A scheme to finish off Westminster Cathedral
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 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
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.