Sunday, September 2, 2012

Selby Abbey

The town of Selby sprang up around the first Benedictine abbey to be built in the north of England. Around 1048, a monk called Benedict (though not St. Benedict) had a vision at Auxerre Abbey in France. The patron of Auxerre, St. Germain (who had died 600 years earlier), instructed him to found an abbey in Selby, England. Benedict went there with a relic, one of St. Germain's dried fingers. He planted a cross by the river Ouse, where he saw three swans landing on the river (another part of his vision in Auxerre). The Sheriff of York saw this and informed the king, William the Conqueror, who granted a charter to build an abbey. In 1069 Benedict was ordained first abbot of Selby. The first abbey was built of wood. Benedict's successor, Abbot Hugh, rebuilt it in stone. He and other monks worked alongside the regular laborers. 130 years after his death, the project was complete. Additions were made in the 13th century and the fabulous east window, depicting the Tree of Jesse, was added in the 14th century. Two collapses (one in 1690, the other in 2000) and a fire (1906) necessitated repairs which have remained true to the medieval style of the church.

The exterior is still quite impressive and the West Doorway is a great example of Norman architecture, having been built by the monks in the 1100s.

Selby Abbey's western face

Statues on the right, survivors of the Dissolution?

Statues on the left

The Western Door, with the rounded Norman arch

The nave is dramatically spacious and also gives a great sense of the early medieval period. The roof burned out in the 1906 fire, so the golden roof bosses are more recent but fit well.


Ceiling with golden bosses

The church has a variety of tombs and memorials, typical for so old a structure.

Margery Pickworth's tomb

Hugh de Pickworth's tomb

Memorial to John Archer

Memorial to one of the abbots

One oddity is the Abbey Plough. The sign says Albert Alma Wilson (champion ploughsman in 1951) donated it. The plough is used every Plough Sunday in the ancient ceremony of blessing the ploughs.

Abbey Plough

Royalty makes an appearance in the south transept. One stained glass window depicts Queen Victoria and Albert. The Maundy Display shows the Holy Thursday donations by Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh when they visited in 1969 during the Holy Triduum.

Windows of Victoria and Albert

Donations by HRH Elizabeth II and Husband (the money is no longer in the bags!)

Another "must see" part of the Abbey is Hugh's Pillar. The distinctive diamond pattern is borrowed from Durham Cathedral, where the second abbot, Hugh, was trained.

Abbot Hugh's Pillar

The high altar and cross in the nave were also replaced after the 1906 fire.

High altar

Cross above the altar

There is a chapel dedicated to St. Germain that is right next to the East Window, which depicts the Tree of Jesse. The tree shows Jesse at the bottom and the branches rise up through his various descendants until it reaches Jesus at the top. The twelve apostles flank Jesus.

Altar to St. Germain

East Window, Jesse Tree Window

Top of the East Window

Another unique feature of the Abbey is the Leper Squint. In medieval times, lepers could see the high altar through a narrow opening, letting them participate in a way that kept them from infecting others. It may be the first use of a "cry room" concept.

Jacob looks down the Leper Squint from inside the church

Another item of interest is the Washington window. The 14th century window has the crest of the Washington family, featuring a white shield with three red stars across the top and alternating red and white stripes below. This window is claimed to be the inspiration for the American flag. Unfortunately, the sun was in just the wrong position to get a good picture of the window. I stole this image from the abbey's web site:

From Selby Abbey's web site

There's also the usual assortment of items: gargoyles, an organ, the list of abbots through history.

Interior decor

The organ

This list of abbots and vicars (note the "three swan" motif at the top)

We left out the south transept, which gave us some more views of the spectacular exterior.

Looking at the westward part of the south face

The south transept door and the old sacristy

From here, we wandered over to a nearby playground so the kids could have some fun, but that will be described in tomorrow's blog post.

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