St George has his day as battle weary grotesque is replaced on York Minster by a knight in shining armour

He had two arms and two legs and he appeared to be balancing something, but no-one was quite sure what. In any case, he is now a gnome in someone’s garden.

York Minster stonemason Richard Bossons blows away dust as he adds the finishing touches to a newly-carved grotesque of St George to mark the Patron Saint's day, at the cathedral in York.
York Minster stonemason Richard Bossons blows away dust as he adds the finishing touches to a newly-carved grotesque of St George to mark the Patron Saint's day, at the cathedral in York.

The stone grotesque that had since the 1780s stood over York Minster was taken down last year as part of an 11-year project to conserve and restore the South Quire Aisle. Yesterday, his replacement was unveiled.

The new, 3ft high carving of St George will be perched half way up the cathedral, and barely noticeable from the ground. Until the scaffolding comes down at the end of the project, he will remain hidden. But with a lifespan likely to be counted in centuries, he will have time yet to take in the view from 70ft.

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“I had always fancied carving a knight in armour but I’d never had the opportunity,” said the stonemason, Richard Bossons, as he applied the finishing touches, appropriately on St George’s Day, to the magnesium limestone figure he had modelled on a 600-year-old effigy on a church tomb at West Tanfield, north of Ripon.

His St George, the product of 10 weeks’ work, will sit alongside a dragon and two other grotesques currently being produced by three of the Minster’s other masons, whose combined workload in the current £11m programme takes in the repair and replacement of the stone and glass in the 14th century buttress, parapet and window bays.

No records exist of the history of the Minster’s grotesques, which, unlike the similar-looking gargoyles elsewhere, are for decoration, not rain drainage.

The original medieval figures were replaced in the 18th century, but, said Mr Bossons, “it’s just speculation as to how much was done on the whim of the masons of the time. It’s possible they may have had quite a free hand.

“It was perhaps the one opportunity in the middle ages that they had to be creative, free of the very strict geometrical masonry that makes up most of the building. They took the opportunity.”

The outgoing figure was so eroded that the craftsmen could only guess that he had once held a sword, and that the theme of St George and the dragon would be an appropriate replacement.

“Where possible, we like to replace like-for-like in the carving work we do,” Mr Bossons said. “We use the surviving fabric as a starting point and take inspiration from historic sources to ensure the design of the grotesque is in keeping with the period of the building it will feature on.”

The old stonework, along with other discarded artefacts from the Minster’s continuous programme of renewal, was sold at a churchyard auction last year.

“People all over the country have got bits of the Minster in their back gardens now,” said Mr Bossons.

The new figure shares a provenance with its predecessor, having been hewn from stone quarried just a few fields away, near Hazlewood Castle, between York and Leeds and not far from there the A1 now runs.

Alex McCallion, director of works at the Minster, said much of the stone now being restored dated to the mid-18th century. “Obviously, we’ve been through an industrial revolution and we’re down wind from four power stations so the acidity in the atmosphere and the magnesian limestone has taken its toll on the stone,” he said.

The Minster once also boasted gargoyles with water spouts, but they have long since given way to guttering.