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Artists - ArtWorks

Name of the Artist / Artwork:

Durham Cathedral

Country: United Kingdom
Century: 1100 - The 12th Century
Artist / Artwork Description:

An example of Norman Gothic English Architecture built between 1093 and 1128

Synthetic Chronology:

In 875 monks fleeing Lindisfarne brought the miraculously preserved body of the Christian Saint Cuthbert and the Illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels to rest at the current site of Durham Cathedral. The site’s origins are entwined in its beginnings as a shrine and place of homage. A highly defensible site was selected and begun as a wooden then stone structure in 998.
The present Cathedral developed from 1093 in phases. Notable features, which were precursors to Gothic Architecture of Northern France, developed from 1135.

The Context:

Artistically the main characteristics of the building have developed from the initial foundation stone laid on August 12th 1093. The choir, transepts and nave form the main cross shape of the structure. These were built between 1093 and 1133. The space of the Cathedral’s nave is dominated by the massive carved pillars.
This original structure is described as Norman (Romanesque).
The key characteristics of the nave include its ribbed vault (the first of its time) and pointed transverse arches, flying buttresses, and concealed lateral abutments within the triforium over the aisles. Larger windows were opened up in the event of buttressing making it possible to build taller wider intervening wall spaces. The Early Gothic style Chapel of Nine Altars 1242 – 1280 is a third major addition to the Romanesque cross shape.


The first Prince Bishop William St Calais began the first phase of construction in 1093. The phase was completed by his successor Ranulf Flambard by 1135.

National Comparative:

There are a number of Norman Cathedrals that were developed after the Norman conquest of 1066 in place of Saxon-built structures. Canterbury Cathedral founded in AD 597 built across a former Roman road was rebuilt based on the Abbey of St.Etienne in Caen in 1077 in the Norman style. Ripon Cathedral thought to date from AD 672 perished under William the Conqueror was then rebuilt by Norman Archbishop Thomas of Bayeux after 1069.
York Minster was originally built as a wooden structure in 627 then destroyed in a fire in 741. The church was damaged again in 1069, but the first Norman archbishop, organized repairs in 1070.

Artistic Analysis:

The significance of Durham Cathedral is located in its innovative roof design. The Roman art of vaulting large structures had been largely lost and required a great amount of technical skill. The problem of spanning the roof space between tremendous archways with stone rather than timber without it collapsing was problematic and required ceaseless experimentation. Durham was a key point in resolving these issues. The solution involved spanning firm arches placed at intervals with crosswise/diagonal ribs between the pillars. The triangular sections created by the ribbed arches were then filled with lighter stone. This revolutionary method is the earliest traceable `rib-vault` in England.

Transnational Comparative Analysis:

The Abbey of Saint-Etienne was founded in 1063 by William the Conqueror. The Abbey adopts the characteristic Norman nave pattern seen in Durham. Many other Romanesque churches across France exhibit some details of the Norman style.
Parma Cathedral in Italy constructed in 1059 while not Norman in style precedes the 12th Century developments of Gothic innovations which Durham heralds. Tournai Cathedral In Belgium (1171-1213) combines the work of three design periods, including a Romanesque nave contrasting with a Gothic style Choir.

Development of the artist's work through the years:

In the twelfth century Bishop Hugh de Puiset added the Galilee chapel. The Chapel of the Nine Altars was developed under the guidance of Richard le Poore between 1228-1237. The current tower dates from the fifteenth century. Richard de Marisco (1217–1226) probably completed the western towers. Walter de Skirlaw (1388–1406) contributed largely to the work in the cloister. About 1470 the rebuilding of the central tower, which had been long failing, was undertaken and the lower gallery of the lantern and the arcade above it were completed in the time of Bishop Laurence Booth, the belfry being added about 1490, under the direction of Prior Auckland. There were no major phases of construction beyond remodelling after this point.


Durham is the first cathedral in Europe to have a stone ribbed vault and its solid columns give the building a massive dignity. This vast space is subtly enlivened by the simple geometric patterns on the pillars.
The cathedral is dramatically located in a defensive position which reminds us of the site’s rich origins and the dominance of the Christian Church in the culture of Europe


The Art of the Western World, Ed Denise Hooker (Guild Publishing 1989)
Architecture: from Prehistory to Post-Modernism, Marvin Trachtenberg and Isabelle Hyman (Prentice Hall 2002)

Related Material:

Other document available

  1. File name: 110_Durham.jpeg

    Description of the material:

    View of the Nave of Durham Cathedral looking East

    Contextualisation Of the source:

    See and other sites in the evaluation of E-Learning based Art Teaching Materials

    Interpretation of the source:

    The image gives a clear view of the rib vaulting, the first in Europe, and the massive supporting pillars of the Nave with their simple geometric decoration. This simple decoration links the building to its heritage in the decorative calligraphy of the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Northern European tradition of stone carving.

  1. File name: 110_Durham2.jpeg

    Description of the material:

    View of the Chapel of the Nine Altars in Durham Cathedral

    Contextualisation Of the source: Adapted from Greenwell, William. Durham Cathedral. Eighth Edition Durham: Andrews and Company, 1913.

    Interpretation of the source:

    The photograph shows clearly how the ground breaking solidity of Durham’s Norman architecture gave way, 100 years later, to the lighter pointed arches and ribbed columns of this Gothic addition.

Comments about this Artist/ArtWork

Date: 2009.05.22

Posted by Zornitsa Staneva, Sofia, BG

Message: England has always impressed me with its cathedrals. I would like to support the info on Durham cathedral with some additional reading on this type of architectural masterpieces - e.g. St. Albans cathedral, which has the longest nave of any cathedral in England -

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