19 March 2022
“..the leaves of Southwell assume a significance as one of the purest symbols surviving in Britain of Western thought, our thought, in its loftiest mood.”
Nikolaus Pevsner, The Leaves of Southwell.
I arrive at Southwell and head straight for the Chapter House.
The early morning light is dancing around the stone carvings. It’s the foliate sculpture that renders this space a marvel of the Gothic genre. On looking at the carvings in this softened light, my first thoughts are of the skill, dedication and craftsmanship that has gone into the work. But, there’s something else - I can’t quite put my finger on it. I let it go and take in the marvel by walking around the circumference of the chapter house. I savour the moment by tracing a line of foliate intricacy; my eyes move from leaves that flicker like the flame of a candle, to delicate bracts that cup and pool the light within their concave forms. And then it hits me: beyond the marvel of the craftsmanship is the complex and profound connection with nature - an understanding that must have been based upon a lifetime’s observation of natural forms.
And then I think again. I think of the stone. I think of how these lifeless lumps have been gifted a plasticity that proffers up the curl of a frond. There is a state where the artist becomes so immersed in their task that they become the object of their interest - they become the subject matter. It is a way of understanding by association and immersion rather than objective comprehension. It gifts the carvings an authenticity that breaks through the shackles of stone and mortar.
I think of how much time and patience it must take to make such a thing. I’m told that the people who made it had a life expectancy of 40 years, but without our digital fast-paced world and their slow absorption of their own environment, their lives must have felt twice as long as our three score and ten.
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