As an History of Art student, I have always been subject to a consistent fascination from objects. Indeed, even if we can connect artworks to complex ideas and beautiful concepts, we should always bear in mind that what we’re looking at is, first of all, an object; it thus keeps a personal history full of contingent events, random facts and curiosities that are quite far from the ivory-tower thinking usually connected to art.
I had great evidence of this working on an essay about a building in my college, it being the chapel. The college was founded at the end of the Fifteenth century, but the chapel’s history is much older indeed: in fact, it used to be a nunnery church, and the core of it dates back to the Eleventh century. Jesus College Chapel is actually the oldest university building still in use nowadays.
What we now see is quite smaller if compared to the previous building: when bishop Alcock of Ely, the father of Jesus College, took over the renovation works, he decided to cut two-thirds of the nave in order to obtain space for the Master’s Lodge. Moreover, he ordered the destruction of the side-aisles running around the nave and the chancel; the arches connecting these to the central space were walled up along with the piers, but evidence of that survived and it is still possible to admire the outline of arches, as well as three of the piers, on the southern side of the building.
As we see here, the building has gone through notable structural changes, but yet its fabric keeps note of the past and integrates it in the new form. By signs like these we can actually tell something about the history of the object, carved into the stony walls of the building, almost as a scar left on the mutilated walls.
Interestingly, when the chapel endured new renovations around the mid-Nineteenth century, the walled arches were again object of change: Augustus Pugin, the architect in charge of the process, decided to open two of them on the northern side of the chancel so as to host two organs, directly over the wooden choir. The pointed arches suit the Medieval allure of the building and, at the same time, serves for a functional purpose; architecture, in this regard, is probably among the arts the most influenced by the relation between ideas and factual necessities, as a structure needs to be conceived as well as realised in order to satisfy intellectual and physical needs.
For this reason what we currently observe is quite different from what the nuns of the convent used to; its purpose changed and so did the structure, as these two elements can never be disjointed. However, the history of the building preserves all these aspects and conveys them as a blend: it is not possible to see the old building but yet it is impossible to conceive the current one without reference to what is past, and yet still so lively.
I interestingly notice how I immediately thought of the building as a pure Medieval structure, applying the same label to the ceiling decorations and to the oldest series of stained glass in the chancel; in reality the “oldest” windows date back to Pugin’s renovations, while the ceilings were re-painted roughly twenty years later. The structured nature of the chapel led me to this, its uniformity deceived my eyes; indeed its beauty could not be so evident, I think, if it wasn’t the result of a long, careful and delicate addition of subsequent layers of history.