Explore our ‘Object of the Month’ page at the beginning of each month to find out more about the fascinating items on display in the Kings and Scribes: The Birth of a Nation exhibition.
n September the Flower Festival returns to the cathedral. To link with this, our object of the month is a pair of beautifully carved limewood swags, with leaves, fruit and flowers, highlighted in gold.
These swags attached to an earlier 17th century canopy, called a baldacchino, which was set over the high altar. Removed in around 1820, it is now in the Kings and Scribes Exhibition, from where you get the best view of the swags.
Designed by Edward Pierce in about 1685, the swags borrow from the style of carving pioneered by Grinling Gibbons. Not everyone approved of decorating the altar again after the Reformation period, but the design is secular, using solely classical motifs.
The central cartouche is a reconstruction, based on a fragment of the original and a distant view of the high altar in a painting. It was made when the swags were restored in 2011.
This animal head was found in one of the mortuary chests and is thought to have originally come from a decorated sculpture, such as a Nativity scene.
We are not sure why the animal head ended up in the chest, but we think that after parliamentarian forces attacked the Cathedral in 1642 the head may have been swept up and placed inside by mistake, or for safe keeping.
Throughout history people have been interested in the symbolic meaning of animals and you can find them all over the Cathedral.
Medieval Christians created illustrated books called bestiaries, drawing out the religious meanings of each beast or animal. For example, a lioness licking her cubs into life – which they believed were born dead – was seen as a sign of Christ’s resurrection.
Did you know? The Latin word for giraffe is Camelopardalis, because the Romans thought giraffes were part leopard, part camel!
St Swithun’s Shrine
On the top floor of our Kings & Scribes: Birth of a Nation exhibition you will find a piece of marble hung on the wall. 760 years ago it was part of the shrine of St Swithun, who is the Cathedral’s patron saint.
In his life he was a 9th Century monk, Bishop of Winchester and he performed a miracle, making broken eggs whole again! He asked to be buried outside, but after he died a blacksmith dreamt that Swithun asked to be moved into the Old Minster. On the 15th of July 971 Swithun was moved inside and there was a great storm where it rained for 40 days! Legend said Swithun was angry about being moved.
A chapel was built over the empty grave so pilgrims could visit and ask for healing. You can see the holes where they would have put a diseased arm or leg through or crawled inside to kiss the grave.
Anglo-Saxon Blue Glass
On the top floor of the Kings and Scribes Exhibition you may not have noticed seven small objects in a display case opposite the replica bones of Queen Emma. They can be quite hard to spot, but if you press the red button to illuminate them you will be amazed by what you see!
These beautiful pieces of blue stained glass came from the Old Minster- the Cathedral that was here before the current Norman one, making them over 1000 years old! The unusual bright blue windows would have made this important Royal Cathedral an incredible place to be, especially when the sun shined through them onto the gold and green tiles on the floor.
This impressive building with its five story tower was demolished when the bones of Anglo-Saxon kings, queens and bishops were moved to the new Cathedral on the 15th of July 1093.”
“The Oldest Door in the Cathedral”
When you visit our Kings and Scribes Exhibition you will pass through the oldest door in the Cathedral, a beautiful green door with ornate iron hinges.
In the wall beside the door is a space for a locking bar and a ‘squint’ (a peep hole) so that the monks could inspect visitors before letting them into the Priory! Cromwell’s troops did a good job of demolishing the Priory buildings once attached to the Cathedral, but luckily they left this door.
What stories could it tell of war and peace and past pandemics? Or the people who’ve passed through it?
Despite being over 800 years old it still fits like a glove and is opened every day to welcome visitors into the exhibition where significantly the Winchester Bible is displayed, which may have been written and illustrated in the very rooms to which the door leads.
When visitors reach the top floor of the Kings and Scribes Exhibition, they are surprised to find a huge piece of limestone! But this is no ordinary stone, it is in fact the oldest object in the exhibition.
It was the altar base for the very first church in Winchester, the Old Minster. When the Old Minster was built in 650AD the power of the Church and the King came together, as it was the most important Cathedral in (what would become) England and Winchester was a seat of Anglo-Saxon Royalty.
It was such an important church that members of the Anglo-Saxon royal family were originally buried there, including King Alfred! Some were later moved to the mortuary chests that you can see here today.
Just beyond the stone in the exhibition you can see a model of the Old Minster.
Outside the current Norman Cathedral you can still see where the Old Minster stood, its outline is traced in red brick, just north of the Cathedral that you see today.