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What emotions did you feel listening to that music? It was recorded in the quire here, which is like a church within the church, built to enhance the acoustic experience of these devotional sounds. For Christians, music is a way to connect with the presence of God, something summed up by St. Augustine of Hippo, who said: ‘whoever sings, prays twice’.
The cathedral’s choirs who sing here in the very heart of the cathedral are continuing an unbroken tradition of sung worship at Rochester stretching back 900 years.
Rochester’s medieval monks worshipped here, separated from the general public who assembled for services down in the nave. The original walls of the quire from the 1080s still survive, but are now hidden.
If you look at the pointed arches and slender columns, you’re looking at the remodeling work that was done in the 1200s in the early English style. The choir stalls or seats here are largely Victorian, but some original parts from the 1200s still surviving places, making them the oldest surviving choir stalls in Britain. Can you see a much grander chair on its own at the end of the choir? It has a wooden canopy over the top like a throne.
This is the bishop’s chair, or cathedra, and it’s from this that the word Cathedral comes. The place where the bishop has his seat. The pattern you see on the walls today is a Victorian copy of the decoration painted in the 1340s. You can see the last original fragments if you look on the panels below the organ. It combines two heraldic symbols: the leopard and the Lily, or the fleur-de-lis. These emblems had a political significance at the time they were originally painted here, as England, represented by the leopard, fighting France represented by the fleur-de-lis in a series of conflicts known as the 100 years war. At that time, church and state with much more closely intertwined, with many churchman also taking roles in the government of the country. This decoration could have been the cathedrals way of showing support for King Edward III who used the royal French emblem to advertise his claim to the French throne.
There are other coats of arms here, around the top of the walls, some with interesting symbols connected to the owner’s name. If you look at the wall with the bishop’s chair halfway along you should find a little shield with a fish and ears of corn on it. This Fish-ear combination is a visual pun on the name Fisher. John Fisher was Bishop of Rochester and was executed by Henry VIII for refusing to accept him as head of the English church.
Nearby is the coat of arms of another Bishop of Rochester – Nicholas Ridley, who was later executed by Queen Mary proposing her plans to return England to the Roman Catholic tradition. Rochester’s two Bishop Martyrs, from opposite sides of the religious conflict of the English Reformation, reminders of the dangers of religious intolerance.
The organ is a profusion of pipes and colour. What you can see today was designed by Gilbert Scott and installed 1875, although based around an early organ of 1791. It was rebuilt in 1990, no mean task considering that it has just under 4000 individual pipes. Together, they create a sound big enough to match the vast pace of the cathedral. On the 10th of April 1661, famous diarist Samuel Pepys recorded hearing the previous organ here at Rochester, where the cathedral had recently been restored after damage during the civil war. ‘Then to Rochester, and therefore to the cathedral, which was fitting for use and the organ then a-tuning’.
This is one of the finest mediaeval wall paintings in an English church. It was created in the 1200s and is one of the cathedrals fascinating hidden stories. Only half the painting survives because it was literally hidden away behind the pulpit that once stood here.
The other half was destroyed along with much of the vibrant medieval decoration of the cathedral during the civil war of the 1640s and it’s aftermath, a time when the nave was even used as an alehouse and a carpenter’s shop.
The painting was only rediscovered during restoration work in the 1800s when the pulpit was moved. The painting shows the wheel of Fortune, a common symbol in medieval times, but a difficult one to understand today. The woman at centre of the wheel is Fortuna. She controls the spinning of the Wheel of Fortune.
The three men on the edge of the wheel represent various levels of success in life. On top is a man at the peak of his fortune. He is wealthy and powerful. We can tell this because he’s sitting down – a sign of high status and to medieval viewers, his clothes are obviously of the best quality – there’s fur on his robe and he’s wearing a crown on his head.
What we can’t see is the fourth man on the missing half of the wheel. But if we could we would see him sliding downwards falling from power and returning to the bottom of the pile.
I hope it’s becoming clearer what medieval visitors understood in this painting is a warning against craving money, power, and early success. We can all be knocked down by Fortuna, just as easily as we can be lifted up by her. So it’s interesting that this image was placed here directly opposite the bishop’s chair, perhaps it was supposed to be a warning to him, in case he got too big for your boots.