Interpreting stone masonry: Revealing the past to inform the future
Historic architecture can be studied from many perspectives, focussing on its impact on the landscape, on its role in social history, on the uses these buildings have had, and on the designers of their facades.
A new approach is to ask questions about how they were built, what materials were used and why, how were the engineering questions solved in the periods before the present, and how can we ask these questions directly of the buildings themselves since the documentary record is mostly silent.
This approach to both medieval cathedrals and early-modern country houses has been promoted by Dr Jenny Alexander at Warwick, utilising techniques derived from archaeology as well as art history and based on a meticulous study of the building fabric.
Lincoln Cathedral is creating a new visitor facility, again funded by the National Heritage Lottery Fund, and a virtual reconstruction is being made of the great medieval shrine of St Hugh. This will allow visitors to experience for themselves the culmination of a pilgrimage to one of England's own saints and see what drew their ancestors to the cathedral in the medieval past.
Work to create the image of the shrine is underpinned by Dr Alexander's research on the shrine and on pilgrimage and provides a definitive account of the appearance of a monument lost since the 16th century.
At Croyland Abbey, in the town of Crowland, in the fens of Lincolnshire, analysis of its 15th-century figure sculpture revealed how the abbey's promotion of its Anglo-Saxon saint through sculpture displayed on the constantly visible facade of the facade made a powerful statement during the turbulent late medieval period.
The analysis also provided the information needed to support the church's successful National Heritage Lottery Fund bid to have it conserved and presented to the public.
Santiago de Compostela
For the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela in Spain, Dr Alexander's research published in an accessible book reached a wide public audience, and became the focus of press attention.
In turn this led to a full-page article in the Observer, A selfie set in stone: Hidden portrait by cheeky mason found in Spain 900 years on (November 1, 2020), and inclusion in BBC's Have I Got News For You, (Nov 6/Dec 8, 2020) which featured a hidden carving of a stonemason that caught the imagination of a large number of readers in this country and abroad.
Dr Alexander has been consulted by heritage bodies such as English Heritage (now Historic England) and her detailed study of Kirby Hall, Northants, has provided information to underpin decision-making on the future of the building.
Expertise on medieval building construction and the responses to catastrophes in the past led to Dr Alexander being widely consulted by the media when Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris caught fire in 2019, in a series of live TV and radio interviews conducted as the fire raged, and in newspaper articles that were circulated worldwide.
Kirby Hall, Northamptonshire
Croyland Abbey, Crowland, Lincolnshire
The carved capital at Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Notre Dame, Paris