St Mary’s Church, Castlegate

St Mary’s Church, Castlegate, is one of 19 surviving parish churches from the 40 once in existence in medieval York and is located in the southern part of the old medieval town.

Tallest Steeple In  York

This beautiful, Grade II listed church, which was de-consecrated in 1958, has housed a contemporary visual arts venue since 2004; from 1975 to 2001 it was a heritage centre – the home of The York Story, displaying York’s history via models, reconstructions and audio-visual displays. St Mary’s is thought to have been built on the site of a Saxon church, limited stonework of which is evident close to the chancel. Possibly dating back as far as or even earlier than 1020, the bulk of the existing church is early 13th century; its 14th  and 15th century modifications included the building of the steeple – this being the tallest in York at a height of 47 metres (154 feet). A dedication stone within the church bears the inscription: ‘built by Efrard & Grim & Aese’, suggesting its three Anglo Saxon founders, but their lives remain a mystery to us.

St Marys

Elaborate And Ornate Becomes Severe And Plain

Entering St Mary’s, the medieval worshipper would have gazed upon elaborate wall paintings showing religious images, ornately carved wooden screens, stained glass, artisan metalwork and statues. However, with the 16th century came the Reformation bringing plain and severe church interiors in line with religious practices of the times. The church burial records indicate St Mary’s was a church of renown towards the end of the medieval period. Included in its registers are poignant entries for the York Castle prison inmates – usually denoted by ‘pris’.

An Arts Centre Since 2004

Now managed by The York Museums Trust the popular arts centre holds once-a-year exhibits/installations – site-specific commissions from artists contacted by York Art Gallery, the artists taking inspiration from the atmospheric building.

The first such exhibit was Caroline Broadhead’s  breathing space in 2005 who said: “breathing space is a work in response to York St Mary’s, its quiet and imposing atmosphere and its sense of the past.” Susie MacMurray’s 2006 commission Echo used 10,000 hairnets containing strands of used violin bow-hair; her part-explanation for this was: “the stuff that’s left in the building, which is more than you can explain or understand. It’s the place where ghost stories come from.”

St Marys

Sadness, Isolation, Emptiness And Cold

Japanese artist Keiko Mukaide created The Memory of Place for 2007 offering these evocative words on St Mary’s: “My first impression of this church was a feeling of sadness, isolation, emptiness and cold. We can still see the remains of gravestones and memorial plaques in the building. Beyond the description of these words I still feel their family’s grief.”

Laura Belém’s installation for 2012 The Temple of a Thousand Bells comprises 1,000 cast glass bells and an expressly composed polyphonic sound piece, making a 3-D effect to a story’s narration.

Window at St Mary's

Window at St Mary’s

Clearly these commissions challenge the artists’ sensitivity as well as their artistic flair. The very stones of St Mary’s seem to exude centuries of faith and offer an ancient voice with which only a powerful modern-day composition can relate.

Struck By Lightning

In the summer of 2012 St Mary’s Church was hit by lightning causing the conductors to buckle. Steeplejacks worked on carefully removing and replacing the aluminium tape, working at heights of 150ft.

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