Actually, though, before going on to post about Oxford, I want to backtrack to post about these churches from my first day.
To forestall possible confusion:
Westminster Abbey (aka the Collegiate Church of St Peter at Westminster) is the very old monastery church, in the Gothic style, belonging to the Anglicans. You have seen it on TV.
Westminster Cathedral is the seat of the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, a turn of the century neo-Byzantine building, belonging to the Catholics. You probably haven’t heard of it unless you are an English Catholic.
A bishop has a particular diocese (or a see) and “sits” in a cathedral, which is the central church of that diocese. The term only came to mean “big tall Gothic church” in English because so many English cathedrals were built into big tall Gothic churches. Once upon a time there was only one diocesan and episcopal system in England – and after the Reformation the structure of parishes and dioceses remained largely untouched, though now the hierarchy was subject to the Crown and not the Pope (to put it as simply as possible). Those who remained Catholic during the recusant era and up to the restoration of the hierarchy in 1850 were subject to apostolic vicars (sort of free-floating bishops) and there was no system of parishes and dioceses. But since the middle of the 19th century, when Catholics were granted equal rights in England, Catholic dioceses overlap the Anglican ones. Make sense?
This is the western end of Westminster Abbey. Above the door, you can see the “ten 20th century martyrs”:
These statues were commissioned in 1998 (I think I read) in recognition that the 20th century had seen more Christians killed for their faith than any previous century (put together). From left to right: Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan killed at Auschwitz; Manche Masemola, a South African who was killed by her family while seeking baptism; Janani Luwum, the Anglican archbishop of Uganda, assassinated by a dictator; Elisabeth of Hesse, a German-Russian princess and convert to Russian Orthodoxy, killed by the Bolsheviks; Martin Luther King Jr., who needs no description; Óscar Romero, the Catholic Salvadoran archbishop assassinated by the government while celebrating Mass; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor and theologian killed by the Nazis; Esther John, a Pakistani Presbyterian killed for evangelizing; Lucian Tapiedi, a Papuan Anglican killed by the Japanese in WW2; and Wang Zhiming, a Chinese pastor killed during the Cultural Revolution.
They sort of picked them to represent different parts of the world, so we’ve got: three Europeans, two Africans, two from the Americas, one from the Middle East, one from the Pacific Islands, and one from Asia. And three Anglicans, two Catholics, one Orthodox, one Lutheran, one Presbyterian, one Baptist, and one unaffiliated.
You can enter through the western door to visit the nave — which is blocked off from the chancel and the rest of the church, because you have to pay to visit those parts. But the nave is free, if you just tell the door guards you are there to pray. There are tombstones and effigies around the outer aisles, and an altar and chairs set up toward the front. After my tour, I was back here in time for their Eucharist Service– the first Anglican Eucharist I’d ever attended.
Anglican churches all seem to be incredibly well-lighted. In fact if you walk into a big old church somewhere and aren’t sure whether it’s Catholic or Anglican (or, at least in Germany, Lutheran), just take a moment to see (a) how dark it is, and (b) whether you can smell any incense. As the degree of darkness and the magnitude of incense increases (I’m assuming naturally that one measures incense in magnitude), the probability that you are in a Catholic church increases exponentially. Sometimes Anglo-Catholic churches might fool you with their love of incense, but I think the lighting is still a dead giveaway. But please test this theory as I show you more pictures of English churches…
The lighting was so great, it was incredibly easy to take good pictures. Except that they weren’t allowed. Not in the nave, and DEFINITELY not in the paid-entry part. But you can understand how difficult this was for me. The worst bit was, there were guides (guards) all over the place, so I had to really be sneaky. As a result, I didn’t get many pictures, and most of them have a kind of furtive look about them.
Anyway, here you can see that the altar is covered up by a gorgeous Lenten frontal. This set was made in the 20s and 30s. You also get a good view of the rood screen, which separates the nave from the chancel.
On the left hand side, Isaac Newton’s tomb. Although he was buried here at his death in 1727, scholars have discovered that Newton was most likely privately Anti-trinitarian and denied the divinity of Christ — even on his death bed he refused the Sacrament. Ironic, since his tomb now overlooks daily Eucharist!
