The Past and the Present at England’s Salisbury Cathedral

Not far from the ancient megaliths of Stonehenge in the Wiltshire countryside, is the city of Salisbury, home of Salisbury Cathedral, another magnificent achievement of sacred architecture.

Salisbury Cathedral in Wiltshire County, England ©Laurel Kallenbach

Salisbury Cathedral in Wiltshire County, England ©Laurel Kallenbach

Set in the largest Cathedral Close in Britain—it covers 80 acres— Salisbury Cathedral is well known for its iconic spire and for being home to one of the four copies of the Magna Carta.

The ornate spire was built between 1310–1330 and is octagonal in shape. It rises 180 feet above the tower, making the combined height from ground level 400 feet—the tallest in Britain.

Imagine the awe of people during medieval times when they saw this amazing cathedral spire from every hill and valley within miles.

Back when we visited in 2012, Ken and I were staying at the historic Rollestone Manor in Shrewton, just two miles from Stonehenge. To get to Salisbury, we drove to a nearby park-and-ride and took the bus into Salisbury. Though it’s a small city, we dislike driving on the left side of busy roads, and finding parking is always tricky. So it was delightfully relaxing to hop on the bus, which stopped just a few blocks of the cathedral.

Buskers in the city of Salisbury ©Laurel Kallenbach

Buskers in the city of Salisbury ©Laurel Kallenbach

As we strolled through the old part of Salisbury, we enjoyed seeing the pretty shops and historic buildings of the town. And we paused to listen to buskers playing along the way.

Magna Carta: Cornerstone of Liberty

When we arrived, the cathedral was fairly quiet, so we opted to see the Magna Cart first before the crowds arrived. The Magna Carta (Latin for “Great Charter”) has been called a “cornerstone of liberty.” It’s one of the most celebrated documents in English history, and its revolutionary content influenced European civilization—and much of the rest of the world.

Written in 1215, the Magna Carta was signed to avert civil war in medieval England. Negotiations took place on “neutral” territory at Runnymede, near the royal castle at Windsor. In the Magna Carta agreement, King John guaranteed many rights that his officials had previously disputed, including freedom of the Church, the rights of towns, and that justice could not be bought or sold.

A handwritten original copy of the Magna Carta at Salisbury Cathedral. Photo courtesy Visit Wiltshire

A handwritten original copy of the Magna Carta at Salisbury Cathedral. Photo courtesy Visit Wiltshire

Only four copies of the Magna Carta have survived the centuries, and Salisbury Cathedral is home to the best-preserved original manuscript. Because the pages are kept securely behind glass that also shields them from the light, it’s a bit difficult to see them, but even thick glass can’t diminish the fact that these words, penned a little more than 800 years ago, changed the world and were an important step toward establishing basic human rights.

The New Amid the Old

We went outside into the cathedral’s beautiful cloisters and sat for a bit on a bench enjoying the fresh air and reflecting. After seeing the Magna Carta, those lessons in elementary-school world-history class seemed much more relevant.

The Cloisters at Salisbury Cathedral ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Cloisters at Salisbury Cathedral ©Laurel Kallenbach

We searched for a bit to find the peregrine falcons that sometimes hunt around in the cathedral, but we didn’t spot them. So we dodged a rain shower and went back inside to see the cathedral itself.

A gargoyle, Salisbury Cathedral ©Laurel Kallenbach

A medieval gargoyle, Salisbury Cathedral ©Laurel Kallenbach

Legend has it that the building has a window for every day of the year and a marble pillar for every hour of the year (8,760)!

There are indeed many beautiful traditional stained glass windows, but we paused in the Trinity Chapel to admire a modern stained glass window dedicated to prisoners of conscience. Created by artist Gabriel Loire of Chartres, France, it depicts the crucified Christ as an archetypal prisoner of conscience. Nearby burned an Amnesty International candle surrounded by barbed wire. That chapel was a wonderful reminder that human rights aren’t just something established long ago—they are values we need to redefine and create and protect all the time, in every country of the world.

Another piece of modern “art,” a beautiful baptismal font, blends contemporary look into Salisbury Cathedral’s 800-year-old architecture.

Salisbury Cathedral's modern baptismal font created by artist William Pye ©Laurel Kallenbach

Stillness and flow: Two contrasting aspects of water are woven together in the church’s baptismal font: the calmness of the reflecting surface and the flow and movement of water through the four spouts. Salisbury Cathedral’s modern baptismal font was created by artist William Pye. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Created by renowned British water sculptor William Pye, the cruciform-shaped baptismal font was installed in 2008 to celebrate the 750th anniversary of the consecration of Salisbury Cathedral.

I loved how the water’s smooth surface reflected the surrounding architecture before passing through spouts at each of the four corners and disappearing through a bronze grating set into the floor. It was rather mesmerizing to look at.

I highly recommend a visit to this fantastic monument. It would be lovely to come at a time when you can hear the choir filling up the huge space with song. And incidentally, I read that Salisbury Cathedral was the first cathedral to have a girl’s choir in addition to the traditional boys-only choir. I’ve always wondered why only boys had the privilege in contemporary times. Just another example of human equality at work in this great church!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Find more information at Visit Wiltshire.

