Friday, April 13, 2012

Who was Julian?

Norwich Cathedral

Julian of Norwich was a lady recluse who wrote what is thought to be the first book in English by a female writer. “The Revelations of Divine Love” has been a best-seller for 600 years. Well, perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but there’s many an author or any gender who wouldn’t mind a little of Julian’s longevity.

The Julian Chapel

Lady Julian was a writer and mystic who live from 1342 to 1429 (more or less - it’s hard to be sure about these things). She wrote her book while she was an ‘anchoress’ (a hermit) living in a small cell attached to a small church in the small city of Norwich. Not only monks and nuns, but also ordinary men and women took vows and lived it his way in Julian’s time. People came to Julian for comfort and advice, which she dispensed from her window.   During a serious illness in 1373 Julian received a series of visions, which she wrote down upon her recovery. Her book took her over 20 years to complete, and although it fell into obscurity for some centuries, today it is regarded as a spiritual classic around the world.

The gist of Julian’s message is that there is no wrath in God, and his love is like that of a tender loving mother. She said that we project our own wrath upon God -- a concept way ahead of its time.

Here dwelt Mother Julian....

It is possible to visit the small church of St Julian, and her very cell, in the pretty East Anglian city of Norwich. Norwich is most famous, though, for a much larger church: Norwich Cathedral has the second-highest spire in England and the largest preserved monastic cloister. The Cathedral is a enormously high and is made os a lovely light-coloured stone which was imported from France and barged to the site up specially constructed canals. Norfolk in East Anglia is the land of the Broads, of course.

Serene monastic cloisters

The first Norwich Cathedral was a massive Norman construction, completed in 1075 (you’ll remember, of course, that the Norman invasion of England occurred in 1066. That’s one date everyone remembers). So Norwich was one of the first great Norman Cathedrals. Naturally it has undergone numerous additions and changes since then, including a rather drastic lots of riots in 1272 that practically razed the place. Henry the Third was so annoyed at this that he excommunicated Norwich itself, which seems drastic.

The magnificent nave

(second) tallest spire in England

The Cathedral was re-built and re-consecrated in 1278, though the cloisters took until 1430 - partly due to the Black Death which reached Norwich in 1349. Then lightening struck the spire in 1463. You don’t get to be an almost-one-thousand-year-old cathedral without a few adventures befalling you. Interestingly, during the reformation when Henry VIII pillaged rich monasteries across the land, Norwich made the probably sensible decision to voluntarily give up 442 years of Benedictine monastic rule. Nevertheless, the Cathedral was pillaged by a Parliamentarian mob during the Civil War. It was almost pulled down so the stones could be used to repair the piers at Great Yarmouth. By the time of the Victorian era the Cathedral had a whole new lease of life, and today it is wonderfully preserved - including a new architecturally modern wing housing a welcome centre (‘Hostry’)and refectory.

Roof bosses of Norwich cathedral -- from afar
One of the most curious and interesting features of the cathedral, though, requires binoculars. The soaring Gothic arches that spring from earlier Romanesque work are supported with stone ribs, which need keystones to keep them in place. These keystones are called ‘roof bosses’, and in Norwich the bosses are intricately carved and painted. Some show scenes from Biblical stories, others are symbols or decorations. There are 1,106 roof bosses in the nave and throughout the Cathedral and cloisters, and they were mostly carved and pained in situ - that is, very high up in the air. Uniquely, the majority of the Norwich bosses tell a story. In the nave there is a cycle of more than 250 bosses on the Christian history of the world, from the Creation to the coming of Christ; then moving on to the the stories of the New Testament. But as I mentioned - bring your binoculars to view them, as they are many stories high above you.

Norwich locator

Away from the Cathedral Close Norwich is a friendly and accessible city - a university town, being the base of the UEA - University of east Anglia. In the 11th century it was the second largest city in England after London, and thus very important. These days it is probably more known for livability - which can only be a good thing for its friendly residents. The shopping is pleasant in the Norwich Lanes - quaint cobbled lane ways that cluster at the foot of the hill bearing Norwich Castle, now an art gallery. The River Wensum meanders prettily through the city, and all in all it’s a pleasant place to go looking for Lady Julian.


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