Big Churches in Little Europe: St Peter's, York

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St Peter’s, York

St Peter's Cathedral, York (better known as York Minster) contains my favourite window in the world. On the northern wall there is a huge square extension (there is a matching one on the southern side too, but that doesn't interest me nearly as much although it may stop the building falling down because there is a huge square tower above their crossing). The entire northern side of this extension is glass from about 3 metres up - all the way to the roof (considerably more than 13 metres further up). It is called the Five Sisters Window, or the Jews' Window (guess who paid for it).

The glass in the window is grey and not coloured, although in the 1200's when it was made, nobody knew how to make clear, fully transparent glass. So the delight in the glass comes from its shades of grey and the shapes of the tiny pieces of glass, each of which is surrounded by black lead strips that hold it firmly in place. To see the patterns made by some small pieces of grey glass once is fine, but to see it repeated thousands of times again and again in five windows is amazing.

It is also the first thing you see when you come into the church. It captures the northern Yorkshire light, breaks it up though a thousand lenses and re-presents it to you on a scale you would not think of merely by looking at the open sky. It makes a more profound spiritual statement than any number of pictures of miracles or statues of holy people.

And on a practical note, it also lights the space quite well, which is good really as it is worth seeing.

It is a huge, geometrically driven, three dimensional space defined in stone. The decoration on the walls, floor and ceiling doesn't overwhelm what is there, it de-marks and throws it into relief. The space itself is almost air, enclosed, shaped and dedicated leaving the building as a thin shell which keeps the rain, noise and distraction out, leaving only the purer bit within. This is partly my over-active imagination, but it also results from the size and uniformity of the space. The ceiling is white and simple, the walls are largely unadorned and the floor is open and expansive.

This may not all be because of good management. York Minster has had a troubled time from fire and bankruptcy (in the 1850s!). It most recently burnt down in the mid 1980s. This may explain the lack of junk.

Unlike many of England's bigger churches, there is no park in which you can walk. The park is there, in fact about a third of the land enclosed in the ancient city walls are the grounds of the church, but it is not easy to access. I suspect there is a school in there amongst other things and that may explain the limited access. A walk around the walls of York (something to be recommended) gives a wonderful view of trees, houses and open grounds.

One thing I haven't really gone into about this place is whether it is any good as a church. I know some people who have gone there weekly, and others who have gone there and not gone back. Whenever I have been though everybody has been friendly enough and coffee in the Chapter house round the back is a delight (the space more than the coffee itself). Each service begins with the bang of a cracked bell which is quite a distinctive sound, so there is personality there. It maybe that each person may have to work out what they think for themselves.

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