Saturday, 31 March 2007

Recent artistic veiws of the Cathedral

A view of the Cathedral painted by Melissa Scott-Miller. The artist used a high level office in the John Lewis Partnership building on Victoria Street (part of that building can be seen lower left) and was thus able to see the whole building, as well as to give a good idea of the local landscape (the Houses of parliament is just visible at top left). This painting was bought by a private dealer, but a smaller version of it hangs in the lobby of the John lewis Partnership offices.

This week I was sent this image of a new watercolour by David Arbus, from the United States. I like its detail, which is accurate without being too constrained (I notice he omits the flag poles!). Mr Arbus has offered it to us for £1,000 - which we don't have, but if anyone is feeling generous ...

Friday, 30 March 2007

Verdi Requiem - More Photographs

Marcin Mazur has sent through some glorious images of the Concert on 14 March - all of them his copyright. Above, Fr Christopher Tuckwell, the sub-Administrator, greets Prince Charles.

Marcin captures the drama of the Cathedral, with its huge nave making a natural setting for grand spectacle.

Following the Concert, Prince Charles came into Clergy House; below, the door is respectfully held open for him by Sarah Powers, the Cathedral Manager.

In the Common Room, below, Maestro Muti meets Prince Charles. alllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll
The Pricne leaves from Clergy House; on the right, Graham, our security guard, keeps a vigilant eye on the scene. alllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll

Thursday, 29 March 2007

Awakening Gerontius

The pale March sunlight falling across the Gerontius Panel in the Holy Souls' chapel. Erected in 2003, this work by Tom Phillips RA commemorates the first London performance of Sir Edward Elgar's oratorio, setting the celebrated poem of Cardinal Newman. In 1903, Elgar conducted the performance in the new Cathedral, shortly before it opened for worship, in the presence of the Duke of Norfolk. In 2003, a centenary performance was held in the presence of the current Duke.

The panel presents the name Gerontius as music on a stave. Tom Phillips has matched the tone and texture of the marbles so perfectly that few visitors realise that the panel is so recent. Tom has also submitted designs for St George's Chapel (which will be posted on St George's Day!). Around the corner to the left of the Gerontius panel is another empty panel, which will be occupied by a mosaic of Cardinal Newman.

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Flowers in Lent!

Not quite what is meant by a 'Lenten array'! Following a memorial service, these flowers were donated to Clergy House, and here they stand, magnificently defiant of the season, in the Common Room. This photo was snapped last Friday, before the crucifix was veiled. The crucifix (or more properly the 'corpus') is a fine early ivory work, unaccountably set on perspex by Mgr Barltett!

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Building in Progress

The construction of the Nave nears completion; the photograph probably dates from 1902. Note the statue of St Peter, bottom right. Intended for the crypt, it was found to be too large to get down the stairs! Here, it stands to the side, before being located in its present position at the back of the Cathedral.

Monday, 26 March 2007

The Annunciation of the Lord

The tale of today's Feast is told in chapters of gold, in the beautiful mosaics of the Lady Chapel.

Alain de Botton: McDonald's and Westminster Cathedral

"A few years ago, caught out by a heavy downpour, with a couple of hours to kill after being stood up for lunch by a friend, I took shelter in a smoked glass and granite block on London’s Victoria Street, home to the Westminster Branch of McDonald’s. The mood inside the restaurant was solemn and concentrated. Customers were eating alone, reading papers, or staring at the brown tiles, masticating with a sternness and brusqueness beside which the atmosphere of a feeding shed would have appeared convivial and mannered.

The setting served to render all kind of ideas absurd: that human beings might sometimes be generous to one another without hope of reward; that relationships can on occasion be sincere; that life may be worth enduring … The restaurant’s true talent lay in the generation of anxiety. The harsh lighting, the intermittent sounds of frozen fries being sunk into vats of oil and the frenzied behaviour of the counter staff invited thoughts of the loneliness and meaninglessness of existence in a random and violent universe. The only solution was to continue to eat in an attempt to compensate for the discomfort brought on by the location in which one was doing so.

However, my meal was disturbed by the arrival of thirty or so implausibly tall and blond Finnish teenagers. The shock of finding themselves so far south and of exchanging glacial snow for mere rain had lent them extremely high spirits, which they expressed by unsheathing straws, bursting into ardent song and giving one another piggy-back rides – to the confusion of the restaurant staff, who were uncertain whether to condemn such behaviour or to respect it as a promise of voracious appetites.

Prompted by the voluble Finns to draw my visit to a precipitate close, I cleared my table and walked out into the plaza immediately adjacent to the restaurant, where I properly noticed for the first time the incongruous and imposing Byzantine forms of Westminster Cathedral, its red and white brick campanile soaring eighty-seven metres into the foggy London skies.

