In a tranquil corner of rural England, just before sunrise, Charlotte Lawson Johnston and Emma Lewis take a tour of Forde Abbey, discovering a 12th century monastery with assiduously preserved original interiors and a famous set of woven masterpieces.
BY CHARLOTTE LAWSON JOHNSON | 9 JANUARY 2024
The 'Cabana family' is a community with a spirit of creative generosity; ideas are shared and collaborations encouraged, culminating in visual beauty. Monastic life required its brethren to do the same, to work together. Manual labor over decades resulted in some of our most impressive buildings to date. In a tranquil corner of England where Devon, Dorset and Somerset meet, sits Forde Abbey.
Erected in 1141 by twelve Cistercian monks and an abbot (representing Christ and his twelve apostles), it rarely features in lists citing England’s most beautiful homes - yet it should. I blame our obsession with architectural order and symmetry. The arrangement of this Cistercian monastery is quite the opposite. Its alternative beauty lies within a patchwork of conversions, extensions and additions.
These reflect the first four centuries of the Abbey’s existence and its many proprietors: from these Cistercian founders with their impressive medieval wall housing the monks’ dormitory, to additions such as a Gothic tower and a Great Hall in the 1500s.
Emma Lewis and I, like the monks who lived here, arose before sunrise in order to capture this majestic building for you at dawn. It was 5am when we first glimpsed the Abbey in the beautiful valley alongside the River Axe. We shot the gardens in silence and I found myself imagining its residents here nearly 900 years ago, executing their daily rituals of manual labor, prayer and reading the gospel.
Inside, I was surprised to find the quarters as sparse as they were in the 12th century. It is rare to find a monastery that has preserved its original interiors, yet Forde has been assiduous in doing so. In accordance with the charter of this new monastic order, the founding Cistercians placed a ban on both decoration and luxury.
Religious artifacts had to be simple. In stark contrast, we gasp upon entering the highly adorned saloon. The room is formed from a double cube—symmetry finally arrived at Forde in 1658. A sign reads “please allow your eyes to adjust to the low light upon entering”. We do. Hanging in here are five glorious woven masterpieces: the famous set of Mortlake tapestries woven from Raphael’s designs for the lower walls of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515.
Regarded as being among the greatest treasures of the High Renaissance, Raphael’s original cartoons are on loan from the Royal Collection to the Victoria & Albert museum. They depict scenes from St John’s Gospel and from the Acts of the Apostles. They are Forde Abbey’s most valuable possession and one of the finest examples of this set of Raphael tapestries in existence.
Raphael called them his “woven frescoes:” he was attempting to compete with Michelangelo’s bravura painting on the Sistine chapel ceiling. Although they hang, these Mortlake creations could be mistaken for a mural. They fit perfectly: the panels were woven to fit the room.
They have earned their home; the exquisite strength of the strikingly rich red and blue threads and human flesh eerily accurate in its woven representation, deserves such extravagance. Like the weavers of Mortlake and the monks of Forde Abbey, we must strive to work in a collaborative manner.
It will ensure the continuous creation of beauty. Some of the finest creative triumphs in this world, be it a painting, a textile, a ceramic form or a building, are attributed to the work of a collective.
A version of this article was first published in Cabana N12, titled 'Time's Rich Tapestry'