THE CASE OF THE MISSING MOSAICS

 

Thousands 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?

Well 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.

But nowadays we do.

A 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
Some of the acres of sooty gloom in Westminster Cathedral

The 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.

Today 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.

Some 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 mosaics.

In 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 declined.)


An acre of glorious but busy mosaic in St. Mark's, Venice

Bentley 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.

Not 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 than Westminster.

If 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. CLICK HERE FOR LARGER IMAGE
Noah, by Boris Anrep, Blessed Sacrament Chapel, Westminster Cathedral

Second, 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 mosaics.

Whatever 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 experienced.


The Fiery Furnace by Christian Symons, Holy Souls Chapel, Westminster Cathedral

Mosaicing 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.

The 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.

Twelve million or so. To complete Westminster Cathedral. After a century of soot.

Now there's a Millennium project worthy of the name. There's a task for the next cardinal.

Paul Bentley

(An edited version of this article appeared in The Daily Telegraph on Saturday, 24 July, 1999)

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