A Yorkshire Jerusalem: The Holy Sepulchre in Ripon

24 Apr

The minster at Ripon (North Yorkshire) only became a cathedral in the 1830s, but it is a very ancient building, probably on a Roman site, and a major Anglo-Saxon seat of worship.  Most of the cathedral as seen today is from the later Middle Ages, but at its kernel, down a dark, subterranean corridor, is a small ‘crypt’. Technically speaking, this is not a crypt (in the sense of being a burial vault) but rather a chapel.  It was built between the years 669-78 by St Wilfred of Ripon, apparently as a copy of an idea of the Holy Sepulchre in which Jesus’ body had been laid.  Wilfred brought architects and designers from France and Italy to work on his building. The chapel is now empty – as the Cathedral signage says, ‘as a memorial to the emptiness of Christ’s tomb’ – but it would, in the Middle Ages, have had relics in it and would have often been busy with pilgrims. Miracles were said to have taken place here.Image

I haven’t yet researched the way the chapel was used in the later Middle Ages, and what devotions occurred there. But the little underground chapel at Ripon, underneath the soaring building of the cathedral, would have offered an intimate space for the pilgrim; it could only have held a couple of people. In this way, the Ripon chapel reflects the individual nature of Calvary and Holy Sepulchre devotions, so the medieval worshipper can forge an intimate relationship with Christ and also so they can imitate Christ, in a dark, lonesome place.Image

The Ripon chapel, dating from the seventh century, demonstrates the early medieval desire for the Holy Land, and its frequent replaying in early medieval culture, long before the Crusades.

Further reading: on the Anglo-Saxon crypt, Richard Gem, ‘Towards an Iconography of Anglo-Saxon Architecture’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 46 (1983), 1-18.

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