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Friday, 22 January 2016

The Façades of Prinzipalmarkt, Münster, Germany

Münster is a medieval city, which despite its Second World War rebuild, has maintained its breathtaking charm and historic value. The word Münster is derived from the Latin word for 'monastery', which is a hint to the motivation of its founders who established it in the 790s.

While my interest in Münster's architecture has personal motives since it's my home town, the fact that I'm seeing the world through the eyes of a stonemason apprentice is what really has drawn me to revisit its sights. For this blog my main focus is the Prinzipalmarkt. The layout and paving are true to the original, and large sections of the mediaeval architecture remain because they been spared in WW2. The most eye catching sights are the buildings of the market place which are home to luxurious shops and institutions. The main road leads up to the cathedral which is ever busy and welcoming tourists all year round. The features that stand out the most are the decorative gothic pediments, or as they are known in Münster, hallow window façades. While the buildings behind the façades are of no architectural significance their façades fool pedestrians into thinking that the buildings are larger than they truly are. An air of mystery surrounds the high arches and tracery windows of the Prinzipalmarkt buildings which many tourists describe as an intimidating or spiritual experience. The suspense from walking down results in the overwhelming sight of the Cathedral with  its frightening carvings and metal cages which were once used to torture and execute sinners.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

The desert oasis - 1: Khirbat al-Minya

Khirbat al-Minya is a beautiful example of Umayyad desert palaces that have been recently unearthed (1939 by A. M. Schneider) and served as an inspiration for the Umayyad architecture revival in the late 1940s.

Like traditional Umayyad palaces Khirbat al-Minya has a north-south orientation, round towers built around the corners of the rectangular enclosure, semi-circular towers along the walls of the walls and an elaborately decorated entrance on the eastern wall. This set-up indicates that while the palace had a small mosque built within its walls, it was not used as a seat for a religious figure such as a caliph or imam. Instead, evidence shows that it has been abandoned on multiple occasions (due to allegiance battles or economic shifts) and repopulated decades later, meaning that the original patrons had lost their ownership of the palace and with it the original purpose. The eclectic mix of inhabitants made small changes to the palace such as more elaborate mosaic flooring and wooden interior panelling however the layout and stone features remained the same since sourcing the limestone was more or less impossible.

The Basaltstone rubble walls are reminiscent of the western flint stone rubble walls found in the Lodge we inhabit and many other building of similar style. The interior had load baring lime stone blocks which were sometimes covered by marble or carved wooden panels which was a sign of immense wealth for the population of the region.

Today only the sun bleached ruins remain open to the public with some artefacts in safe keeping by the local Israeli Nature and Parks authority who have maintained the Umayyad ruins by the Sea of Galilee in an effort to protect its historical value. The Al-Minya was built by the sixth ruler of the Umayyad dynasty who is credited for building the Al-Aqsa mosque.

Friday, 15 January 2016

The Corsi Collection

Faustino Corsi (1771-1846) was a lawyer who lived in Rome during the early 19th century. He became a respected judge, known for his honesty and integrity. However, his real passion was for the decorative stones used by the ancient Romans. Over time he amassed a collection of 1,000 large samples of ancient and modern polished stones. Crucially, he an early adopter of organisation according to geological principles, with an emphasis on provenance. Thus, for instance, he was diligent in recording quarry locations and the stones were cut in order to best display their distinctive visual characteristics and allows us to see their variation. 

In 1827 an Oxford student purchased the collection and presented it to the university and it is still available for researchers to access and learn from. It is now held in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. However, they have an excellent website, funded by the Esme Fairburn Foundation, which allows us to learn about this fabulous resource:

Corsi Collection of Decorative Stones

Marble Hall, Norwich

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Contemporary Classical

Please click on image in order to enlarge
Here is an exquisitely hand-carved classical scene - shaped by the hand of an elite level craftsman. 

Sunday, 10 January 2016

How Craftsmanship Infuses Places

Here is a beautiful short film, made by UNESCO, about the violin-making traditions within the medieval Italian city of Cremona, home of Master craftsmen for centuries. It is a feast for one's eyes, ears and intellect. There is true beauty in the making of things by expert hands; hands that have served their time and which are choreographed and honed by the accumulated knowledge of dead generations of craftsmen. Indeed, in one sense they are not dead, as their hard-wrought expertise has been transmitted down the ages and is a living tradition. 

We feel very connected to such traditions and craftsmanship. Our guild - St Stephen & St George - has only been in existence for a short period, but our apprentices are being trained by Masters whose guild have been in continuous existence since 1096. We too are located within a beautiful medieval city. Norwich has a wealth of pre-modern architecture, but has lost most of its craft traditions - up until now that is!

