A Visit to St Bartholomew the Great
By Freddie Bond
Whilst walking to my seminar at the Barbican gallery the other week, with spare time and looking for a break from the wind, I walked through the pretty Tudor gatehouse of St Bart’s and was enticed to have a gander. From the exterior the church seemed rather ordinary, no real external points of interest – a red brick tower and remnants of the medieval stonework infused with that of a more modern restoration. But it was once I had walked through the double doors of the entrance and stepped inside that the building came alive. A salvaged ruin, St Bartholomew the Great holds a great presence with its attractive French style east end – reminiscent of a smaller Canterbury Cathedral and a quaint Romanesque triforium, (though not open to the public) describing continual monastical use for four hundred years. Construction began in the early 12th century in the Norman Romanesque style with Local children supposedly bringing stones from across London to help with construction. But due to progressions made on the continent and in France, particularly at the Abbey of St Denis under Abbot Suger, the style and mechanics of church building had begun to change. The new “Gothic” style was beginning to show the newly found knowledge from an exchange of ideas brought by returning travelling crusaders and would symbolise ecclesiastical architecture in Europe. In the nave of the church, you can see where the building style changed during its initial construction, the heavy Romanesque columns stand next to the slenderer and less load bearing columns of the lighter new style. Quite a rare phenomenon for a stylistic change so early in a building’s creation. When using your imagination, you can start to materialise what the church would have looked like at the height of its material existence. Like piecing together a puzzle, once you know what to look for it comes naturally. As with St Alban’s Abbey which I discussed in my last column, the ever-changing faces of these buildings reflects the impression that when viewing these historical sites, the history of these buildings is also the history of people themselves, as with St Bart’s there are few personal touches remaining today.
The Church of St Bartholomew the Great was the brainchild of its first rector, a man called Rahere, who is entombed within the church. The idea came to him in the grips of a fever whilst on the First Crusade, having been visited by what he described as a “winged beast.” He had a further visitation by St Bartholomew himself declaring that a church should be built in his name to benefit the poor in the Smithfield area of London. Rahere’s illness induced psychosis and the feverous religious dreams he was exposed to paint an image of a rather restless soul. Therefore, coming as no real surprise is a tale in folklore regarding the clergyman’s foot. During the restoration of the church in the 19th century, Rahere’s tomb was opened to confirm that as a priest he was buried the right way round facing west, as tradition states. Discovering that he was and that his skeletal body remained intact inside, the restorers set to work. The tomb still contained the clergyman’s feet and his own pair of sandals. Mysteriously w
hilst his tomb had been opened, a foot and his sandal were reported missing. A scandal ensued within the local parish and the sandal was quickly returned to its rightful place, but the foot was not. It is said that on the 1st of July every year, Rahere’s ghost appears in front of the vestry hobbling around looking for his lost foot. As ghosts and ghouls go, an apparition of a hobbling spirit would be enough to make me chuckle and wonder if he could ever just put one foot in front of the other and return to his own realm.
Tucked into the southern aisle, Damien Hirst’s “Exquisite Pain” (2006) stands triumphantly in gold. The atmospheric and rather startling work is a depiction of St Bartholomew who was flayed alive in Armenia whilst preaching the story of the resurrection of Jesus. The glistening work echoes throughout the dark interior of the church, his open mouth screaming in silence with his fist raised to the ceiling holding a pair of scissors. The sculpture upon first viewing looks to follow the classic canon of classical sculpture, contrapposto and all with an Augustinian like arm outstretched with anatomical detail of the muscles of the skinless man. But upon closer inspection, what at first looked like drapery hanging from the forearm of the figure is in fact his skin, the hollow face and the feet begin to emerge from the carving, ominously dangling like spaghetti. The inclusion of Hurst’s sculpture of St Bartholomew spurred me to ponder on the violent history surrounding the church and its involvement within its own time. For example, as the arena for the assassination of Wat Tyler, the leader of the peasant’s revolt in the 14th century who was dragged from the streets and stabbed to death in the very building. I would not be the first to champion Art by Hirst, but the piece is an eye-catching addition to the interior of the church and proves a startling sight upon first entry. Standing almost aside to Hirst’s painful experience sits a beautiful medieval font which was the location of William Hogarth’s Baptism in 1697, having been born a stone’s throw away.
In the East end hanging gracefully from the nave is Prior Bolton’s Oriel window. Known for his works on the Henry VII chapel at Westminster Abbey and the tower of London, whilst prior at St Bart’s he designed and built his new lodgings. It contains a private chapel with a view of Rahere’s tomb and the high alter, which in turn allowed Bolton to keep an eye on any misbehaving monks up to no good (classic monks eh?) It is a perfect and unlikely addition to the building describing the community usage it once had. Together with the triforium it builds an image of a buzzing atmosphere in the medieval Smithfield area of the City of London. Bolton preserved his name in an architectural pun, leaving a carving of a round barrel or “tun” pierced by the bolt of a crossbow (i.e. bolt-tun) just below the central pane. Funnily enough in the final wedding of the 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral where Hugh Grant gets punched in the face, as the camera pans from the floor upwards, Bolton’s oriel window can be seen as the scene takes place in the east end of St Bartholomew’s.
Exquisite Pain, 2006, Damien Hirst
Prior Bolton's Oriel Window (15th Century)
The Rounded East End
A View of the Triforium and Romanesque Columns
Though a serendipitous visit on the day of my seminar, a whistle stop tour of St Bartholomew’s was an art historical treat. With its sister church about five hundred yards down the road and the old Smithfield meat market next door, one can start to grasp the medieval atmosphere of an area now in the heart of the city of London. With the towers of the Barbican looming overhead, the juxtaposition of brutalism and the hotchpotch of architectural history in the form of St Barts is an intriguing sight to be seen. It’s label as the oldest church in London is something you do not see every day and it is well worth a visit, even if it is just for fifteen minutes as you can gain a strangleholdof the overall feeling and atmosphere of the structure. To walk on the same stones as those who came before us and to feel the same awe, brings a certain connect between the past and our own existence. The worries and anxieties that as people we have always felt creates a sense of sureness and relief in times of difficulty and struggle. To despair at one’s own situation is to feel that of everyone else’s as we all live our own lives, in the past or the present. Perhaps Hirst’s “Exquisite Pain” plays out within us all at some point in time, but hopefully not as violent as St Bartholomew’s undignified end.