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The Genius Of Lincoln Cathedral

Westminster Abbey. Durham Cathedral. York Minster. Canterbury Cathedral. Lincoln Cathedral. Spot the odd one out?

Well there are many answers depending on the criteria but for the sake of this question the correct one is Lincoln Cathedral. The reason for this is simple, but surprising - Lincoln Cathedral is not a World Heritage Site, and it's only now almost four decades after the programme was founded by UNESCO that it's finally being considered.

Just why should Lincoln Cathedral get this special title in the face of competition from 22 other deserving landmarks in and around the United Kingdom?

We could talk about the height of it and the fact it was until the Washington Memorial the tallest thing ever built in the world, its massive inspiration to the Victorians culminating in the Houses of Parliament, the Wren Library and the manuscripts it contains, or the massive contributions to the Magna Carta that it still owns, but the real reason is inside the church.

Lincoln Cathedral was the first large Gothic church to be built in England following the rebuilding of Canterbury Cathedral with work starting in 1192. At the time it was the motherchurch for 1,700 parishes, the largest diocese in Christendom, and the charismatic Bishop, St Hugh of Avalon desired a great and pioneering church worthy of its position.

As well as this, Hugh was the first medieval bishop to get close to the people becoming a leading figure in the community rather than a distant aristocrat who had taken the cloth. Although this is something people take for granted these days, at the time it was a revolutionary approach for a leading churchman in such a powerful position.

His generosity would see 300 deer given to locals at a single feast, whilst his reputation was such he was credited with a stream of miracles whilst still alive by listening to the pleas of the poor and visiting the sick at their homes. Thanks to this, the church received outpourings of devotion in the form massive bequests of land from local farmers, and precious goods from merchants that gave Hugh the power to patronise the building works worthy of a great Roman imperator.

Realising his ideas from about 1192 to 1200 was Geoffrey of Noiers, the master builder responsible for the cathedrals choir who overlaid a double-layered blind arcade to either side of it, the first of its type anywhere in the world.

As if this wasn't enough he took the then-standard groups of sexpartite (six) bays used in Canterbury Cathedral and split them up but not symmetrically by manipulating the diagonal placements. In doing so he created the so-called "crazy vault" of Lincoln Cathedral where the vaulting appears to be arranged with a manipulated perspective and moved around from what's now considered the transitional sexpartite vault.

Unlike the previous vaults, these were not designed to be structural but simply existed for decorative effect and thus the vault could finally move away to more elaborate and visually expressive forms having made sure that the ridge rib does not run to the wall rib. In effect, Lincoln Cathedral has the first fully developed Gothic vaulted ceiling where aesthetics triumph over structure.

A second unknown builder, perhaps Richard the Mason, took Geoffery's ideas and approached the nave with columns of polished purbeck marble shipped at great expense from Dorset as the prime interior structural support.

This expands the principle dramatically creating a space over 50 metres long with seven ribs for each side of the vault emerging seamlessly from the walls and blending in perfectly with the columns. From here on, every cathedral and major church in England had such a ceiling with notable examples including Ely and Salisbury and then later Exeter and Gloucester.

Hugh's legacy was cemented following his death by the church that not only made him a saint, but made him the patron saint of the sick and thus the most important English saint in the Catholic hierarchy after Thomas Beckett only two decades after his death. These days he even has a college in Oxford named after him.

Despite his innovations, Geoffrey of Noiers is rather less well known and as for Richard the Mason... well historians argue over whether he was involved at all. In any case, the world has been rather slower to recognise the impact of the architecture of Lincoln Cathedral than it was to canonise St Hugh. Perhaps now, UNESCO can finally do so, only 810 years after the final vault was put into place.
The nave of Lincoln Cathedral
The nave of Lincoln Cathedral
Lincoln Cathedral and vaulting
Lincoln Cathedral and vaulting
Lincoln Cathedral and vaulting
Lincoln Cathedral and vaulting