The images here are all the work of a Guild Master

Now, we are building. We are training young people on seven year apprenticeships. No short-cuts, no 'hit the target miss the point' for us. To have a working knowledge of all areas of stonemasonry - including conservation, modern design etc - seven years is the minimum term. Within a decade we will have recruited forty apprentice stonemasons and forty mates (labourers) to work alongside them. Our founder Head Master is a Guild Master, one of only twelve such in the world. In order to become a Guild Master you have to have at least thirty years hands-on experience together with a ThD/PhD. Our standards are the highest for we are training the elite - that is why our guild's motto is:

Summa inter mediocria ('Perfection in an imperfect world').

However, we are also resolved to take a leading role in building and promoting Norwich as a City of Crafts. We are already making connections with other craftsmen within the city, and anticipate that, as our project grows, quality makers will be attracted to re-locate in the city. 

Many people imagine that crafts like stonemasonry and violin making are 'dying trades'. They couldn't be more wrong! This point is well made in a recent Radio 4 programme made by Peter Day about the traditional violin craftsmen of Cremona:

Global Business: the violins of Cremona


UNESCO adopted a convention for the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage in 2003 which included traditional craftsmanship. The UK was not one of the 127 countries to sign up to the convention.
A UNESCO statement noted: ‘Any efforts to safeguard traditional craftsmanship must focus, not on preserving craft objects – no matter how beautiful, precious, rare or important they might be – but on creating conditions that will encourage artisans to continue to produce crafts of all kinds, and to transmit their skills and knowledge to others.”
Intangible cultural heritage encompasses culture, folklore, legend, lifestyle, crafts (building and arts), rituals etc

UK government's may not be committed to excellence and to the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage, but we are, and we hope you are too. 

If you wish to contact us please email our guild clerk on:

Friday, 8 January 2016

Mustansiriya Madrasah Baghdad

Since joining the guild I have found great pleasure in reading about all the many cultural treasures of the world through the eyes of a stonemason apprentice. My newest find is a breathtaking historic grounds of a school in Baghdad called Mustansiriya Madrasah. I had the pleasure to visit it before the political climate became hostile for tourists and was able to walk the length of the court and go into the very few rooms that were not destroyed by looting. While the interior is humble and sparsely decorated, the exterior was far from it. Geometric patterns of early Arab-Semitic art covered the iconic arches that lead into the cool interior. The design is reminiscent of ancient Sumerian town homes which were designed for optimum ventilation and cooler temperature. In the central point of the home there would always be a tree (fig, olive or citrus) and a water feature such as miniature pond or ceramic fountain. The stone exposed to the sun is unbearably hot while the interior is cool to the touch making the teaching rooms a refuge from the searing sun.

The limestone used for Mustansiriya Madrasah was sourced in Persia which withstood hundreds of sandstorms and retained the intricate details of the arches and gateway. In true Arabic Romantic style, arches are decorated with historically valuable poetry that is sometimes replaced by sections of the Quran, a constant reminder to the students that knowledge is power.

Thursday, 7 January 2016


'Oy, stop pissing up our wall!'

Opportunities and Open Doors

Over the Christmas and New Year period we, the stonemason apprentices, took leave to recuperate from an exciting year. For a month we could only reminisce over the varied lessons we had received and long for the eventful days at the guild. I found myself thinking of the beauty of a classical training, which despite its many components and heavy load of new knowledge was easier to swallow than modern education. Months after I started as an apprentice, one benefit of the guild became visible to me. The guild opens doors. Literally!

On many occasions we found ourselves in spaces that the public cannot access, that only a select few had the privilege to see. Be it the dizzying heights of a scaffolding that reaches the highest points of the Catholic Cathedral in Norwich, or its otherwise inaccessible attic, we the apprentices had access. I had the pleasure to meet many past and present Norwich officials and converse with very interesting characters.

The most striking experience was during one of our more recent projects. Imagine peeking your head through one of the highest windows of a cathedral and climbing out to find the spot you'll be working on for the day to be a historically valuable piece of stone masonry. Not only do I get to work under, and learn from one of the best, but I also have open doors and opportunities ahead.

I can only imagine the exciting events and valuable lessons that await us!

Friday, 1 January 2016

A hard day at work in Oxfordshire.

On an average day it is very easy to take for granted the wonderful surroundings I am lucky to work in. I am spoilt in the Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Somerset areas where most of my UK work takes place. 

Here are a few choices of features I particularly like from four churches, all within 2sq miles and surrounding a small project I am currently working on.

St. Peter's, Alvescot

St. Mary the Virgin, Black Bourton

St Mary's, Bampton

St. Britius, Brize Norton

And as I'm only human and wasn't driving I ended my day admiring this fine building from the inside. It's a hard life; maybe they are right - who would want to be a stonemason?