We hurried along Castle Street to Carlisle Cathedral. Owen Jones was waiting for us!
Carved angels and forms from nature flank the main entrance. Two important mementos of the cathedral’s ancient past are rare 12th-century Scandinavian Runic inscriptions. One is the single name “Reginald”; the other was found just inside the main door, when paint and plaster were being removed from the walls in 1855. It reads “Dolfin wrote these runes on this stone.”
A 14th-century Gothic arcade is loaded with interesting things to see. One stone pillar capital is adorned with a Green Man, a decorative ornament common during this time, where a sculpture of a face made from leaves, branches or vines represents the renewal of Spring.
Other carved capitals in the arcade depict birds, animals, flowers and figures representing the Labours of the Months, also a popular Medieval decorative element. One woebegone man sits by a fire, while another digs with a spade at the foot of a tree. Another works in a wheat field, while another harvests grapes.
Called “black canons” because of their black cassocks, cloaks and hoods, the Augustinian monks who lived in the priory next to the cathedral came to the choir to pray, taking their place in one of 46 stalls dating from around 1400. To keep from falling asleep during their prayers, the monks propped themselves up against a misericord, a hinged seat that tips up so that a person could either stand, sit, or perch in a position that was good for singing. Each misericord is made of black oak and its underside is decorated with ornate carvings of dragons, griffins, eagles, pelicans, foxes, angels, and even a mermaid.
Alas, the misericords didn’t always work. The pillars supporting the canopies of the choir stalls show traces of having been burned by sleepy monks who held a lighted candle in their hands.
Children on a school tour did a great job role-playing this story.
The Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott married Charlotte Carpenter in Carlisle Cathedral in 1797. In 1853, British architect Ewan Christian began restoring the cathedral, a project that would last until 1870. Owen Jones, one of the great decorative artists of the day, designed the choir’s ceiling. Jones revolutionized British design, promoting the use of geometric patterns and primary colors. He is best known for writing his 1856 design sourcebook, The Grammar of Ornament, a trend-setting publication that is still important today.
Jones’s choice for the cathedral choir ceiling was a vibrant blue background studded with golden stars and adorned with angels. A contemporary Saturday Review article reported that when the cathedral’s dean first saw the roof, resplendent with Jones’ painting and gilding, he exclaimed, “Oh my stars!”
“Oh my stars” is what we said when we heard the story behind the Tait Memorial Window in the cathedral’s north transept. The window commemorates the Tait family’s five daughters aged between 10 years and 18 months, who all died between March 6 and April 8, 1856.
For more on Carlisle Cathedral, see The Cathedral Church of Carlisle: A Description of Its Fabric and a Brief History of the Episcopal See, by C. King Eley; Carlisle Cathedral, a Pitkin guide by Henry Stapleton; and Organ Music from Carlisle Cathedral, performed by organist John Robinson. To learn more about Owen Jones, read Owen Jones: Design, Ornament, Architecture, and Theory in an Age in Transition, by Carol A. Hrvol Flores.