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A BEACON OF LIGHT
Tales from the Crypt
Marketing Intern, Georgina Clarkson, wrote this article about the Cathedral’s newly re-opened Crypt. The article was published in The Chronicle.
You may have visited Newcastle Cathedral many times without realising it has a crypt.
The historic Crypt Chapel has been closed to the visiting public since 2019 during the Cathedral’s recent transformation but was finally brought back into use this month, marking the final piece in the jigsaw of the historic building’s reopening. The Cathedral’s crypt is relatively small compared to the other much larger and spacious crypts of Canterbury and Worcester Cathedrals.
Tucked in next to the organ case, a small set of steps leads you down into the stunning, peaceful space where thick stone walls act to buffer outside sound from the street and keep the space cool. These features serve to cast the space under a blanket of calm.
The original use of the Crypt is unclear, but it is thought to have been added in the medieval period, around the 14th century. Above where the altar is now, there is an intricate circular window featuring five tear-shaped mouchettes that peep into St George’s Chapel. This sort of window is known as a ‘St Catherine Window’, hinting at the ‘breaking wheel’ torture device upon which the saint was martyred.
Some historians have theorised that at some point the Crypt was dedicated to St Catherine and used for worship, much like St George’s Chapel which sits at ground level next to it today. Over time, the Crypt was used as a charnel house to store bones and human remains disturbed by fresh burials in the nearby over-full graveyard.
After falling out of use and being forgotten, the Crypt was rediscovered in 1824 when it was described as “nearly filled with bones, the larger ones in regular piles”. In the 1930s, the space was refurbished and transformed into a chapel – the walls were washed in a white limestone paint and new windows were installed dedicated to Sir Archibald Ross (1867-1931), a pioneering marine engineer. Four windows, added by Frank William Barber and Lawrence Lee in 1933, depict St Catherine and her wheel, music, fishing and ship building. In recent times, the space was used less frequently as it became troubled by damp, and the lack of heating made it too chilly for worship in the winter.
Over the last few years, the space has undergone yet another transformation and reopened to the public. The Crypt has now been cleaned and new lighting added, making it a more welcoming, visitor-friendly space. The space will host art and workshops over the summer, including a new textiles programme which will help support women accessing the criminal justice services offered by charity Changing Lives.
The Crypt is already being used for ‘Guided Meditation’ sessions which are free to attend and held every Tuesday from 1-2pm, until July 19. The space is open daily for the cathedral’s visitors to pray or sit quietly, away from the hubbub of city life.