The Chapter House, which is entered from the eastern walk of the cloisters, dates probably from the time of Edward the First; later it may be, but certainly not earlier than the commencement of his reign, as, during certain excavations for underpinning the walls in 1854, several pennies of that king were found below its foundations. The architecture is somewhat later in style than that of the cloisters, and if it be not, as its admirers claim, the most beautiful in England, it has few rivals. Like Westminster, Wells, and other English examples, except York and Southwell, it has a central pillar, from which the groining of the roof springs gracefully in harmonious lines. A raised bench of stone runs round the interior. At its back, forty-nine niches of a canopied arcade borne on slight Purbeck marble shafts mark out as many seats. They are apportioned as follows: those at each side of the entrance to the Chancellor and Treasurer respectively, the rest to the Bishop, Dean, Arch-deacons, and other members of the chapter.
The plan of the building is octagonal, about fifty-eight feet in diameter and fifty-two feet in height. Each side has a large fanlight window with traceried head. Below these windows and above the canopies of the seats is a very remarkable series of bas-reliefs, noticed more fully later on. The bosses of the roof are somewhat elaborately carved; one north of the west doorway has groups of figures on it, apparently intended to represent armourers, musicians, and apothecaries, possibly commemorating guilds who were benefactors to the building; the others have foliage chiefly with grotesque monsters. On the base of the central pillar is a series of carvings taken probably from one of the many books of fables so popular in the middle ages. These were reproduced from the originals, which are preserved in the cloisters.
The quatrefoil over the doorway has an empty niche, and it is not possible to say with certainty whether it was originally filled by a crucifix, as Mr. Mackenzie Walcott infers from the symbols of the Evangelists in the angles of the panel; or, with a seated figure of our Lord in majesty; or, as a third archæologist has suggested, a coronation of the Virgin. Filling the voussoirs of the arch of the doorway are fourteen small niches containing subjects from the Psychomachia of Prudentius, the Battle of the Virtues against the Vices. The figures are not easily identified, but Mr. Burges, whose "Iconography of the Chapter House" is the most important monograph on the subject, suggests that on the right-hand side the figures in the third niche from the top appear to represent Concord triumphing over Discord; in the sixth, Temperance is pouring liquor down the throat of Intemperance; on the seventh, Fortitude tramples on Terror, who cuts her own throat. On the left hand in the first niche Faith is trampling on Infidelity; in the second, a Virtue covers a Vice with her cloak, while the Vice embraces her knees with one hand and stabs her with a sword held in the other. This incident is taken from Prudentius: "Discord by stealth wounds Concord; she is taken and killed by" Faith, which latter incident may be represented in the next compartment. In the fourth niche, Truth pulls out Falsehood's tongue; in the fifth, Modesty scourges Lust; in the sixth, Generosity pours coin into the throat of Avarice. To quote the words of the author from whom these interpretations are derived: "These sculptures are of the very highest class of art, and infinitely superior to any work in the chapter house; the only defect is the size of the heads: probably this was intentional on the part of the artist. The intense life and movement of the figures are worthy of special study." These allegories are common in paintings and sculptures of this period; at Canterbury the same subjects are incised on the pavement that surrounds the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket.
On the spandrils of the continuous arcade, sculptures in high relief once restored as far as possible in the original colours are now again scraped clean, and with the new heads to the figures look so modern that it is hard to believe they are contemporary with the building they adorn, yet since on the whole the restoration has been faithfully accomplished they may be studied as peculiarly valuable examples of early mediæval sculpture, showing certain naïve qualities that raise them far above the usual level of contemporary work. They are supposed to have been defaced by the Commission sitting in this building during the time of the Rebellion. The subjects are:
1. A Representation of Chaos. 2. The Creation of the Firmament.
3. The Creation of the Earth. 4. The Creation of the Planets. 5. The Creation of the Birds and Fishes. 6. The Creation of Adam and Eve. 7. The Seventh Day. 8. The First Marriage. 9. The Temptation of Eve. 10. Adam and Eve hiding.
11. The Flight from Paradise. 12. The First Labour. 13. Cain and Abel's Offering. 14. The First Murder. 15. The Punishment of Cain. 16. The Command to Noah. 17. The Ark. 18. The Vineyard of Noah.
19. Noah's Drunkenness. 20. The Building of Babel. 21. Angels appearing to Abraham. 22. Abraham entertaining the Angels. 23. The Destruction of the Cities of the Plain. 24. Lot's Escape. 25. Abraham and Isaac. 26. The Sacrifice of Isaac.
27. Isaac and Jacob. 28. Esau and Isaac. 29. Rebecca and Jacob. 30. Jacob and Rachel. 31. Rachel, Jacob, and Laban. 32. Jacob and the Angels. 33. The Angel touching Jacob's thigh. 34. Jacob meeting Esau.
35. Joseph's Dream. 36. Joseph relating his Dream. 37. Joseph in the Pit. 38. Joseph sold into Egypt. 39. Joseph's Coat brought to Jacob. 40. Joseph and Potiphar. 41. Potiphar's Wife. 42. Joseph accused.
43. Joseph in Prison. 44. Pharaoh's Baker and Butler. 45. Pharaoh's Dream. 46. Pharaoh's Indecision. 47. Joseph before Pharaoh. 48. Joseph as Ruler. 49. Joseph's Brethren. 50. The Cup placed in Benjamin's Sack.
51. The Discovery of the Cup. 52. His Brethren before Joseph. 53. Jacob on his Way to Egypt. 54. Joseph and his Brethren pleading. 55. Joseph protecting his Brethren. 56. Moses on Sinai. 57. The Miracle of the Red Sea. 58. The Destruction of the Egyptians.
59. Moses striking the Rock. 60. The Law declared.