Manchester Histories Festival

Hidden Treasures: Medieval Ceiling Carvings at Manchester Cathedral

Friday 25 March 2016

New photographs have revealed the weird and wonderful medieval carvings decorating the Cathedral’s ceiling for the first time in over 50 years.

Manchester Cathedral nave ceiling]Anyone who has visited the Manchester Cathedral recently will have seen the scaffolding around the quire, in preparation for the installation of the new organ in autumn this year. While the scaffolding has temporarily obscured some of the Cathedral’s medieval woodwork, it has also provided access to the wonderful pieces usually hidden from view, in the highest points of the building. Photographer Robert Watson, who had an exhibition at the Cathedral in March, managed to capture these new images of the ceiling bosses from the top of the scaffold. Staff at the Cathedral and at Chetham’s Library were very excited to see many of these carvings for the first time!

Indeed, we are lucky that such examples of medieval carving have survived. Manchester Cathedral was subject to some major re-building work in the nineteenth century – an era characterised by an often ruthless approach to ‘ancient’ architecture – hence its Victorian exterior. Fortunately the architect J. S. Crowther was a conservative restorer by the standards of the day and he helped to preserve the medieval work of the Cathedral’s interior. While the structure of the ceiling was completely replaced in facsimile of the original, the medieval ceiling bosses and ‘minstrel angels’ were simply restored and returned to their original positions… more or less. The angels on the north side all have wind instruments, and on the south side they all have strings, except for the top pair. The switch is thought to be an accidental misplacement on the part of the nineteenth-century restorers. Some think it’s about time that this mistake was rectified – others like the story!

Minstrel Angel

Two of the carvings depict what is known as the ‘Huntington Rebus’. This is a pictorial pun on the name of the warden John Huntington (1422-58) – one image depicts ‘hunting’ and the other, shown here, a ‘tun’ (a barrel of ale). The Huntington Rebus is replicated in a stone carving, probably of the same date, on the Cathedral’s opposite wall – this is lower down and more easily visible. Comparing the two, it seems that the carvers of the less-visible wooden image might have had a little more latitude…


The ceiling bosses also add to the Cathedral’s collection of mythical beasts and ‘green men’ – the mysterious leafy faces of supposedly pre-Christian origins that frequently adorn church architecture.

Dragons - Manchester Cathedral

Green Man - Manchester Cathedral

The Cathedral’s ceiling carvings are, of course, difficult to see from the ground. But some of them bear a striking resemblance to those at Chetham’s Library (where the ceilings are lower!) which might indicate that they were carved by the same craftsmen. If you visit John Rylands Library, too, you can see the bosses in the stone ceilings of their Victorian corridors that mimic the medieval style, with leafy designs and mythical creatures. Manchester Cathedral and Chetham’s Library are hoping to host a joint event in the near future, inviting visitors to take a closer look and learn more about these fine examples of medieval craftsmanship. Details of forthcoming events are always available at

If you have a story connected with Manchester Cathedral or the medieval Hanging Bridge and their hidden histories, we would love to hear from you! Share your memories at or tweet us @ManCathedral

Manchester Cathedral is running ‘Time Travelling’ family learning events as part of Manchester Histories Festival 2016. For details see  The Cathedral Visitor Centre is opening a new exhibition at the medieval Hanging Bridge for the Festival, open 3-11 June Mon-Sat 9-5pm.

All images courtesy: Robert Watson photography

Blog by Grace Timperley

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