Salisbury Cathedral and it cloisters ©Laurel Kallenbach

Salisbury Cathedral and its elegant cloisters ©Laurel Kallenbach

Holy Week Processions in Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua, Guatemala, is a stunningly beautiful colonial town with cobbled streets, glorious cathedrals and colorful markets filled with exquisite Mayan textiles. In 2008, I was lucky enough to spend a number of days in Antigua during Lent.

It must be quite an honor to take the center position at the head of the float. That man or woman carries the float with their arms spread wide in a position reminiscent of a crucifixion. ©Laurel Kallenbach

It must be quite an honor to take the center position at the head of the float. That man or woman carries the float with their arms spread wide in a position reminiscent of a crucifixion. ©Laurel Kallenbach

On Sundays throughout Lent, there are 10-hour processions up and down the streets of Antigua. They usually start at 1:00 in the afternoon and last until 11:00 at night.

This small float is probably Mary Magdalene. The sousaphone behind her is another band of musicians. ©Laurel Kallenbach

This small float is probably Mary Magdalene. The sousaphone behind her is another band of musicians. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Hundreds of participants dress in regal robes and carry gigantic floats (andas) as onlookers watch. The floats are filled with sculptures of Jesus dragging the cross, the Virgin Mary looking beatific, and scores of angels playing herald trumpets.

Antigua has one of the most elaborate Holy Week (Semana Santa) celebrations in the Americas, and the city’s hotels are filled to bursting throughout the week.

For Semana Santa, carpets of sawdust paintings fill the streets as the processions walk through; that doesn’t happen on Lenten Sundays, but would be quite a sight. (A small sample of a sawdust carpet was preserved in the cathedral, and it was amazingly intricate and colorful.)

Mary, the Queen of Heaven looks mournfully down upon the spectators while women shoulder the burden of her holiness. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Mary, the Queen of Heaven looks mournfully down upon the spectators while women shoulder the burden of her holiness. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Some of the floats weight as much as 3 tons, so it takes quite a few people to bear them on their shoulders. The float-bearers take shifts to spell each other, but they all keep shuffling slowly through the streets to the dirges played by marching musicians.

I watched the procession four times along various streets. Because the parade moves so slowly, it was easy to watch it pass, then walk six or eight blocks around the route, and catch the whole pageant somewhere else.

The final time I saw the procession pass by was from the window of a restaurant at about 8 p.m. In the dark, the floats were lit and had a different aura than they did by day. Night or day, the procession is quite a spectacle.

Many of the celebrants were boys in their early teens, all wearing robes?either purple (the color of the Passion) or white like shepherds. Some wore pointed hoods that remind Americans of the Ku Klux Klan. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Many of the celebrants were boys in their early teens, all wearing robes?either purple (the color of the Passion) or white like shepherds. Some wore pointed hoods that remind Americans of the Ku Klux Klan. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The parade begins with blocks of processing boys and men in robes, hoods and cassocks. That’s followed by altar boys swinging the incense burners. The streets of Antigua fill with the smoky aroma, turning the entire city into a cathedral-like setting.

Then comes the massive float with Jesus carrying the cross over his shoulder. This is followed by musicians.

Next, the Virgin Mary float arrives, borne by women in somber gray and black dresses with lace on their heads. Although the Virgin Mary float is smaller, it’s impressive to see women in heels and skirts carrying what is still a massive burden.

All the locals take these processions very seriously—even mournfully. Bystanders in their jeans and flip-flops (or Mayan clothes if they’re visiting from a small village) gaze meaningfully at the floats. The participants are all very proud and solemn about their jobs.

However, there’s also an air of festivity: hawkers sell cotton candy, toys and sodas. As you’re in the large crowds, you’re shoulder-to-shoulder with other bystanders on the sidewalks trying to glimpse the floats and take photos.

Cotton candy and balloons added to the celebration of the Holy Week procession. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Cotton candy and balloons added to the celebration of the Holy Week procession. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Pickpockets make a healthy living on procession days. Although I felt nothing, for some reason I looked down at my fannypack and noticed the zipper was open—not the way I left it. I checked, and the only thing missed was the granola bar that I had tucked in at the last moment on top.

A friend of mine was not so fortunate. Her wallet disappeared from her purse, but fortunately her passport was safely back in the hotel safe.

Watching the processions made me truly feel like I had sampled a bit of the local culture of Guatemala, a fervently Catholic—and Mayan—country.

Women wearing heels carry the Virgin Mary float through Antigua's bumpy, cobblestone streets. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Women wearing heels carry the Virgin Mary float through Antigua’s bumpy, cobblestone streets. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Laurel Kallenbach, writer and editor

Read more about my travels in Guatemala:

Originally published in April 2009

Banner carriers in the Holy Week procession, Antigua, Guatemala ©Laurel Kallenbach

Banner carriers in the Holy Week procession, Antigua, Guatemala ©Laurel Kallenbach