The Art of Exeter Cathedral

Upon entering Exeter Cathedral, you'll immediately be face-to-face with one of the most impressive and awe-inspiring buildings in England--but the architecture isn't the only draw. Exeter Cathedral offers a unique mix of old and new when it comes to art, and much of their artwork is locally produced. While other cathedrals in Europe draw more tourists than worshippers, Exeter Cathedral very much still has a 'parish church' feeling, achieved through their incredible collection of artwork. From stained glass to elaborate tombs, the cathedral is full of art with a spiritual function.


Stained glass in Lady Chapel


Tomb in Lady Chapel 


When you first enter, you'll feel compelled to look up at the incredible rib-vaulting that extends along the entire length of the building. Exeter Cathedral, in fact, has the longest continuous stone vault of any Medieval cathedral in the world. At the intersections of these vaults, you'll find colorful round sculptures, called bosses, that can depict specific people or events, or simply serve as decoration. There are over 400 bosses found across the entirely ceiling, but one of the most notable depicts the murder of Thomas Beckett at Canterbury Cathedral.



 Alongside the choir structure, a papier-mache model of a boss depicting St George and the Dragon can be found, allowing for a closer inspection of the bright colors and sharp detail used in the bossess, even though they are displayed so far above the viewer's heads:


In addition to structural artwork, the Cathedral is home to exquisite Renaissance paintings, created in the style of the Italian painter Raphael. These can be found mounted on the walls on either side of the Cathedral, along the nave. Both depict religious scenes and are housed in luxurious frames.


The Madonna Della Sedia, after Raphael, ca. 1490s.



The Nativity, Gherard delle Notti, ca. 16th century. 

The cathedral is full of exquisite woodwork, such as the Minstrels' Gallery, the Quire, and the Astronomical Clock, which, even centuries after its completion, still keeps perfect time, as many a visitor will check their smartphone to prove.


Carved angels playing musical instruments in Minstrels' Gallery




The Bishop's Throne in the Quire


The Astronomical Clock

In addition to Medieval and Renaissance art, the Cathedral is also home to contemporary works by local artists. In the St James Chapel, alongside the right nave, a cross made of driftwood watches over memorials to soldiers lost in the Second World War. As the original chapel was lost in the Exeter Blitz, the structure was recreated according to the original design and the driftwood cross was part of its rededication. This is created by Naomi Hart, who lives and works in Devon. The driftwood used in her cross was collected from Devon beaches, creating a uniquely local piece to pay homage to Devonians lost in the war. 



Additionally, Janis Ridley has a sculpture on display in the cathedral's Lady Chapel, located at the rear of the building. Working in Dartmoor, Ridley created the work to echo the Virgin Mary and infant Christ, titled 'Unfolding Love.' The bronze sculpture acts as a focal piece for the Lady Chapel, designed for silent prayer and contemplation.




Along the perimeter of the cathedral, another local artwork can be found--The Exeter Rondels. Created in 1980 by local women's groups, these embroidered cushions depict important events in the history of both Exeter and the cathedral itself, allowing visitors to witness history through a local lens.




Exeter Cathedral in and of itself is a work of art--but the artworks on display throughout the space help to communicate its function as a religious space, a cultural artifact, and as a gathering point for the Devon community.

Works Cited

"Welcome to Exeter Cathedral" Pamphlet. Exeter Cathedral, 2016. Print.

Text © Deirdre Sheridan, 2016

Photos © Deirdre Sheridan, 2016