The “topping out” of Salisbury Cathedral last week marked the end of a 37-year restoration project, which has returned the 14th-century building to its former glory. But as the scaffolding is dismantled over the next few weeks, after the traditional ceremony of completion and blessing, a small part of the humanity of the endeavour will disappear from view. Six small stone carvings, including the figure of a female stonemason, will be hidden away among its parapets, invisible from the ground.
For centuries, stonemasons have left such concealed signatures in the great buildings of Europe. In creating a record of herself as a female mason, the carver Carol Pike is following the example of a medieval forebear who chiselled what is believed to be a 12th-century self-portrait atop a pillar in Spain’s Santiago de Compostela cathedral.
This is a timeless, and priceless, form of creative exuberance – an assertion of pride and individuality in work that has historically been anonymous. In an era when traditional crafts are under threat as never before, it is worth celebrating. Newer, more efficient technologies, and necessary economies of time and resources, are speeding up the abandonment of apprenticeships in skills that take years to learn and can only be passed down from hand to hand.
The charity Heritage Crafts has a red list of what Unesco in 2003 defined as “intangible heritage”: craft and folk traditions that cannot be accounted for as easily as bric-a-brac and mortar. The critically endangered skills on this year’s list range from arrowsmithing to wainwrighting and Highlands thatching.
Craft redundancy itself is not a new phenomenon. In his fine memoir Walking With Ghosts, the actor Gabriel Byrne recalled the pride with which the coopers of Dublin (his father among them) would watch the barrels they had made being floated down the Liffey, before the introduction of first aluminium and then stainless steel casks rendered them redundant. But even when the industrial base falls away, niche demand often continues, or restarts, for skills that machines cannot replicate. This summer, 60 years after the last wooden Guinness cask was filled at Dublin’s St James’s Gate Brewery, the Scottish distillers William Grant & Sons advertised for two apprentice coopers to train in their Ayrshire distillery.
The job of maintaining Europe’s ancient cathedrals will keep stonemasons and traditional carpenters in business indefinitely. Barcelona’s long‑awaited Sagrada Família offers something more: a template for a possible future in which human skills are not cancelled out, but complemented by those of machines. Stone-cutting robots do the rough work, enabling the masons to concentrate on giving a hand‑crafted finish to every block.
“My client is not in a hurry,” Antoni Gaudí is said to have replied when asked if he was concerned about how long it was taking to build his basilica. It will always be a luxury to be able to aspire to a building in which no two stones are alike, just as it is a luxury to have your whisky distilled in bespoke wooden barrels. But it gestures at something bigger than the immediate circumstances.
In centuries to come, some emergency roofer – be they biological or mechanical – will clamber to the top of Salisbury Cathedral and discover the self‑portrait of a female stonemason. In doing so, they will learn something about what it is to be human now.