The title of the picture is belief. It is a portrait large enough to fill the wall, a pastoral scene with lush meadows folding away into broad-leaved forests. The dominant colour is green yet the hills in the background have a bluish tinge and are veiled in mist. In the middle of the picture, just right of centre, stands the tower of a magnificent cathedral. Down there in amongst the trees lies a city, invisible to the viewer but defined by its greatest building.
The picture is the view from the Room for Improvement and the dated metal window frames do not do it justice. Neither does the neo-brutalist county hall that occupies most of the foreground. I’ll ignore that for the moment as it undermines the otherwise bucolic ambience.
The cathedral is the seminal building in the city. It is iconic and sits on a natural promontory high above a bend in the River Wear. Dan Cruikshank chose it as one of his four choices as Britain’s best building and it was voted as Britain’s favourite monument. It has appeared in Harry Potter and George Gently. The building as we know it (there was a church there before) was started in 1093 under the tenure of prince bishop William of Calais and was completed by 1135. Additional work has been ongoing ever since and scaffolding has been a regular part of its appearance.
The picture is about belief. The cathedral is a building dedicated to the belief in a higher power. It is the pinnacle of the Christian faith in the region. It is an edifice built on belief yet there is another type of belief demonstrated here.
Every time that I look out of the window I am reminded that the people that laid the foundations may not have been around to see it reach its climax. Just like Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia which is still not finished, workers are living and dying in the belief that what they are doing is worthwhile. Indeed William of Calais did not survive the century. Less than half the work had been done by the time he met his maker. His successor Ranuf Flambard took on the responsibility to see things through.
These visionaries had a belief that there were things more important than their own lifespan, greater causes that were worthy of an effort without payback (other than eternal happiness). Compare and contrast this to today’s short term approach to many of the things that we do. Return on our investment and time is money are our watchwords. Instant gratification is required which limits our ability to do some of those things that really require long term effort.
The view through the Room for Improvement should be an inspiration to all who see it. It should remind us that we are part of a wider community and a player in the human race. It should remind us that there are things which are worth doing for the benefit of our children, their children and their children’s children. It should remind us that the things we remember about great societies are the things that lasted and took time to come to fruition. Have belief.