Drawn by rain and curiosity, I entered a cavernous hall, sunk in tarry darkness, against which a thousand votive candles stood out, their golden shadows flickering over mosaics and carved representations of the Stations of the Cross. There were smells of incense and sounds of murmured prayer. Hanging from the ceiling at the centre of the nave was a ten-metre-high crucifix, with Jesus on one side and his mother on the other. Around the High Altar, a mosaic showed Christ enthroned in the heavens, encircled by angels, his feet resting on a globe, his hands clasping a chalice overflowing with his own blood.
The facile din of the outer world had given way to awe and silence. Children stood close to their parents and looked around with an air of puzzled reverence. Visitors instinctively whispered, as if deep in some collective dream from which they did not wish to emerge. The anonymity of the street had been subsumed by a peculiar kind of intimacy. Everything serious in human nature seemed to be called to the surface: thoughts about limits and infinity, about powerlessness and sublimity. The stonework threw into relief all that was compromised an dull, and kindled a yearning for one to live up to its perfections.

After ten minutes in the cathedral, a range of ideas that would have been inconceivable outside began to assume an air of reasonableness. Under the influence of the marble, the mosaics, the darkness and the incense, it seemed entirely probable that Jesus was the Son of God and has walked across the Sea of Galilee. In the presence of alabaster statues of the Virgin Mary set against rhythms of red, green and blue marble, it was no longer surprising to think that an angel might at any moment choose to descend through the layers of dense London cumulus, enter through a window in the nave, blow a golden trumpet and make an announcement in Latin about a forthcoming celestial event.

Concepts that would have sounded demented forty metres away, in the company of a party of Finnish teenagers and vats of frying oil, had succeeded – through a work of architecture – in acquiring supreme significance and majesty. "

This is an extract from Alain de Botton's 'The Architecture of Happiness', in which he describes the emotional impact of architecture. Alain de Botton is a young novelist and philosopher. This book was the basis of a television series.

The Architecture of Happiness
Hamish Hamilton 2006

Sunday, 25 March 2007

The Veiling of Images

For centuries, it has been the practice in the Catholic Church to cover images in the fortnight before Easter. Here is the main sanctuary, with the processional cross and High Altar cross veiled in purple.

This derives from the ancient custom - still practised in many countries - of removing or veiling images in times of death and great mourning. In rural Ireland it was the custom to mark a death by turning pictures towards the wall. In many cultures, women veil themsleves at funerals, as a mark of mourning.

By covering images, we emphasise the solemnity and sadness of this time, when we prepare for the Passion and death of Jesus. Images speak of beauty, of celebration and consolation; but now there is a disruption of the familiar landscape, familiar objects are removed from view, all is stark and desolate.

This sombre mood will reach its climax in the night of Jesus' arrest, Maundy Thursday, when the altar itself will be stripped and laid bare, as he was stripped before the soldiers. atttttttttttttttt
So the mood now is solemn, earnest - as we wait in anticipation of the colour, light and celebration of the Resurrection.

Saturday, 24 March 2007

Praying the Gill Stations

One of the great privileges of being at the Cathedral is to lead the Stations of the Cross on Fridays in Lent - this powerful devotion draws large crowds, as we walk with our Lord on his last journey. These images were taken last night, when Fr Tim was leading the devotion.

An added privilege at the Cathedral is that we boast the stupendous Stations of the Cross carved by Eric Gill. These are probably the greatest work of art we have in the Cathedral, and repay long and prayerful consideration. It is a joy to use them, not merely as artistic adornments, but as a real aid to prayer.

The Stations were carved by Eric Gill from 1913 - 1918, out of Hoptonwood stone. They are almost the first work he created, and the commission came as a result of swift decision by Cardinal Bourne - Gill later joked that the Cardinal had determined to give the commission to the first Catholic man he met in the street!

We are well used to them now, but at the time time they were startling and revolutionary. Gill is best known as a letterer (London Underground and W H Smith among those who adopted his lettering), and in his Stations he uses the low relief imagery and lettering side by side, to create a powerful statement, that is simple yet direct.

As they were being installed in the Cathedral, a woman came up to Gill to say that she did not think they were very nice carvings, to which he snapped back that it was not a very nice subject! art

Eric Gill (below) 1882 - 1940, was undoubtedly a genius. He professed a devout Catholicism all his life. Yet in his private life, he was tortured, and his behaviour was depraved. In 1989, Fiona McCarthy wrote a biography which revealed, from his diaries, a side of Gill that had been hitherto unknown, which was sickening and deeply at odds with his Catholic faith. Since then, we have had to come to terms with the fact that our greatest Cathedral artwork is the product of a man who was in many ways detestable. There were many calls for the Stations to be removed.