Here we go outside again while I walk around to the north door. This version of the church was started in 1275 by Henry III. There may have been a monastery church here from the 7th century on, but it’s certain that the Benedictines were here by the 960s or 70s. In the late 11th century, a Norman Romanesque church was built by the last Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, who is buried here behind the high altar.
The north portal…
The classic tympanum program: Christ in Majesty, supported by angels, then the Twelve Apostles, and then it gets interesting — zoom in to get a closer look at the parade of people down below.
Cool detail in the archivolts.
Saying goodbye to the north facade, I paid seventeen pounds and went inside. Here, photography was off-limits again, so it was sneaky time. With your seventeen pounds, you get a “free” audio guide, and the English one is narrated by none other than Jeremy Irons. I swooned, and yet, the guide wasn’t that great for me. I think it gave some good contextual information, but I knew a lot of it, and it was hard to skim through for interesting parts. For me, a written guide would have been better. I wanted to know when each piece of the building got there, and architectural explanations I guess, but the guide is mostly historical/cultural. You can listen to the Dean (I think) explain what the Eucharist is (in a very tactful, non-specific, Anglican way), and you hear about which Tudor killed which other Tudor, and other basic stuff, but eventually I was too distracted by my furtive attempts at picture-taking and I stopped listening.
Also, you get really tired of holding the handset up to your ear.
Here we are in the choir (actually though, given I don’t often get the chance, I’m going to spell it “quire” for the remainder of my England posts). You’re looking backward through the rood/chancel screen that we saw above.
A big thrill about going to (some) Anglican churches in England is that they have preserved (or restored) this division of the church into nave (regular people) and quire (monks) and/or sanctuary (priests). Well, I should say, what’s thrilling is not just that they’ve preserved the layout, because many Catholic churches have done that, too, if they mostly escaped the liturgical reform — but unlike in the Catholic churches (though I haven’t been to many huge tourist attraction Catholic churches), the space has been “flattened” or de-sacralized to a certain extent, and so you, Jane Tourist, can traipse through. I was struck by this even more deeply when we went to Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford and actually sat in the choir stalls during Evensong…
Personally, I like the division of space and the sense of awe and reverence for sacred space that it creates, but there’s another more modern part of me that just wants to see and touch and know everything and take pictures of everything and go where only the priests go! So I got to indulge that.
However, the tourists and the guides and getting to go everywhere give the whole place that feeling — the feeling that it’s like a museum, or Disneyland. Disneyland for nerds, no doubt, but still Disneyland. However, it was managed so much better than St Mark’s in Venice, or even St Stephen’s in Vienna. Both of those places were so cramped with people, you could barely see; and though they were both functioning Catholic churches, and that was obvious (see above: my theory on darkness), it was still very difficult to find the physical and mental space to pray. On the other hand, both were free. I think there must be a compromise somewhere in here. But so far I haven’t found it.
Sorry for the horrible quality. This is (I think) part of the divider between the chapel behind the high altar and the ambulatory. (The ambulatory, with chapels branching off, goes around the back of the high altar.) Here behind the high altar, as I mentioned, is the shrine of St Edward the Confessor. His remains were translated (moved) here in 1163, with Thomas Becket (as Archbishop of Canterbury) presiding over the ceremonies. Here, at least, regular people are not allowed to go. You have to be accompanied by a guide, and maybe have special permission, too. I thought about asking, but in the end just went on.
Here’s another look at the outside of the chapel, mostly on the right side. The blocky monument you see coming off the right side of the picture is the shrine of Henry III. There are also a handful of other monarchs buried here — and more behind the altar in the Lady Chapel. For hundreds of years, the monarchs were crowned in the chapel of Edward the Confessor.
As you continue around the ambulatory to the rear, you reach the Lady Chapel, built by Henry VII beginning in 1502/03 — the last great moment of English medieval architecture.
It’s the classic example of the one kind of English Gothic style I could pick out of a crowd — English perpendicular — and is famous for its pendant fan vault ceiling, which you can see here.
Henry VI and his wife are buried in the main section, and there are five apsidal chapels around the edges, where no less than three Tudor-era queens are buried:
Here Mary I and Elizabeth I are buried side by side. The inscription (not shown) reads: ‘Partners/siblings both in throne and grave, here rest we two sisters, Elizabeth and Mary, in the hope of resurrection.’ (The inscription was by James I — yes, that King James, the one with the Version — who is also buried in the chapel.)
