Thursday, May 03, 2007

Chichester Cathedral

Every month I go to a regional managers' meeting in Chichester and although they can sometimes be heavy-going, this is compensated by the fact that we meet in a beautiful old coaching inn opposite the cathedral. As we sit and discuss the pressing issues of retail, the bells of the cathedral peel hourly, reminding us how ephemeral our concerns are.

During last week's meeting I decided to have a look at the cathedral and was amazed to find it almost empty. There were no jostling tourists with cameras beeping and flashing and the only sound I could hear was some ethereal organ music.

During the 1960s and 70s, the Dean of Chichester commissioned many works of contemporary art for the cathedral including sculptures by Henry Moore and music by Leonard Bernstein. He encountered some resistance from people who thought that contemporary art was incongruous in a 900-year-old cathedral and would detract from its atmosphere, but the Dean argued that every other piece of art in the cathedral was a product of its time. Four decades on, the modernist tapestries and stained-glass windows sit perfectly well with their older companions.

The most striking thing I saw was the 12th-century tomb of a medieval knight and his wife. What is particularly moving about the tomb is the fact that they defied the convention of the time and insisted that instead of lying flat on their backs with one arm at each side, they would be shown holding hands.

The wife is also leaning slightly towards her husband. A simple gesture, but an incredibly powerful one. Later I remembered that Philip Larkin had seen this tomb, known as the Arundel Tomb and was inspired to write this poem:

An Arundel Tomb

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd -
The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor's sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly, they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

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