However, wiser counsel has prevaled; we recognize the redemptive quality of art. As so often in the Church's history, works of great beauty and inspiration have come from those who seem less than worthy of their talents. God uses vessels of clay to perform his great works, and sometimes it is shocking to us how weak those vessels are - yet his grace shines through, and even mediated by sinful hands, allows others to experience his presence.

We leave Eric Gill, then, in his studio, working not here on the Stations, but on one of his last works, the altarpiece for the Chapel of the English Martyrs. As we pray the Stations, I always offer up a prayer for the soul of this brilliant, tortured and controversial man.

Friday, 23 March 2007

Re-imagining the Cathedral

Our wonderful archivist, Miriam, passed me details this week of a fascinating book, published anonymously in 1907 as a ‘free criticism’ of Westminster Cathedral by ‘an architect’.

Miriam writes: "This picture is one of the fold-out illustrations (it wasn’t a cheap production by any means!). Among a host of items which the author dislikes (well, it’s pretty much the whole thing, actually) are the saucer domes, which he thinks are out of keeping with the (misguided) choice of Byzantine style – this is what he thinks they should look like! It shows also his idea of what the tower should have looked like, i.e. without the pathetic pointy top to it and cut off to a more robust, solid Gothic outline – quite unlike the ‘factory chimney’ he claims people compared it to ... and so it goes on!"

In fact, we have a long letter sent to the then Archbishop Bourne, together with some other postcards/pictures doctored in the same style, in our correspondence. Miriam believes them to be the work of the same man, but, sadly, we have no replies extant.

Miriam cheeklily adds: "What an opportunity was missed – you could now be in a position to install gas holders and be the first truly ‘green’ Administrator of Westminster Cathedral!"

In fact, the doctored drawing reminds me of the more eliptical domes of the Cathedral of Perigueux (above) or a Sacre' Coeur at Paris (below), both of which would have been completed not long before.

Thursday, 22 March 2007

The Gospel According to Judas

Last evening, in the Cathedral Hall, 'The Gospel according to Judas' was launched, following its international launch yesterday in the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.

The book is a collaboration between the novelist and (discredited) politician Jeffrey Archer, and Professor Francis Moloney – a biblical scholar of international repute. I was not able to be at the launch here because of our Lenten Penance service, and so could only take some quick snaps before the discussion began. Above, the two authors stand together near the stage, before the presentation.

There is some puzzlement at how readily the book has been embraced by the Church establishment. Many people would point out that there is a difference between a book of scholarly investigation, and a novel that employs plausible data, such as this. From the Press release, it would not appear that this distinction has been clearly remembered. The Press pack states, for example, that “the authors suggest … Jesus did not walk on water or turn water into wine at the marriage feast at Cana – ‘These things never happened’ declares Judas.”

This statement appears to go beyond saying that the (fictional) Judas did not believe these things happened. It implies that neither Mr Archer nor Professor Moloney believe that Jesus performed these particular miracles. This raises questions about the authors' relationship to events later in the novel, such as this: "Judas could not accept that Jesus had risen from the dead, and he parted company with Peter."

However, Professor Moloney is a Biblical Scholar of the highest standing within the Church, and a friend of Cardinal Martini. An interesting statement from Fr Stephen Pisano, Rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, seems to distance the Institute from the book; “The only reason we accepted to allow the book to be presented is the presence of Fr Francis Moloney, who is a well known and very capable New Testament scholar… I would like to emphasize that allowing the presentation of this book does not imply that the Biblical Institute itself, or the Vatican or the Pope endorses this book in any way.”

Not being at the launch, I cannot enter the discussion fully. Some seminarians from Allen Hall (pictured standing, left) were present, and speaking to one afterwards, he was concerned that the novel, written as though it were a 'Gospel', presents no notion of Jesus’ awareness of his death as a sacrifice, or of his fulfilment of the will of God as worked out in the Old Testament.

All together, an odd evening. I wonder what Archbishop Gregorios (far left of the picture, above) made of it all!

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

The Gospel of John

'A single man, every single word, an unforgettable experience' went the strap-line, but few who were present last evening at Brad Sherill's one-man presentation of the entire Gospel of John would have disagreed.

This was far more than an astonishing feat of memory. In the dramatic setting of the gloomy Cathedral, using minimal props, Mr Sherill brought this most simple yet profound of the Gospels to life, enfleshing its words in a way that parallels the opening phrases of the Gospel itself.

