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A scheme to finish off Westminster Cathedral

April 2010

Paul Bentley

Back in May 2008 the Catholic Herald published a scheme for the mosaicing of the vast upper regions of Westminster Cathedral, but added that the plan had been put on hold for two years while restoration work was carried out. Well, the two years are up, the repairs are done, so we can safely assume that the Cathedral's Art & Architecture Committee is indeed considering getting on with big job - all 8000 square metres of it. That's to say, commissioning someone to design and make the mosaics. There has however been no official announcement as yet, so perhaps it's a good time to remind ourselves of the 2008 scheme.

As you see, the plan starts at the extreme west end of the church with chaos, pre-creation, the pagan world before grace, and the effects of sin. The vaults that follow and first two domes of the main nave area are given over to the Old Testament: creation and the great covenants between God and Man. The third dome and the transepts are devoted to Christ’s work of redemption. The large tympanum above the sanctuary shows Christ the Almighty; and the sanctuary itself presents the Eucharist and the teaching of the Word, with Our Lady in the great apse at the east end..

This scheme was devised by Mgr Mark Langham, the former administrator of the Cathedral, Fr Aidan Nichols, a theologian, Prof. Eamon Duffy, a church historian, and Andrew Wilton, an historian of British art. Prof. Duffy explained that they wanted a scheme which was logical, and catechetical, and which reflected the structure of the Bible and the liturgy.

My reaction to this scheme was that I hoped it wasn’t going to be the sole submission before receiving final approval. For example, why should the scheme be “catechetical”? That was the approach in the Middle Ages, when people couldn’t read. Nowadays being catechetical is a job for a catechism, catechists and the clergy; a cathedral’s task is to inspire worshippers with a sense of the glory of God.

And in what way is this scheme “logical” if the Effects of Sin precede the Fall? Not to mention Plato, Lucretius, Buddha and Zoroaster.

And giving two-thirds of the nave to the Old Testament means cramming the whole earthly life of Christ into the transepts.

As for “reflecting the structure of the liturgy” the scheme completely omits Old Testament/New Testament parallels, such a prominent feature of Mass readings and indeed of church iconography over the centuries.

And how does the Langham scheme embody the primary dedication of the Cathedral to the Precious Blood?

Technically also domes of green, blue and red are heavy and oppressive (as in St. Paul’s in London and St. Louis in the USA), which is why Middle Byzantine domes principally used light colours and gold, with its astonishing ability to find the light.

I append my own scheme for a mosaic scheme for the Cathedral. In contrast to the Langham scheme it is very much Christ-centered.

All of which said, personally I strongly favour a non-figurative design, as in Justinian’s mosaic decoration of the greatest church in Christendom, his Saint Sophia in Constantinople.

My principal reason for advocating a non-figurative design is that over the years we have come to appreciate that what is magnificent about Bentley's building is the form above all, and if the upper half were covered with scores of figures, in whatever style, the form would inevitably take second place. This is for example what happened in St. Mark’s in Venice: you see the mosaics first, and much later the architecture, the ceiling is too busy. So my solution for Westminster would be to have a traditional Byzantine gold ground, enriched with crosses, other Christian symbols and abstract patterns, as in the original sixth century mosaics of Saint Sophia (the existing figures there are ninth century).

As for the idea that the mosaics ought to be catechetical, then non-figurative Saint Sophia is a powerful rebuttal; that church was its own iconography, so to speak; it was supremely a sacred space. (If anyone had suggested to Emperor Justinian that the mosaicing of Sophia was “just decoration”, he would have found himself instantly posted to one of the remoter regions of the Empire.) The gold ground of course contributed greatly to the sense of the divine.

To quote an essay I once wrote on the subject, ‘Even in the earliest days of Christian wall mosaics, gold was used as a metaphor for light, above all for the Divine Light. We first met gold tesserae, if you recall, in the halo of Christ the Sun God in the third century tomb beneath St. Peter’s, Rome. Among Eastern theologians St. Basil and Pseudo-Dionysius both used gold as a sign of light and divinity, and Byzantine theologians generally “interpreted gold as condensed light, as the symbol of incorruptibility, truth, glory, and of the sun”. Gold was the purest, the most precious metal, and did not rust or decay. So it was that gold, of all earthly materials, was best suited to invoke the transcendental nature of Christ the Light of the World’.

The gold ground also had the effect of unifying the entire space, so that all the surfaces seemed to flow one into another. As Swift put it, “The gold contributes to the immaterialization of the vault surfaces and destroys the effect of weight in the vaults themselves, an impression considerably heightened by the diagonal lighting from the windows of the dome and half-domes".

I would also argue that a non-figurative “abstract” design can in itself be powerfully spiritual. I don’t mean designs with crosses and traditional Christian emblems, I mean the actual abstract design and its expression.

Paul Bentley



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