Capturing cathedrals | December 10, 2010 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - December 10, 2010

Capturing cathedrals

Photographer delves into the architecture and history of England's medieval landmarks

by Rebecca Wallace

Poor Peterborough Cathedral. In its early days as a monastery and then as an abbey, it was attacked by Vikings, sacked during a revolt against William the Conqueror, and then destroyed by fire in 1116.

But once again, the building was rebuilt. Today, it stands its ground as a striking example of Norman architecture in England. And to some people, including photographer John Eaton, the cathedral's tumultuous past makes it all the more attractive.

In his new exhibition at the Pacific Art League in Palo Alto, Eaton includes a lengthy artist's statement that is part tribute to England's phoenix-like medieval cathedrals.

He writes: "Because of their checkered history of building and rebuilding, from foundation in the 11th century through to the Reformation, they exhibit a wide variety of architectural styles, evolution and implementation — both within one building as well as between them — providing great scope for innovation and excitement in the creation of space and vision."

Eaton's large black-and-white photos give a sampling of the styles and features at seven cathedrals: Ely, Exeter, Gloucester, Norwich, Peterborough, Salisbury and Wells. Gallery visitors can gaze at the dramatic fan vaulting in the cloisters at Gloucester, admire the sweep of the Salisbury nave, or visually climb the Chapter House steps at Wells.

(The Wells photo is a tribute to the late English photographer Frederick H. Evans, whose image "Sea of Steps, Wells Cathedral" also places the viewer looking heavenward up the staircase.)

Although there are no people in the photos, there are plenty of human touches. A series of dips worn into the Wells steps shows that people have probably been favoring the left side of the staircase for years and years. On a pipe organ at Exeter, an inscription proudly states, "John Loosemore made this organ 1665."

Persistent Peterborough still feels very much alive and very grand, with a rare wooden nave ceiling and majestic ceiling designs of sunbursts and winged angels. During Eaton's visits to the cathedrals in recent years, he spent much of his time admiring and documenting the intricate design work on the ceilings — and pondering how difficult the work must have been to do by candlelight. Stained-glass windows may be inspiring, but they're not always illuminating.

"When the guys designed this ... they probably, except on a really bright sunny day, couldn't see much unless they had really good window cleaners," Eaton said in an interview. "You start to appreciate the atmosphere in medieval times."

He added that the cathedrals must also have had a particularly mysterious air to medieval congregants, craning their necks to see the hazy ceilings far above. "If you were very lucky, you caught glimpses of beautiful design and beautiful artwork," Eaton said. "Today we're probably rather spoiled."

To further illuminate the cathedrals, Eaton has paired the photographs in his exhibition with floor plans of the structures. In his research, he came upon an old English magazine called The Builder, which in the 1880s and 1890s ran articles on the cathedrals together with detailed pen-and-ink floor plans.

"I scanned them as big as I could, and mounted them on foam core," Eaton said. Then he hung the plans together with his photos and exhibit cards that he wrote about each cathedral. "People have a little bit of history and they can see the floor plan ... and then they ask lots of questions," he said. "So I've had to read lots of books."

Eaton's exhibit cards are informative and sometimes a bit poetic, as when he describes Ely Cathedral:

"The cathedral stands on a low hill, on the Isle of Ely, less than 100 feet above sea level but, because of the flatness of the surrounding fens, can be seen for miles around," Eaton writes, adding, "In medieval times when the fens frequently flooded, it was said to 'float' on the water like a great ship."

Architecture is in Eaton's blood: His father, brother and son are architects. Cathedrals, too, have been with him for a long time. Eaton was brought up in Chester, England, where he went to school next to Chester Cathedral.

Still, Eaton didn't start seriously focusing on his photography until he retired from a high-tech job in Silicon Valley and moved from Menlo Park to Aptos a couple of years ago. He's shot other series, including ones on California missions and industrial landscapes, but the cathedrals were special. For his first solo exhibition, he displayed his cathedral series at the Pacific Grove Art Center last spring, and now has brought it to Palo Alto.

In April, he'll head back to England to photograph more cathedrals: Canterbury, Chichester, Rochester.

Eaton doesn't bring a lot of equipment into the cathedrals, but since he uses a tripod with his digital medium-format cameras he often calls ahead for permission. He's also found it best to arrive early in the morning. Nothing ruins a medieval-themed photo like a bunch of tourists in Ugg boots.

Although Eaton sometimes shoots in color, he's most moved by black-and-white photos, especially in this series.

"The cathedrals are much more attuned to black and white than color," he said. "It's part of the starkness of them."

What: John Eaton shows photographs and floor plans of English medieval cathedrals.

Where: Norton Gallery, Pacific Art League, 668 Ramona St., Palo Alto

When: Through Dec. 31. The gallery is open weekdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to or call the art league at 650-321-3891.


Posted by Jim Lewis, a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 11, 2010 at 9:20 pm


Let us ponder for a moment why the great cathedrals of Europe were built.

Why would people take the time, energy, hard work and money to build something of such grandeur and beauty?

Why are these structures so lasting and made out of the finest marble and stone?

Their innate perfection stuns us as does the architectural wonder.

Flying buttresses, like those supporting Notre Dame in Paris, are like the legs of a Daddy Long Leg spider; long and thin, supporting the belly and body of the Cathedral itself.

Is there any wondering why they were built?

They were dedicated to a man who lived amongst us only to return to his Father.
Just like we will do one day if we understand fully the meaning of those structures.


Man-made wonders dedicated to a man who was God.
A man who walked among us, lived and died for us, not for himself.

Can any of us say we are living like He did?

Go spend some personal time in one of the most extraordinary creations on earth and think and ponder these things.

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