The Medieval Limestone Frieze on the West Front of Lincoln Cathedral.

Carved from limestone by medieval masons Lincoln Cathedrals Romanesque Frieze on the west front of Lincoln Cathedral would have originally been highly colourful. According to Lincoln Cathedral’s official website the frieze was "like a cartoon, and was highly coloured in its original form. It has Old Testament scenes on the South Side and New Testament scenes on the North.

The cathedral itself would have been very different when the panels were first carved. The building would have been brightly decorated with numerous paintings, statues and shrines graphically illustrating ideas and figures from the bible for the illiterate public. Most of this decoration was taken down and destroyed in the Reformation in the 1530’s.

The panels of the Romanesque frieze visible today are probably fragments of a larger frieze. Cathedral historians have argued that there were probably other panels which were removed when features such as the Gallery of Kings and Gothic windows were added.

Many panels have been damaged or destroyed while others have been gradually restored in the 850 years since they were first carved. Lincoln Cathedral’s West Front represents a mixture of architectural styles and periods.


Click for a tour of the Romanesque Frieze
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West Front and Romanesque Frieze.  Picture courtesy of the Lincoln Cathedral guidebook, 1982.

The central portion of the West Front is a remnant of the original Romanesque cathedral built in the late 11th century by Bishop Remigius, to which the frieze and doorways were added in the mid 12th century by Bishop Alexander 'the Magnificent'.

The cathedral was badly damaged by an earthquake in 1185 and rebuilt with the central portion of the frieze incorporated into the design.



The restored West Front to be finally revealed.

The following item and photographs are taken and modified, with the permission of the Editor Mr Michael Sassi, from an excellent illustrated article published in the Saturday 10-Mar-2001 edition of the Lincolnshire Echo, the local evening newspaper for Lincoln and Lincolnshire. The original article was by Dan Sharp.

"It is the site Lincoln people have been waiting 17 years to see. Steel poles, wooden platforms and plastic sheeting have covered Lincoln Cathedral’s West Front while craftsmen toiled to restore it to its former glory. But when Prince Philip draws back the last remnants of the protective shell the newly polished stone facade will be revealed."

Prince Philip is due to unveil the centrepiece of the restoration which is the re-carved version of the building’s famous Romanesque frieze on March 26th at 11:30am.

The painstaking 17 year project has involved the cleaning and conservation of the whole of the cathedral’s West Front. There has also been specific detailed conservation work to other individual parts in the area such as the doorway to the Ringer’s Chapel. The eight panels of the Romanesque frieze which have been 14 years in the restoration depict various biblical scenes and concepts such as punishment for lust, sodomy, avarice, the harrowing of hell, the elect of heaven, Abraham’s bosom, the feast of Dives and the death of Lazarus plus Dives in hell. Each panel has cost about 8,000 to restore and most of the work has been funded by private donations.

Stonemason John Roberts' Abraham's Bosom from the Romanesque Frieze. (picture ref: 1-0923-9).

There are still many more panels around the building which are still un-restored. These include scenes of the expulsion of Adam & Eve from the garden of eden, God telling Noah to build his Ark and Daniel in the lion’s den.

The Dean of Lincoln, the Very Rev. Alec Knight said: "The recarved frieze is a revealing widow into the medieval mind. Good and evil and heaven and hell are depicted as stark realities, in turn both beautiful and fearsome.

It is not possible to misread the message. This is a unique project and tells us much about those who built this great cathedral. Some may be shocked by the power of the images."

Work began in 1987 when its eight panels were cleaned using micro air-abrasive while still attached to the building. While this work was being carried out it was found that the panels were extremely fragile with large areas crumbling and barely clinging to the wall. When the panels were taken down for further examination they were found to be seriously damaged and in danger of falling apart so a four year programme of emergency treatment was begun to prevent any further deterioration

Gaps in parts of the frieze were filled with colour matched lime mortars but when the conservation work was completed in 1991 the panels were assessed and considered too fragile to be returned to the west front wall. Since 1993 they have been exhibited in the cathedral’s angel choir and work of producing reproductions have been ongoing.

Team leader for sculpture and conservation, Alan Micklethwaite, said "The original work is very distinctive but only 75 to 80 per cent of it was in a sufficiently good condition for us to copy. The rest had been washed away by general weathering and the effects of acid rain. A lot of the heads of the figures and some other details were missing. We wanted to make the frieze as authentic as possible so we produced technical drawings allowing us to recreate exactly as much as possible of the original.

Stonemason Alan Micklethwaite with the piece The Elect In Heaven.

The next step was to go back and look at existing sculpture and manuscripts. Many of the scenes and themes dealt with in the frieze have been depicted elsewhere. These scenes told us what was missing and allowed us to fill in the blanks. This was done following the style and technique of the original artist."

He said that sculptors had examined the minute details of the 12th century artist’s styles, noticing that several different sets of hands had worked on several of the panels.

"Some of the figures are quite crude, but that is part of the design. Other parts are more sophisticated . Form example there is a figure of Christ which is more finely depicted than other figures, and we had to be aware of those differences.

People who look at the carvings in a hundred years might say it looks a bit 21st century, but it is an accurate reproduction. The original frieze had a definite purpose, the message was ‘this is what could happen to you’ and I am sure it was meant to put the fear of God into people.

The images are quite graphic. There are devils, dragons and serpents, people having their genitals bitten, that kind of thing, it gave us some interesting carving work to do."

He said he would be sad to see the work coming to an end. " I was 27 when I started and I am 38 now. It has taken a long time although I haven’t been working at it constantly, I think the result speaks for itself."

Bill Roberts shows off a panel (The Feast of Dives) by stonemason sculptor John Roberts. (picture ref1-0923-32)
Clerk of the works, Bill Roberts, said: "We are picking up the threads of work that was begun 900 years ago. We are doing our best to restore it to its original condition so that in 900 years time it will still be here.

For the first 12 months after the frieze is unveiled it will all look very new but after that it will begin to weather and it will blend in very quickly with the rest of the building.

The building has been under wraps for a long time but the unveiling will prove to people that we have been working hard beneath those plastic sheets."

He said there was still work to be done but the cathedral project is almost complete in principal. "Over the past 18 years a great many people have put a lot into this. Having the Duke of Edinburgh come to unveil the frieze is the icing on the cake. I can’t think of anyone better to do it. I’m very proud that I am to be the clerk of the works in the chair when this project is completed" said Mr Roberts.

"This restoration is a shot in the arm for Lincoln. Although the frieze will be kept under wraps until march 26th, the rest of the west front should be clear of scaffolding by this time next week."

Throughout the last two decades the cathedral has benefited from a rolling programme of repairs. In 1998 work was carried out to repair the building’s 19th century stained glass windows, which were in danger of collapsing. The windows were manufactured in the 1840’s and 1850’s when Victorian churchmen tried to replace medieval glass destroyed by Henry VIII during the reformation.

The enormous weight of the stained glass and lead was causing the windows to buckle. In 1999 the cathedral secured more than 350,000 from English Heritage to help pay for repairs to the 13th century Deans Eye Window, the magnificent Nave aisle windows and the North Nave and Aisle roofs.

Thomas Kupper repairs one of the stained glass windows.

Each year the cathedral’s running costs exceed 2 1/2 million. Apart from grants for building work, the building receives no public funding.


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