Title page for ETD etd-04072009-011724

Type of Document Master's Thesis
Author Pearson, Alexandra Leigh
URN etd-04072009-011724
Title Three Functions for the Façade of Wells Cathedral: Competition for the Bishopric, Liturgy and Processions, and Heavenly Jerusalem
Degree Master of Arts (M.A.)
Department Art
Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title
Nicola Camerlenghi Committee Chair
Marchita Mauck Committee Member
Michaelene Walsh Committee Member
  • Church Triumphant
  • Palm Sunday
  • Marian Iconography
  • Catholic England
  • English Gothic Architecture
  • Medieval Art
Date of Defense 2009-03-27
Availability unrestricted
The facade of Wells Cathedral belongs among the most extraordinary church facades in all of England. An expanse of architectural and figural sculpture, the facade is one hundred fifty feet wide and originally included one hundred seventy-seven niches with full-length statues and ninety quatrefoils framing either a bust of an angel or a scene from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Above a height of seventy-five feet, a gable with figural sculpture and two towers top the façade. Such an elaborate facade is unique and begs the questions: by what means did Wells come to look as it did?

A key fact to understanding the facade is the notion that during the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries Wells was competing with Bath and Glastonbury for the bishopric of Somerset county, which it had formerly possessed. While the facade was an integral part of that campaign, it also provided other functions. It offered a setting for funeral processions and for the important liturgical pageantry that took place on Palm Sunday. Ultimately, these processions facilitated interaction between worshipers and the facade thereby enhancing the spiritual experience of the sacred place. Last, but not least, the plethora of sculpted figures transform the facade into a vision of the Heavenly Jerusalem foretold in the Apocalypse. In this thesis, I will describe, analyze, and interpret the sculptural program of the unique facade of Wells Cathedral in terms of its three functions—elevating local church history to help regain the bishopric, providing a backdrop for liturgical processions, and representing the Heavenly Jerusalem. Such an interpretation will demonstrate the importance of the Wells facade not only to the church community and to England but also to the history of medieval art and architecture.

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