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This article is taken from PN Review 128, Volume 25 Number 6, July - August 1999.

On Originality Clive Wilmer

There can be few buildings in London more redolent of its past than the Church of St Bartholomew the Great. Situated at the edge of Smithfield Market, it was once the church of a great religious house, which included St Bart's Hospital as well. It was founded in 1123 by a prebendary of St Paul's Cathedral named Rahere, who may in his youth have been Henry I's court jester. His remains now rest in the choir of St Bartholomew's beneath a brightly painted effigy. These facts alone bear some historical charge, but the building itself, its fabric and its context, are if anything more suggestive. At the Dissolution, the nave was destroyed with the great mass of the priory. What survives as an ordinary parish church is in fact a fragment: the chancel only of a building once as large as a cathedral. The splendid gatehouse through which the churchyard is entered was originally one of the west portals, the churchyard itself has taken the place of the nave, and some hospital outbuildings have absorbed the one surviving wall of the old cloister. There is something strangely affecting about this patchwork, at one and the same time poignant and imposing. But the sheer bulk of the masonry is sufficiently impressive: it is as if the proportions of the whole were legibly encoded in the fragment.

Closer inspection reveals much else of historical interest. As a Norman chancel built on the continental model, the church has an ambulatory ...


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