Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Holy Sepulchre, Cambridge

A Norman round church with aisles; what's not to love apart from the aisles?

The round part of the church was built in about 1130 by the fraternity of the Holy Sepulchre. They were evidently influenced by the round church in Jerusalem called the Church of the Holy Sepulchre built by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the C4th. Most churches in Western Europe are cross-shaped in their floor plan and in England there are only four other round churches like this one. They were all built following the First Crusade in 1097. The round shape is thought to celebrate the resurrection, as Constantine’s church in Jerusalem was built on the supposed site of Jesus’ tomb and resurrection.

Initially, the church was a wayfarers chapel serving the main road then it became a normal parish church in the C13th with a proper chancel and a north aisle.

A heavy Gothic tower, built over the round nave in the C15th, caused a partial collapse in the round ambulatory in 1841. During the extensive Victorian repair and restoration it was replaced by the conical spire you see today. This was a desire to be faithful to the nave’s Norman origin. The south aisle and bell tower were also added and the whole east wall rebuilt.

Despite the restoration the round church still feels authentic and is truly beautiful.

Pevsner says: It is wholly Norman, though unfortunately severely restored in 1841. In the W doorway with its three orders of colonnettes with scalloped capitals and zigzags and crenellations in the arch voussoirs, Atkinson says, ‘there is not one old stone left’. The windows also are renewed throughout. The interior has eight thick short round piers with many scalloped strip-capitals, a gallery with twin openings and above this vaulting-shafts carrying a ribbed octopartite dome. These top parts are rebuilt. They replace a C15 battlemented bell-storey. The most interesting part architecturally is the ambulatory. It is rib-vaulted, with ribs of unmoulded rectangular section except in the E bay and that to the r. of this. These two have zigzag mouldings l and r of a roll-moulding. E (ritually speaking) of the round structure is a two-bay chancel with N and S aisles of equal width, the whole wider than the diameter of the Norman church. This E end belongs almost entirely to 1841, though it is said that E.E. work was then found in the N aisle N and W walls and the chancel E wall. C15 remodelling may still appear in the piers and arches between ambulatory and chancel, and chancel and chancel aisles. Good C15 roof in the N aisle on angel supports.

One of the two Norman round churches in England I've visited - St John the Baptist, Little Maplestead in Essex being the other (there are four in total, Temple in London and Holy Sepulchre in Northampton being the other two). Holy Sepulchre is more elaborate than St John and the two make an interesting comparison.

Note to self: visit the other two.

Holy Sepulchre (2)

Corbel (8)


Most famous of all the churches of Cambridge is the church of the Holy Sepulchre. Compelling in its modesty compared with the great pile of St John’s Chapel over the way, it is unusual outside and striking within, and has its own fame as one of the few round churches of our land - four still in use, and one at Ludlow Castle in ruin. Like those at Ludlow and Northampton, it is thought to have been built not later than 1140, and was modelled on the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It was at first only the nave surrounded by the vaulted aisle and a small chancel, perhaps with an apse, where the altar stood. Over the round arcade, its eight massive pillars and capitals with simple carving, was the beautiful triforium, its wide arches on short pillars framing smaller ones. Above the triforium was the clerestory, giving on to the vaulted roof. Alterations in the 15th century included the rebuilding of the 14th century chancel and its north aisle, the raising of the nave walls to make an eight sided belfry, the insertion of new windows, and the replacing of some of the round arches by pointed ones. So it stood till the great restoration of 1841, when the Round was given its original 12th century appearance. The belfry gave place to a roof resembling the conical one of the Normans, and a bell turret was added at the corner of the north aisle which was lengthened eastward to be in line with the chancel. The fine west doorway, with zigzag ornament and six shafts, is chiefly new. It is interesting to walk slowly round the ambulatory (the aisle of the Round) and catch glimpses of the carved heads peeping from the walls between the piers. There are seven heads round the aisle and eight more inside the nave, all vivid and striking, and all different.


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