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John Wastell, a mystery

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King's College Chapel

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King's College Chapel, fan vault ceiling
Image: Gunnar Wrobel, Hamburg, Germany
Wikipedia Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike License

The chapel is indeed immense, with an outside measurement of 310 feet from turret to turret, each of which is 146 feet high. The interior—289 feet long and 40 feet wide—is dominated by the celebrated fan vault ceiling, whose equidistantly spaced curved ribs radiate up and away, forming a series of huge half cones. The largest fan vault in the world and estimated to weigh 1,875 tons, it is "an unfathomable piece of beautiful technology," Mr. Woodman says. Modern engineers have not been able to work out how the master-mason John Wastell put the fan vault into place, though Mr. Woodman says "we know he built it from the top down." Wordsworth poetically described the engineering feat as "that branching roof self-poised" (Wall Street Journal).

John Wastell was a genius who also built Canterbury Cathedral's central tower and fan vault, "a work of consummate beauty and strict control" (Oxford DNB).

But who was John Wastell and how did he create the fan vaulting and why?

Among all the reasons suggested for the building of King's College Chapel - the WSJ mentions "turbulent religious politics" and royal egos - these questions about Wastell remain mysteriously unanswered.

I see tremendous plant forms in the vaults. David thinks of the ice patterns that used to form on the inside of his bedroom window when he was a boy. Is it far-fetched to think that John Wastell had Wisdom or Psalms in mind?

Through the grandeur and beauty of the creatures, we may by analogy, contemplate their Author. (Wis. 13:1-5)




The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth His handiwork. (Psalm 19:1)

On Christmas Eve, the BBC will broadcast the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College Chapel to millions of people listening around the world.

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