Small but perfectly formed

For number six in our Lockdown Treasures countdown, I’ve selected a room which must be a contender for the crown of best beauty-to-space ratio: the so called ‘Berkeley vestibule’.

In 1347, the renovation of the eastern portion of Bristol Cathedral, from Norman ‘Romanesque’ style to Gothic, was finished, complete with a third chapel dedicated to the Virgin, which doubled as a chantry chapel for the Berkeley family (more on them next week). Connecting the Berkeley Chapel, as it became known, to the Cathedral proper, was a small space, about four metres by two metres, which was used as a sacristy (the room the clergy use to prepare for Mass).

Nowadays, a much larger room – formerly part of the canons’ dormitory – is used as the sacristy: it is just behind the 12th-century door we featured as Lockdown Treasure #9. The teeny tiny former sacristy now serves no function at all, except as a passageway between the Cathedral and the Berkeley Chapel. This is why it has come to be known by the rather unattractive name of ‘Berkeley vestibule’.

All this history is interesting (to me, at least!), but what earns the vestibule its place on our list is its sheer beauty and its quirky features. Crammed into this small space you’ll find a frightening stone head sticking its tongue out at you; three ‘ogee arches’ containing an oven for baking communion bread or heating coal for incense burning, a wash basin, and a large hole whose purpose is unknown; a charming stone snail wandering over a leaf; and an exquisite and very rare skeleton roof with large ornamental bosses. The elaborate skeleton structure is purely decorative, and doesn’t serve to hold anything up – indeed, there’s nothing above the ceiling of the vestibule to hold up anyway, which is why (cathedral-nerd fact coming up) this is classified as a roof, not a vault.

Most curious of all is that nobody knows why so much effort went into decorating this tiny, utilitarian space. Quite the mystery.

So if ever you venture into Bristol Cathedral, and see the sign to the Berkeley Chapel, be sure to stop a while in the Berkeley vestibule, and admire this weeny Gothic gem – small but perfectly formed.

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