bay is composed of three pedimented porches deeply recessed, each with a niche in its gable. Above these is a story of canopied trefoiled arches, with quatrefoil lozenges in their centres. Over this arcade is the large west window, a triplet of lancets with slender shafts and chevron ornament. Above this again is a band of quatrefoils at the foot of the gable, which is filled with double couplets of lancets with quatrefoils above their heads; and in the upper spandrils is a quatrefoiled aureole. The buttresses flanking this central bay have similar arcading continued around them. The side bays each have a triple porch, a two-lighted window with a quatrefoil in the head, with a window of the same form above it, and higher still the arcading continued from the towers.

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