A space for silence

The Berkeley Chapel lies at the far end of the South Choir Aisle. It was originally a vestry – a space for the clergy to dress and prepare for services – and also a place of prayer for the souls of the Berkeley family, one of the cathedral’s early patron families. At present this is one of the spaces especially set aside within the building for quiet, private prayer or contemplation. It is especially suited to that purpose in some ways because of its ‘out of the way’ location, at the far east end of the church, and reached only from the South Quire Aisle via an additional little antechapel (the terms means literally ‘before the chapel’) through which you pass to reach the chapel itself. On the other hand, though, there is a large opening from the Berkeley Chapel directly onto the South Quire Aisle. This arch between the chapel and the aisle once housed the sculpted figures of a tomb of members of the Berkeley family. Because of this opening, sound flows into the Berkeley Chapel from the aisle, and the Quire. The chapel feels like a quiet space, but it certainly is not often silent. Yesterday afternoon I sat in the space alone, and there was no noise within the chapel, but the sound of the organist rehearsing flowed through into the space perceptibly muted in comparison with the sound as it could be heard from the choir itself. The Berkeley family clearly didn’t want to isolate their tomb, or the chapel space beyond that tomb, from the sound of prayer and song that resonated frequently within the Quire and the Lady Chapel. In fact, the design of these spaces, and the placement of the tomb, allows for the sound of prayer and song to flow constantly back and forth from the main body of the church into the chapel, and vice versa, across the tomb. It is a pleasing thought to imagine the tomb, and once upon a time the sculpted figures that lay on top of the tomb chest, being constantly ‘bathed’ in the sounds of the cathedral’s music, prayer and worship.




DPP BC 026
Skeletal vaulted ceiling in the Antechapel, Berkeley Chapel (14th century). Photo: Dave Pratt

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University of Bristol / Brigstow Institute / Bristol Cathedral

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