Sunday 9 March 2014

Great St Bartholomew's, palimpsest

St Bartholomew the Great is, perhaps more than many churches, visibly a palimpsest: changing uses, contexts and fashions are written, rewritten and overwritten on its building, inside and out. 

In 1123, St Bartholomew's was founded by Rahere as the church of an Augustinian monastery (alongside the hospital and its smaller church, St Bartholomew the Less). Buried here, he has a tomb to the west of the altar, built in the sixteenth century.

The church's east end was altered by the Bishop of London in 1405: the circular wall was dismantled and its materials used to construct a new, square east wall.  He also built a new chantry chapel and clerestory; further fashionable changes might have followed, had he not then died. A century later, an oriel window was inserted into one of the southern arches. It bears the rebus of its creator, an arrow through a barrel ('bolt' plus 'tun', for Prior Bolton). 

Like most such institutions, the priory was dissolved in the Reformation; the church's nave was demolished but the choir and sanctuary became a parish church. When Catholic Queen Mary was on the throne, priors (this time, Dominican) returned but under the Protestant Elizabeth I, St Bartholomew's became a parish church once more. The tower was rebuilt in 1628; the church would survive the Great Fire of 1666, and William Hogarth was baptised there.

The eighteenth century, though, was a time of decline with the church occupied by squatters: parts were used as a blacksmith's forge; hops were stored in the sacristy and coal in the crypt; the printer's office in the lady chapel employed Benjamin Franklin in 1725; while a fringe factory occupied the triforium until it could be bought out in the mid-nineteenth century. By 1809, there seems to have been a proposal to pull the church down. Unsurprisingly, it needed restoration in the nineteenth century (first by William Slater and then by Aston Webb) and again in the inter-war period.

All this history is inscribed in the fabric of the church. Norman arches stand amongst tiles in geometric patterns, disrupted by eighteenth-century tombstones. Fragments and traces are visible in stonework. New painting glows on an old chapel wall.


Ralph Hancock said...

The picture of three abandoned arches, a medieval lean-to and a New Zealand tree fern says much about the passage of time.

Sam Roberts (Ghostsigns) said...