attended the late great Cardinal Hume's requiem in Westminster Cathedral
on June 25, 1999, and many thousands more watched on television.
Doubtless all were moved by the grand rite, the Mass as sacred opera,
but those who had never seen the actual building before must have
been a little puzzled by it. Why the lower half a temple and the
upper half a railway station? Was it a David Alden production? Seriously,
why were the spectacular marble walls and pillars topped by a ceiling
of sooty brick and stained concrete? Did the money run out?
yes it did, and the ideas with it. When the church was built nobody
in England really knew how to mosaic a church ceiling that vast.
nowadays we do.
century ago the then Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vaughan,
decreed a new Catholic cathedral for London. He and his architect
John Bentley chose the Byzantine style partly so as not to compete
with the Gothic glory of Westminster Abbey up the road, partly because
it meant the basic edifice could be built fast, as cathedrals go.
You didn't have to spend decades carving stone, you just laid bricks.
The first went down in 1895, and eight years later the structure
was complete, with the handsome exterior we see today.
Some of the acres of sooty
gloom in Westminster Cathedral
interior, on the other hand, was something else. It was left as
brick and concrete, to be cladded by future generations in traditional
Byzantine mode - marble below, mosaic above.
the marbling is finished, but most of the mosaic is missing. True,
seven of the twelve chapels have their mosaics, but almost the whole
of the main ceiling remains bare. So the dominant impression as
you enter the church is one of acres of sombre grime. Ten thousand
square metres of gloom.
people like it; they positively relish the contrast between the
polished polychrome marble and the rough darkness looming overhead.
But the Byzantines would have had a fit: God is a God of Light.
And murk is most definitely not what the architect wanted. He wanted
fact Bentley died before he could design a scheme for the main body
of the building, and maybe that wasn't a bad thing. He'd got the
architecture absolutely right - his cathedral is in effect a sister
church to the Early Byzantine St. John at Ephesus - but didn't know
how to mosaic it right. But then he didn't know any Byzantine mosaic
artists; if he had, he would not have hung a thirty-foot cross high
above the altar rails and impeded the view of the sanctuary ceiling.
The great "rood" is a western tradition, not a Byzantine one. He
did know he wanted something like the mediaeval mosaics of St. Mark's
in Venice - scenes from the life of Jesus and the saints - but wasn't
sure how to go about it, how to draw up a suitable iconographic
scheme. Real mosaicists were pretty rare birds in England at that
time. So famous painters like John Singer Sargent and Alma-Tadema
were invited to consider designing mosaics for individual chapels,
by way of providing possible prototypes for the main area. (They
An acre of glorious but busy mosaic in St. Mark's, Venice
himself supervised and approved non-famous Christian Symons' designs
for the Holy Souls chapel. Symons' style however was pure Victorian
Sentimental, with nothing remotely Byzantine about it. We conclude
that if Bentley had lived and the money had been forthcoming, the
cathedral would have been covered with Victorian figurative mosaics.
Lots and lots of them.
necessarily a good idea. Even if you like the Victorian style. Because
we have come to appreciate that what is magnificent about Bentley's
building is the form above all, and if it were covered with hundreds
of figures, in whatever style, the form would take second place.
This is in fact what happened in St. Mark's: you see the mosaics
first, and much later the architecture; the ceiling is too busy.
So one solution to Westminster would be to have non-figurative mosaics
- a traditional Byzantine gold ground, say, enriched with crosses,
other Christian symbols and abstract patterns. This is exactly what
Justinian did in his St. Sophia in Constantinople, a fane even bigger
you did decide to go for a slimmed-down figurative scheme, you would
have two major challenges. First, the iconography. Possibilities
are infinite, but one such might be to have each bay devoted to
a major section of Christ's life (Birth, Ministry, Passion, Resurrection),
and dominating the whole would be a Pantokrator, Christ the King,
on the large east tympanum above the sanctuary. (Bentley's crucifix
would have to go, as would the existing east tympanum mosaic.)
Noah, by Boris Anrep, Blessed
Sacrament Chapel, Westminster Cathedral
what style? In the completed chapels you find Victorian Sentimental,
Victorian Gothic, Child's Illustrated Bible and Neo-Early-Byzantine.
As the architecture of the cathedral interior is Neo-Early-Byzantine,
that would seem the best choice for a figurative scheme, especially
as Boris Anrep's Blessed Sacrament chapel in that style is generally
held to be the most artistically successful of all the cathedral
the choice, figurative or non-figurative, now is a good time to
contemplate completing Westminster Cathedral, because we are in
the middle of a renaissance of mosaic in this country. The art fell
into disrepute in the sixties when it became fashionable to clad
buildings inside and out with what amounted to mosaic wallpaper.
A few dedicated artists kept true mosaic alive, and then about ten
years ago the thing began to grow, as a plethora of books, magazine
articles, tv programmes, and the newly-formed British
Association for Modern Mosaic testify. There are now perhaps
two hundred mosaic artists at work in Britain, some of them very
The Fiery Furnace by Christian Symons, Holy Souls Chapel,
Westminster would be a big job but not overwhelming. Once the artist
was chosen and the design agreed, the mosaic would be made off-site,
in sections, probably direct onto mesh. That would take two years
or so; installing on site would take another six months. And yes,
it would be possible to use computers to design the scheme down
to the tiniest detail, if that's what the artist wanted. Sophisticated
software exists which can do just that.
cost? Byzantine-style mosaic, made from "smalti", small hand-cut
pieces of opaque coloured glass, costs about £1200 per square metre:
designed, made and installed. So 10,000 square metres would cost
£12 million. More if a lot of gold were used.
million or so. To complete Westminster Cathedral. After a century
there's a Millennium project worthy of the name. There's a task
for the next cardinal.
edited version of this article appeared in The Daily Telegraph on
Saturday, 24 July, 1999)