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This area of the cathedral, the western end, is called the nave and is the main body of the church. Today, depending on when you come in you might find public worship happening here or music recitals and theatre performances or simply visitors like you, enjoying this magnificent space.
But the nave has not always been so tranquil. You would have been unlucky to come in 1137, for example, when a great fire broke out, an event recorded by Gervais, a monk of the time. ‘On the 3rd of June the church of St Andrew, Rochester was burnt and the whole city, together with the offices of the bishop and monks’.
In 1215, when rebuilding after this fire was almost complete, nearby Rochester Castle was besieged and King John sacked the cathedral and even stable his troops’ horses here in the nave.
Despite these turbulent times, the nave endured, and it is the best place to see some of the surviving parts of the original Norman cathedral of the 1100s with its distinctive style known as Romanesque. Look at the massive study pillars supporting the large rounded arches forming the aisles. There’s a wonderful variety of designs of these pillars, matched up in pairs across the aisles. Some of the arches are decorated with a jagged chevron pattern, a key feature of Romanesque design. Above these large arches runs a beautiful arcade of smaller arches called triforium.
Above that, the Norman cathedral ends. The top row of Windows is called a clerestory and is designed to let in more light. What you see dates from the 1400s. And these windows obviously don’t line up with the Norman arches below.
Rochester has some of the best mediaeval graffiti in any English Cathedral. To find some good examples stand with your back to the west doors and large west window at the end of the nave and look over to the row of pillars along the right-hand side. Now find the fourth pillar along counting from the window end. You’re searching for images of ships carved into the stone. There is one near the bottom of this pillar.
If you look very carefully you can find lots of carved drawings of Bible stories around the cathedral. They were sketches to guide the paintings that went on top. But these ships are different. They weren’t carved here as sketches, but as votive drawings – offerings to a saint who was particularly connected with the sea and seafarers.
Mediaeval sailors who had to brave the dangers of the open sea will often leave a drawing or a model of a ship in a holy place before setting out on a voyage, in order to ensure a safe return to port. Mediaeval Rochester was a maritime town, full of sailors and people who made their living sea trade.
Here in the nave was a shrine to St Nicholas, patron saint of mariners. Because there’s so much ship graffiti in this part of the building, we think that the shrine may originally have stood near this spot.
Take a look up at the roof. What does the wooden beams that span it remind you of? It’s like the upturned hull of a boat. The word nave comes from the Latin navis – meaning ship. You could imagine the people that come here to the nave to pray as being on a journey traveling towards a heavenly home and the ship they are in represents Noah’s Ark described in the Old Testament of the Bible. A place of refuge or sanctuary floating on the surrounding and threatening flood.
Other features of the name reinforce the sense of spiritual journey. If you look at the pillars, you can see how the medieval architects and masons created them in pairs of different designs, drawing the eye down the nave along the route that leads on and up to the High altar.
If you walk towards the west end of the nave (the end with the large window), you’ll see the font on the left-hand side between the last two columns. Its a large circular piece of carved stone standing on steps in the shape of a cross. A font is a basin that holds water used for baptism, the ceremony through which people become Christians. The early church used rivers, the sea, or a very large font to immerse people fully in water, but at this font water is poured on a person’s head instead.
Water is a natural sign of life, death, cleansing and growth and its use in baptism signifies dying with Jesus Christ and being born again into his Resurrection life. In this way, people celebrate their becoming Christian and are welcomed into Jesus’s family, the church. As baptism is seen as the start of a Christian journey, fonts are generally placed near the doors of churches and so signify new life and new beginnings.
Around the sides of the font are four main biblical scenes at the north, south, east. and west points. Interspersed with pairs of figures all the scenes are associated with baptism. Look for the scene on the east side of the font, that is, the side furthest away from the doors of the nave. You can see John the Baptist baptizing Jesus in the Jordan river. You can recognise John by the camel skin poking out from under his cloak. This is a rough hair shirt worn next to his own skin and John is often depicted this way as this deliberate discomfort is a symbol of his dedication to God.