Romanitas in Anglia: Purbeck Marble in Gothic England
Duke University, Durham, NC, USA
Dark, gleaming shafts of Purbeck marble are the quintessential ornament of English Gothic architecture. Complex piers are stacked with it, thousands of windows and blind arcades are framed by it, and Purbeck anchors the most daringly thin vault supports ever attempted.
Yet it is not a marble at all and its first uses were utilitarian. Bluish-grey Purbeck "marble" was an otherwise unremarkable limestone that could take a high polish. It was introduced at Canterbury Cathedral in 1174 to "tart up" the Romanesque aisles that William of Sens had begrudgingly inherited after a fire in 1170. The explosion of Thomas Becket's cult and Canterbury's rise to archiepiscopal power gave Purbeck a retroactive cachet that would have astonished the building's original architects.
For the next century and a half, every English church of any pretension pushed itself to acquire as much Purbeck as it could -- often to the verge of bankruptcy. This paper examines why. Contemporary references make it clear that Purbeck was not simply the knock-off, English version of porphyry as is often claimed. Why did Purbeck marble become the defining component of great church architecture in England? What symbolic meanings did it adumbrate for medieval viewers? How did Purbeck convey Romanitas for the monks, canons, laity, and patrons who were so desperate to acquire it? How did its gleam and color sanctify relics, shrines, and pilgrimage space? And how did Purbeck's wild popularity force changes in architectural design and engineering?
The end of my paper will discuss the materiality of Purbeck. In 2008, I spent a week carving Purbeck with medieval tools in the only remaining quarry where it is still produced and exported. This hands-on experience gave me a deep understanding of the shaping, polishing, and transport of marble throughout Great Britain in the Middle Ages.