Wells Cathedral is a refinery of light.

This building has one of the best facades to learn the architectural light craft.

With the added ingredient of time, the multiplicity of carvings, recesses, and surfaces creates a layered soufflé of light.

A clear winters day is the perfect time for the full spectrum of light to be revealed.

At first, with the sun rising behind it to the east, the facade is muddied - set in shadow - more a blurred massing than a collection of details.

Then, as the sun moves around and rakes against the facade, the massing starts to extrude extremities in the form of buttresses.

The buttresses are part of a great tectonic storyboard populated with statues of knights and saints set in gabled niches.

The light finds the outline of the niches first and the effect is striking, like burlesque strip lighting circumscribing the principal protagonists.

Beyond the darkened recesses of the main facade, after debuting the great and the good, the glimmer works its way into the textured folds of its occupants.

A matter of half an hour turns the solid buttresses into a doyley of perforated light. It untangles slender shafts of Purbeck from rivulets of cusping and expresses them in a visual morse code along the full height of each buttress.

The sense of grounded massing gives way to a feeling of elevation and linearity - slender forms, isolated by the light, reaching upwards towards the recessed towers.

Next, the central gable, which holds the biographical nucleus of the facade, is gently revealed as if a darkened veil is being removed.

At first the Apostles feel the warmth of the sun and then, in turn, Christ in Majesty surrounded by seraphim.

The visual presence of the building changes in a way that confounds expectation and suspends belief in the previous incarnations: ‘Was the cathedral really dark and sombre just minutes ago - or was that my imagination playing tricks with me?’

Under the hardened light of mid-afternoon, where the shadows are the shortest, the next chapter of the story is revealed along the full width of the cathedral: that of the Resurrection, with figures clambering from their earthly graves both literally and metaphorically into the light.

Full and hard revelation gives way to a series of chromatic renderings with the facade moving from soft white to yellow ochre, cadmium orange and then a bloodshot vermillion.

Before receding back under the weight of darkness, the light is in such a quandary of rapid change that the stone facade appears in a state of flux - an architectural equivalent to the northern lights.

Such a fission of transitional light is guilt-edged by the monumental backdrop.

It is one of the seven wonders of the photographic ether.

On the day, this ecclesiastical light spectacular stopped people in their tracks, fixated by the fluidity, trying to fathom the mechanics of this prodigious event.

For the briefest of moments, it lifted them from the profanity of a harsh winters day.

At Wells, the viewer is being set up in a medieval virtual reality:

an actor within the vast stage set out before them - a stage which through the remarkable stone carvings covers the whole expanse of time - from the creation of the Garden of Eden to the Resurrection.

Across a building extruded from the Triassic and Jurassic this isn't just a parable of faith, but also the story of the cosmos itself and our part in it.

Additionally, there is the story of light and its optical infinitude. The light parasitic - the building being the primary host to its antics.

Silhouetted by back light, thinly veiled by a misty light, silvered by reflected light, perforated by a raking light, elongated by a discerning light, exposed and flattened by a hard light, softened by a suffused light, given majesty by golden light, and, finally, infected by blue light in a brooding melodramatic dénouement.

After all these years the building still speaks - it speaks of its creators, of the creation and of creativity.

At the end of the day, after absorbing the plots and subplots that had been paraded before me, I was left with an even greater puzzle: how best to share the beauty of what I had witnessed over time?

Unlike the complexity of what I’d just seen, the answer was glaringly simple...

...leave it to the photographs

Andy Marshall is an architectural and interiors photographer based in the UK.





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