Chapter 6 A Holy Hole, Anglo-Saxon Bones, and a Jerusalem Chapel: Redefining Sacred Geography at Winchester Cathedral in the 12th Century

In: Art, Architecture, and the Moving Viewer, c. 300-1500 CE
Laura J. Whatley
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In the mid-12th century, Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester, engaged in a comprehensive reorganization of his cathedral’s most prized holy relics. One driving force behind this ambitious project was the increasing demands of the Anglo-Saxon cult of St. Swithun, Bishop of Winchester (d. 863). Henry paid for a complete redesign of the area behind the high altar to elevate and provide better access to Swithun’s shrine, including a small tunnel—the “Holy Hole”—through which pilgrims could crawl. This was meant to help the Winchester cult compete with other saints’ shrines at Bury St. Edmunds, Durham, St. Albans, and Ely. Henry also reburied the cathedral’s prestigious Anglo-Saxon dead, including Cynegils (first Christian king of Wessex), Egbert (first king of all England), and King Cnut and Queen Emma. In the 1150s, he had their purported remains enclosed in lead coffers and placed around the high altar. It seems clear that his patronage was focused on making Winchester a premier pilgrimage destination. This essay offers a comprehensive analysis of Winchester Cathedral’s reimagined sacred geography as an integrated program that juxtaposed the narratives and sanctity of local saints and nobility with the universal medieval paradigm of Jerusalem. The holy city was ultimately mapped onto the sacred geography of the cathedral by interconnecting architecture, narrative, and performance. The locus was a 10 ft × 20 ft Holy Sepulchre chapel constructed in the early 1170s, featuring a vibrantly painted narrative fresco cycle from the life of Christ.

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