Altars short of a Cathedral
John Scott on the missing links
The late Dean Martin Sullivan of St Paul’s bore down on me in my first ten minutes as a temporary assistant virger at the cathedral. ‘That’s disgusting’ he said, pointing at the extremely aged and short cassock which I had been assigned. ‘Put him into a new one’ he ordered the senior virger, who was showing me the work. When the Dean had gone, the truth came out. ‘We haven’t got anything else,’ said the virger, ‘We’ll have to nick one from the Music Department when they’re not looking.’
Such was my initiation into the ways of cathedrals. I rapidly learnt virgers’ tricks, like sleeping through a shift on the Stone Gallery in the (now, alas, removed) garden shed, I picked up all the classic virgers’ tales, and I learnt a repertoire of hilarious FAQs. Returning to S. Paul’s ten years later as a priest doing chaplaincy once a month I learned to be better behaved and found myself often spending time with people to show them favourite objects and places – not necessarily those usually visited.
Now the choir aisles were always of interest, because here were two pieces of cathedral history. Yes, people were always being pointed by guides to the high altar and the American chapel behind it; for me, though the altars in the aisles - the Modern Martyrs on the north and Our Lady on the south – were the focal points. The present high altar with its baldacchino, of course, replaces the great Victorian altar and reredos which were destroyed during the war.
Destroyed, but not wholly; since the central crucifix and the statue of Our Lady and the Child Jesus were rescued. These are large and splendid marble works for which the postwar reconstruction found wholly appropriate homes above altars at the ends of the aisles. The Lord and his Mother, made homeless by war from the sanctuary, were thus rehoused as close as possible to their former location; and as a bonus S. Paul’s gained what it had never previously had – a Lady Chapel.
It was always good to be able to show visitors these altars. They displayed part of cathedral history – not only the war damage, but also the work of the Victorian chapter whose Tractarian faith emboldened them to erect the then highly controversial reredos with its statuary. They witnessed to the faith of the Church of England; in the Lady Chapel particularly, with its crucifix and lights given by the German government in the 1950s, one could always say something about our shared faith to Christians of any church or nationality. And the positioning of these altars also helped to interpret the high altar. The Lady Chapel pointed to the Incarnation, to the making possible of the sacraments, whilst the Modern Martyrs reminded forcibly that receiving the Blessed Sacrament has its life-giving cost.
After years away from St Paul’s I re-turned the other week, having heard some good reports of recent changes. I was due to show a group of primary school children round a few days later, and wanted to renew my acquaintance with the church. Current redecoration meant that the Blessed Sacrament was again reserved in the Middlesex Chapel, where the Light of the World is now sited. Fair enough; ‘But’, said the friend I was with, ‘that’s the repainted Modern Martyrs altar in front of it, I think.’ Foreboding turned to shock on entering the north choir aisle – no Modern Martyrs altar, no Victorian marble crucifix either. Shock turned to horror when we reached the south choir aisle – no Lady altar, no Blessed Virgin with her Child. Everything had gone.
Moore is less
Further exploration yielded more cause for concern. The de Vasconcellos Mother and Child, which was formerly near the font in the north transept and which often had flowers left by it, has been moved down to the crypt and placed away on the side. This means that, apart from stained glass, there is now no significant image of Christ’s Mother on the floor of the Cathedral. True, there is the Henry Moore Mother and Child in the north choir aisle. That, however, was specifically designed to be touched, felt and handled – which it is, but which hardly enables it to function as a primary devotional symbol.
Now it may be argued that the choir aisles were not designed for altars to be placed at their eastern ends. Nor, of course, was the space under the dome designed to be used as a principal sanctuary area, nor was the north transept designed for displaying a large Victorian artwork behind an altar … one could go on endlessly. It might be argued that the Modern Martyrs and Lady Chapels could exacerbate the jams of visitors which may build up around the high altar. Yet what could be better, in terms of displaying some simple and basic truths about the Christian faith, than to have people confronted with these powerful images which speak of life, death and God’s love? If people were stopping to look at these altars and their statues, why should anyone want to stop them?
Some questioning of friends and acquaintances who know S. Paul’s well, and who are not unfriendly to the recent re-orderings there, suggests that there is a serious level of concern about this purging of the choir aisle altars. Those of us possessed of postwar guides to the cathedral have pictures to remind us of what we have lost; but the new and authoritative £65 book on S. Paul’s, celebrating 1400 years of presence at the top of Ludgate Hill, manages to discuss everything in detail whilst avoiding any reference to there ever having been a Modern Martyrs or Lady Chapel. Are they being air-brushed from history? Not quite; at the time of writing an on-line visitor taking the virtual tour of the cathedral will find that S. Paul’s still has the two chapels - virtually. Perhaps the Dean and Chapter could claim this as a first?
So I have two questions to ask:
The first is for the authorities of the cathedral: Where is the Lord on the Cross and where is the Mother of God with her Divine Child? Are they bubble-wrapped in store, only to be forgotten as the years go by, staff change and memories fade? I think we must be told what, if any, plans there are for them.
The second is for the cathedral, the London bishops, the clergy and all the faithful. Do we want and can we afford to lose from this great and much-visited church these precious primary images which embody our Christian faith and hope?
Father John Scott is Honoray Chaplain
at Christ the King, Gordon Square
Return to Home Page of This Issue
Return to Trushare Home Page