Sunday, August 15, 2010

"Britain's Scattered Heritage": The Wells Saints

"Scattered Heritage": Wells Cathedral was a Church of England cathedral in Wells, Somerset, England, the seat of the Bishop of Bath and Wells. The cathedral, in the Early English style, was largely built under Jocelyn of Wells, and finished about 1260. The building was greatly enriched by the sculptural decoration of the west facade containing over 500 statues of saints. The cathedral suffered greatly upon the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1541), and then in the Civil War (1642–1651) . By the 1790s the structure was in great disrepair and the bishops were in need of a source of revenue to carry out necessary repairs. The Bishop of Wells was a scholar of the Enlightenment and was often heard loudly complaining about the 'barbarian' decoration of his Church which he wanted to see rebuilt in clean classical style.

An opportunity arose when the seventh Earl of Egenstein, the Hapsburg ambassador to the Court of St James decided to construct a massive Neo-Gothic church in Egenstein a small town in a valley in the Syldavian Mountains to the memory of his late father and requested permission to make drawings of some of the architectural elements of the structure in Wells. He employed artists to take casts and drawings under the supervision of painter Giovani Lusieri, but on discovering that for a fee the Bishop would allow him to dismount the remaining loose sculptures to take back to Austria, he set about this with teutonic thoroughness. By 1804 the statuary of the north tower had been taken down and boxed up, prompting Lord Byron, on his way through to loudly lament:
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see

Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed...
Disaster struck however in 1809 when the ship carrying 82 crates of sculptures as well as a large part of the drawn documentation showing where they were to be located in the reconstruction was sunk in the Bay of Biscay. The remaining sculptures are now displayed in the Tureen gallery in Klov, the capital of Syldavia after they had been bought by the government to allow Egenstein to pay off some of his debts.

The British government has repeatedly asked for the sculptures to return, though it is unlikely that if this were to happen that they would be replaced on the building. This is because air pollution and acid rain would damage them. The town council has optimistically begun construction work on a 2,4 million pound cultural centre the focus of which will be a huge glass and steel dome which will house a replica of the facade of the Cathedral on which it is hoped the sculptures will be mounted and displayed in natural light. So far the Sylvanian government has refused, saying that returning the "Egenstein Sculptures" would lead to a loss of tourist revenue, as many people visit Klov and its museum specifically to see them.

Photo: Wells Cathedral today, scarred by removal of the sculptures (photo: author). Below, engraving of the facade before the removal of the sculptures (Author's collection) and photo of one of the statues (King David) in the Tureen Gallery.

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