1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Crypt
CRYPT (Lat. crypta, from the Gr. κρύπτειν, to hide), a vault or subterranean chamber, especially under churches. In classical phraseology “crypta” was employed for any vaulted building, either partially or entirely below the level of the ground. It is used for a sewer (crypta Suburae, Juvenal, Sat. v. 106); for the “carceres,” or vaulted stalls for the horses and chariots in a circus (Sidon. Apoll. Carm. xxiii. 319); for the close porticoes or arcades, more fully known as “cryptoporticus,” attached by the Romans to their suburban villas for the sake of coolness, and to the theatres as places of exercise or rehearsal for the performers (Plin. Epist. ii. 15, v. 6, vii. 21; Sueton. Calig. 58; Sidon. Apoll. lib. ii. epist. 2); and for underground receptacles for agricultural produce (Vitruv. vi. 8, Varro, De re rust. i. 57). Tunnels, or galleries excavated in the living rock, were also called cryptae. Thus the tunnel to the north of Naples, through which the road passes to Puteoli, familiar to tourists as the “Grotto of Posilipo,” was originally designated crypta Neapolitana (Seneca, Epist. 57). In early Christian times crypta was appropriately employed for the galleries of a catacomb, or for the catacomb itself. Jerome calls them by this name when describing his visits to them as a schoolboy, and the term is used by Prudentius (see Catacombs).
A crypt, as a portion of a church, had its origin in the subterranean chapels known as “confessiones,” erected around the tomb of a martyr, or the place of his martyrdom. This is the origin of the spacious crypts, some of which may be called subterranean churches, of the Roman churches of S. Prisca, S. Prassede, S. Martino ai Monti, S. Lorenzo fuori le Mura, and above all of St Peter’s—the crypt being thus the germ of the church or basilica subsequently erected above the hallowed spot. When the martyr’s tomb was sunk in the surface of the ground, and not placed in a catacomb chapel, the original memorial-shrine would be only partially below the surface, and consequently the part of the church erected over it, which was always that containing the altar, would be elevated some height above the ground, and be approached by flights of steps. This fashion of raising the chancel or altar end of a church on a crypt was widely imitated long after the reason for adopting it ceased, and even where it never existed. The crypt under the altar at the basilica of St Maria Maggiore in Rome is merely imitative, and the same may be said of many of the crypts of the early churches in England. The original Saxon cathedral of Canterbury had a crypt beneath the eastern apse, containing the so-called body of St Dunstan, and other relics, “fabricated,” according to Eadmer, “in the likeness of the confessionary of St Peter at Rome” (see Basilica). St Wilfrid constructed crypts still existing beneath the churches erected by him in the latter part of the 7th century at Hexham and Ripon. These are peculiarly interesting from their similarity in form and arrangement to the catacomb chapels with which Wilfrid must have become familiar during his residence in Rome. The cathedral, begun by Æthelwold and finished by Alphege at Winchester, at the end of the 10th century, had spacious crypts “supporting the holy altar and the venerable relics of the saints” (Wulstan, Life of St Æthelwold), and they appear to have been common in the earlier churches in England. The arrangement was adopted by the Norman builders of the 11th and 12th centuries, and though far from universal is found in many of the cathedrals of that date. The object of the construction of these crypts was twofold,—to give the altar sufficient elevation to enable those below to witness the sacred mysteries, and to provide a place of burial for those holy men whose relics were the church’s most precious possession. But the crypt was “a foreign fashion,” derived, as has been said, from Rome, “which failed to take root in England, and indeed elsewhere barely outlasted the Romanesque period” (Essays on Cathedrals, ed. Howson, p. 331).
Of the crypts beneath English Norman cathedrals, that under the choir of Canterbury (q.v.) is by far the largest and most elaborate in its arrangements. It is, in fact, a subterranean church of vast size and considerable altitude. The whole crypt was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and contained two chapels especially dedicated to her,—the central one beneath the high altar, enclosed with rich Gothic screen-work, and one under the south transept. This latter chapel was appropriated by Queen Elizabeth to the use of the French Huguenot refugees who had settled at Canterbury in the time of Edward VI. There were also in this crypt a large number of altars and chapels of other saints, some of whose hallowed bodies were buried here. At the extreme east end, beneath the Trinity chapel, the body of St Thomas (Becket) was buried the day after his martyrdom, and lay there till his translation, July 7, 1220.