It is an astonishing experience to hear an entire Gospel, to be caught up in its drama and beauty, and (above all) to have a strong sense of the person of Jesus. In John's Gospel, especially, our Lord drives the action forward, and comes across as a commandingly divine, yet at the same time very human. The dialogues with the Pharisees and with Pilate were rendered exquisitely.
Mr Sherill has made this his life's work, touring the US and other countries, and performing in Cathedrals and Churches. His is an astonishing ministry, and you can learn about it (as well as the formthcoming dates of his England tour) on his website.

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Going Up in Holy Smoke

Fr Tim has brought to my attention this article from Richard Littlejohn's column in the Daily Mail, March 6 edition.

Have you ever seen anyone smoking in Church? Me neither. Even industrial-quantity smokers manage to resisit the temptation to light up during 'All Things Bright and Beautiful', with the help of a couple of packets of Nicorette chewing gum. So why in God's name are health officials spending tens of thousands of pounds forcing churches to put up 'no smoking' signs? In Welsh chapels, the notices will be bilingual. How long before Westminster Cathedral is visited by 'elf'n'safety Nazis and threatened with prosecution because someone might catch passive smoking from incense?

Presented with the barely supressed fury one might expect from this newspaper, it neverthless touches a nerve. I have not yet had to deal with this particular initiative, but I am bombarded with legislation affecting our use of the Cathedral. At present, I am resisting the imposition of luminous Fire Exit signs in the Cathedral. Of course fire and safety must be taken seriously, but that needs to be balanced prudently with what is aesthetically acceptable. Health and Safety legislation, Fire legislation, Disability legislation - much of it directly conflicting with our Listed Building status which prevents alteration of historic fabric - are a great headache for anyone trying to run a building like ours.

Monday, 19 March 2007

Bigne' di San Giuseppe!

Hurrah! Our glorious Sisters, Portuguese though they be, produced the Italian speciality of 'Bigne' de San Giuseppe' (brutally translated as 'St Joseph's Balls') at supper, to celebrate the Feast of St Joseph. Obviously, they felt that the clergy were wasting away from their Lenten exercises ... (hem, hem)

Much baking takes place in Italy on this day, since St Joseph is the Patron Saint of pastry chefs. In the middle ages, when drought was threatening famine in Sicily, the starving populace prayed to him. Rain fell, and the crops were saved. In his honour, a great feast is provided.

Even more esoterically, St Joseph is also prayed to especially by those seeking a new house. It is said that the future Cardinal Vaughan, when looking to by a property in Mill Hill, North London, for his new missionary institute from an owner reluctant to sell, buried a small statue of St Joseph in the garden. The owner changed his mind, and sold - and in thanksgiving, the Cardinal named his institute for the saint! Elizabeth, my PA, is looking for a new house at the moment, and I've promised yhere I'll pray especially to St Joseph today.

St Joseph's Chapel

For today's feast of St Joseph, we had the joy of celebrating in his chapel newly decorated with mosaics. The decoration was designed by Christopher Hobb, and the work interpreted in mosaic by the Mosaic Workshop of London. The posting below has a short clip of them in action. The decoration was only finished at the end of 2006. The apse mosaic is a fine depiction of the Holy Family, in a traditional Byzantine fashion, set on a gold background.

It was a particular joy to see the altar dressed with the cross and candles especially made for the chapel, but which we can rarely set out because of security fears. Above the altar is a tryptich with a central panel depicting St Joseph and the child Jesus.

The mosaic decoration of the vault is especially effective: the woven pattern recalls basket weaving or wicker-work, a reference to the workshop of St Joseph. You can also see above the battered galero (Cardinal's hat ) of Cardinal Hinsley, who died in 1942, and is buried in this chapel.

The western wall dispays a monumental depiction of a workshop, a powerful and splendid image. The design is perhaps clearer to see in Christopher Hobbs' preparatory drawing, below.

The depiction of the workshop recalls, of course, the workshop of St Joseph, but also has overtones of the crucifixion, of the creation of Westminster Cathedral (hence the plan in the background), and even of the creation of the world (the figure with the dividers in the middle recalls William Blake's image of God creating the world).

The marble in the chapel is some of the finest in the Cathedral, and was completed in 1939. The great column in the middle is of fleur de peche marble. The smaller columns are of Algerian onyx, and the arcade above the columns a rare onyx from Canada.

The pavement, too deserves mention, following a Byzantine design and containing seven discs of green and red Egyptian porphyry. In the centre are four symbols of Christ - the Lamb, the Peacock (symbol of eternity), the Chi-Rho sign, or monogram, of Christ, and the fish. Followers of this blog will recall that it is in this chapel that the Crib stands at Christmas.