Home > Adventures close to home, Buildings, Places > St John’s Clerkenwell

St John’s Clerkenwell

I’ve been trying to get in here since I was a teenager. Now it’s open: and what a strange thing it is. The English headquarters of the Knights Hospitallers, the Military Order (a strange thing in itself) that became today St John’s Ambulance. Or something. Apparently a C20 office front facing a small square in Clerkenwell, central London; cut off from it, on the other side of the Old Street, the former precinct gate, still intact C15 gatehouse in flat grey London stone (Kentish?).

The C20 office front turns out to be a post-Blitz structure that bizarrely is a church, though it looks utterly unlike one. On the inside, a bare white space hung with oil painting, a big battered hall. One wall looks C18, the other three look medieval, beneath the white paint and around the dull, renewed big Perp windows a veritable feeding frenzy of battered mouldings, conjoined walls and other arcane clues to an ancient and obscure cultural history.

This over-restored shed, battered beneath the brightness, was once the east end of the headquarters of a major order: big and flat — once arcaded, or just a shed? — as for the western half of the church, I fear to guess: perhaps only as long as the square outside, which then is its ghost result, a Reformation Rachel Whiteread opposite doppleganger?

In any case its more curiousity than treat: the treat’s downstairs. The stumps of a circular nave, an image of the Holy Sepulchre/Dome of the Rock like so many C12 (oh, Cambridge, Temple, Northampton…) and like so many (Temple, Bristol the obvious example) later replaced more conventionally. And then a complete-as-you-like crypt, bizarrely in two phases. The first is early-mid C12, just thick romanesque rib vaults and each bay seperate by a broad unmoulded tunnel like arch. This, attached to whatever lay beneath the nave, would have been very close to the crypt at Berkswell, Warws, I’ve blogged about before. But the two east bays are very fancy work of the late rC12, plain as is appropriate to a crypt, but with simple curved capitals as light-footed as waterleaf, attached shafts on bases that stick their feet out wittily at angles, ballet first position. Thinner ribs with something approaching the deep mouldings of the C13: c1180, I wonder?  ‘… consecrated in 1185’ says a guide talking to a group. Smug satisfaction. Though such facts may mean many things to the unitiated.

Bizarrely, this crypt extension (intriguingly the time gap compares to the later changes amde at Berkswell) curls round the back of the older one, making a two-bay north aisle and a single bay southern extension. The east windows feature C19 or later stepped lancets: on what evidence? If originally, they become one of the very earliest dated examples (…Portsmouth St Thomas?…). As the bay curls around, even more oddly it leaves the former outer wall of the earlier structure intact, so there are slim round-headed near-lancets and slim pointed headed even-more-near-lancets, two phases of outer wall, in a single space.

Amazingly a few bits and bobs have survived. The museum has an average quality but big mid C13 historiated boss: high vaults somewhere. Glass, mainly late. Tiles, mainly C14. Why do you always get these two things? Excellent C15 crocketing from a monument. And stuffed in the crypt are a french/German/low countries effigy, an interesting import, and a first rate cadaver, possibly in solid purbeck, lieing on a carved straw roll. An antiqaurian engraving reveals this a part of a two-tier tomb to a prior: the effigy was behind a very high and open screen; the upper level was flat, but with brasses on the rear wall; above this again was elaborate and very late cresting. Apparently on the N side of the high altar above originally. An easter sepulchre, then, and both the C12 architecture and C15/16 tomb are more fuel to the fire of my current fantasy ‘images of Holy Sepulchres’ research theme. All in all, worth the wait, then.

Pictures are on my phone, but I can’t work out how to  transfer them, being a bear of medieval brain.

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  1. July 21, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    Wait a minute… you can take pictures with your PHONE?

    • July 21, 2011 at 3:51 pm

      Medievalists can do ANYTHING

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