The cathedrals of Winchester, Worcester and Gloucester have crypts of slightly earlier date (they may all be placed between 1080 and 1100), but of similar character, though less elaborate. They all contain piscinas and other evidences of the existence of altars in considerable numbers. They are all apsidal. The most picturesque is that of Worcester, the work of Bishop Wulfstan (1084), which is remarkable for the multiplicity of small pillars supporting its radiating vaults. Instead of having the air of a sepulchral vault like those of Winchester and Gloucester, this crypt is, in Professor Willis’s words, “a complex and beautiful temple.” Archbishop Roger’s crypt at York, belonging to the next century (1154–1181), was filled up with earth when the present choir was built at the end of the 14th century, and its existence forgotten till its disinterment after the fire of 1829. The choir and presbytery at Rochester are supported by an extensive crypt, of which the western portion is Gundulf’s work (1076–1107), but the eastern part, which displays slender cylindrical and octagonal shafts, with light vaulting springing from them, is of the same period as the superstructure, the first years of the 13th century. This crypt, and that beneath the Early English Lady chapel at Hereford, are the latest English existing cathedral crypts. That at Hereford was rendered necessary by the fall of the ground, and is an exceptional case. Later than any of these crypts was that of St Paul’s, London. This was a really large and magnificent church of Decorated date, with a vaulted roof of rich and intricate character resting on a forest of clustered columns. Part of it served as the parish church of St Faith. A still more exquisite work of the Decorated period is the crypt of St Stephen’s chapel at Westminster, than which it is difficult to conceive anything more perfect in design or more elaborate in ornamentation. Having happily escaped the conflagration of the Houses of Parliament in 1834—before which it was degraded to the purpose of the speaker’s state dining-room—it has been restored to its former sumptuousness of decoration, and is now one of the most beautiful architectural gems in England.
Of Scottish cathedrals the only one that possesses a crypt is the cathedral of Glasgow, rendered celebrated by Sir Walter Scott in his novel of Rob Roy (ch. xx.). At the supposed date of the tale, and indeed till a comparatively recent period, this crypt was used as a place of worship by one of the three congregations among which the cathedral was partitioned, and was known as “the Laigh or Barony Kirk.” It extends beneath the choir transepts and chapter-house; in consequence of the steep declivity on which the cathedral stands it is of unusual height and lightsomeness. It belongs to the 13th century, its style corresponding to Early English, and is simply constructional, the building being adapted to the locality. In architectural beauty it is quite unequalled by any crypt in the United Kingdom, and can hardly anywhere be surpassed. It is an unusually rich example of the style, the clustered piers and groining being exquisite in design and admirable in execution. The bosses of the roof and capitals of the piers are very elaborate, and the doors are much enriched with foliage. “There is a solidity in its architecture, a richness in its vaulting, and a variety of perspective in the spacing of its pillars, which make it one of the most perfect pieces of architecture in these kingdoms” (Fergusson).
In the centre of the main alley stands the mutilated effigy of St Mungo, the patron saint of Glasgow, and at the south-east corner is a well called after the same saint.
Crypts under parish churches are not very uncommon in England, but they are usually small and not characterized by any architectural beauty. A few of the earlier crypts, however, deserve notice. One of the earliest and most remarkable is that of the church of Lastingham near Pickering in Yorkshire, on the site of the monastery founded in 648 by Cedd, bishop of the East Saxons. The existing crypt, though exceedingly rude in structure, is of considerably later date than Bishop Cedd, forming part of the church erected by Abbot Stephen of Whitby in 1080, when he had been driven inland by the incursions of the northern pirates. This crypt is remarkable from its extending under the nave as well as the chancel of the upper church, the plan of which it accurately reproduces, with the exception of the westernmost bay. It forms a nave with side aisles of three bays, and an apsidal chancel, lighted by narrow deeply splayed slits. The roof of quadripartite vaulting is supported by four very dwarf thick cylindrical columns, the capitals of which and of the responds are clumsy imitations of classical work with rude volutes. Still more curious is the crypt beneath the chancel of the church of Repton in Derbyshire. This also consists of a centre and side aisles, divided by three arches on either side. The architectural character, however, is very different from that at Lastingham, and is in some respects almost unique, the piers being slender, and some of them of a singular spiral form, with a bead running in the sunken part of the spiral. Another very extensive and curious Norman crypt is that beneath the chancel of St Peter’s-in-the-East at Oxford. This is five bays in length, the quadripartite vaulting being supported by eight low, somewhat slender, cylindrical columns with capitals bearing grotesque animal and human subjects. Its dimensions are 36 by 20 ft. and 10 ft. in height. This crypt has been commonly attributed to Grymboldt in the 9th century; but it is really not very early Norman. Under the church of St Mary-le-Bow in London there is an interesting Norman crypt not very dissimilar in character to that last described. Of a later date is the remarkably fine Early English crypt groined in stone, beneath the chancel of Hythe in Kent, containing a remarkable collection of skulls and bones, the history of which is quite uncertain. There is also a Decorated crypt beneath the chancel at Wimborne minster, and one of the same date beneath the southern chancel aisle at Grantham.
Among the more remarkable French crypts may be mentioned those of the cathedrals of Auxerre, said to date from the original foundation in 1085; of Bayeux, attributed to Odo, bishop of that see, uterine brother of William the Conqueror, where twelve columns with rude capitals support a vaulted roof; of Chartres, running under the choir and its aisles, frequently assigned to Bishop Fulbert in 1029, but more probably coeval with the superstructure; and of Bourges, where the crypt is in the Pointed style, extending beneath the choir. The church of the Holy Trinity attached to Queen Matilda’s foundation—the “Abbaye aux Dames” at Caen—has a Norman crypt where the thirty-four pillars are as closely set as those at Worcester. The church of St Eutropius at Saintes has also a crypt of the 11th century, of very large dimensions, which deserves special notice; the capitals of the columns exhibit very curious carvings. Earlier than any already mentioned is that of St Gervase of Rouen, considered by E. A. Freeman “the oldest ecclesiastical work to be seen north of the Alps.” It is apsidal, and in its walls are layers of Roman brick. It is said to contain the remains of two of the earliest apostles of Gaul—St Mello and St Avitian. There are numerous crypts in Germany. One at Göttingen may be mentioned, where cylindrical shafts with capitals of singular design support “vaulting of great elegance and lightness” (Fergusson), the curves being those of a horseshoe arch. The crypts of the cathedrals or churches at Halberstadt, Hildesheim and Naumburg also deserve to be noticed; that of Lübeck may be rather called a lower choir. It is 20 ft. high and vaulted.
The Italian crypts, when found, as a rule reproduce the “confessio” of the primitive churches. That beneath the chancel of S. Michele at Pavia is an excellent typical example, probably dating from the 10th century. It is apsidal and vaulted, and is seven bays in length. That at S. Zeno at Verona (c. 1138) is still more remarkable; its vaulted roof is upborne by forty columns, with curiously carved capitals. It is approached from the west by a double flight of steps and contains many ancient monuments. S. Miniato at Florence, begun in 1013, has a very spacious crypt at the east end, forming virtually a second choir. It is seven bays in length and vaulted. The most remarkable crypt in Italy, however, is perhaps that of St Mark’s, Venice. The plan of this is almost a Greek cross. Four rows of nine columns each run from end to end, and two rows of three each occupy the arms of the cross, supporting low stunted arches on which rests the pavement of the church above. This also constitutes a lower church, containing a chorus cantorum formed by a low stone screen, not unlike that of S. Clemente at Rome (see Basilica), enclosing a massive stone altar with four low columns. This crypt is reasonably supposed to belong to the church founded by the doge P. Orseolo in 977. There are also crypts deserving notice at the cathedrals of Brescia, Fiesole and Modena, and the churches of S. Ambrogio and S. Eustorgio at Milan. The former was unfortunately modernized by St Charles Borromeo. The crypt at Assisi is really a second church at a lower level, and being built on the steep side of a hill is well lighted. The whole fabric is a beautiful specimen of Italian Gothic, and both the lower and upper churches are covered with rich frescoes.
Domestic crypts are of frequent occurrence. Medieval houses had as a rule their chief rooms raised above the level of the ground upon vaulted substructures, which were used as cellars and storerooms. These were sometimes partially underground, sometimes entirely above it. The underground vaults often remain when all the superstructure has been swept away, and from their Gothic character are frequently mistaken for ecclesiastical buildings. The older English towns are full of crypts of this character, now used as cellars. They occur in Oxford and Rochester, are very abundant in the older parts of Bristol, and, according to J. H. Parker, “nearly the whole city of Chester is built upon a series of them with the Rows or passages made on the top of the vaults” (Domestic Architecture, iii. 91). The crypt of Gerard’s Hall in London, destroyed in the construction of New Cannon Street, figured by Parker (Dom. Arch. ii. 185), was a beautiful example of the lower storey of the residence of a wealthy merchant of the time of Edward I. It was divided down the middle by a row of four slender cylindrical columns supporting a very graceful vault. The finest example of a secular crypt now remaining in England is that beneath the Guildhall of London. The date of this is early in the 15th century—1411. It is a large and lofty apartment, divided into four alleys by two rows of clustered shafts supporting a rich lierne vault with ribs of considerable intricacy. There is a fine vaulted crypt of the same date and of similar character beneath St Mary’s Hall, the Guildhall of the city of Coventry. (E. V.)