Continuing around the Lady Chapel…
A very blurry picture of the RAF Chapel, in honor of the Royal Air Force servicemen who died in the Battle of Britain.
Here’s more of the RAF chapel, which is at the very back of the Lady Chapel.
And here is the chapel in the Lady Chapel (ugh, would it be more or less confusing if I explained how it is laid out?) where Mary Queen of Scots is buried. She was a claimant for the throne, imprisoned and executed by Elizabeth I, and the mother of the eventual king James I.
Here’s a glimpse of her tomb. I was just thinking about how both this Mary and Mary I were Catholics up until their death, yet are buried here (and indeed, at least in Mary Queen of Scots’ case, were given Protestant funerals at their death). I wonder how many other post-Reformation Catholics are buried in Protestant churches in Europe… There’s probably a lot of complexity at the level of royalty and nobility, where there is more at stake than just religious concerns.
Tomb of Edward III. Look at that guy’s expression — he caught me taking pictures!
I think this is from Richard II.
As you finish with the Lady Chapel, you come into the Poet’s Corner.
So-called because Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 – 1400) is buried here. Then there was a pile-on of memorials to other famous English writers and artists, though I don’t believe any (?) of them are actually buried here.
Jane Austen, Shakespeare, etc.
The Poet’s Corner is in the south transept — which leads out to the former cloisters. There’s a door just before you pass into the cloisters that leads outside to a bathroom. And this plaque.
Here, as you enter the former abbey, you turn left and go into the chapterhouse. This was where the monks met together each day to read a chapter of the Rule of St Benedict and discuss whatever they needed to.
This place is really incredible.
The same tympanum, from the other side. I love that it’s like window tracery, without the usual stone filler. It’s late and my architectural lingo is really leaving me.
This was one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever been in, though it was hard to photograph. It dates from the 1250s, although I’m not sure what kind of restoration has taken place over the centuries.
Chapterhouses were often circular (or in this case, octagonal) in design… partly, I want to say, because the history of circular sacred architecture in Christianity is largely the history of tombs and baptistries — which are themselves linked together (you die with Christ in baptism) — and which speak to the heart of the monastic life, which is conceived of as a “death to the world,” a kind of martyrdom, which leads to eternal life. And secondly, I think, because of the equality of the circle. Monks in principle live together as equals, and shedding one’s ties or titles was a huge deal to medieval nobility who entered the monastery. In chapter, they would sit along the wall in a strict seating order that was based on seniority, not worldly rank. If you’re sitting not just in a line but in a circle, there’s an elevated awareness of that. It’s like an architectural Knights of the Round Table.
Plus, the design here is centered on a single pillar in the middle, which branches out to support the whole roof. It’s like the Tree of Life, or at least a striking image of unity.
Cool 13th century wall paintings, depicting scenes from Revelation…
Awesome medieval floor tile with the royal coat of arms.
Further along is the Pyx Chamber, built in 1070. At some point it may have been used as the sacristy, which is why it has an altar. It was made into a treasury in the 13th century, and held various stuff, including the “pyxes,” boxes which held exemplars of the official coinage. They were publicly tested for silver content at the “ceremony of the pyx.”
Then into the museum, housed under the former dormitories. It’s one of the oldest parts of the abbey, built soon after construction of the Norman/Romanesque church of Edward the Confessor began in 1065.
Replicas of the coronation regalia…
Look at the SIZE of that SWORD. It’s associated with Henry V, in the 15th century.
And this is super cool — the Westminster retable (=altar piece), painted in the 1270s, probably for the Westminster high altar. From Wikipedia:
The painting survived only because it was incorporated into furniture between the 16th and 19th centuries, and much of it has been damaged beyond restoration. After the Dissolution of the monasteries at the English Reformation, the retable panel was made into the lid of a chest, with the main painted side facing down.… [it] was not rediscovered until 1725, when it was drawn by Vertue (British Library). In 1778 serious damage was caused when the chest was modified into a cupboard or display case to show the funeral effigy of Pitt the Elder. Not until 1827, when the Retable was seen by the architect Edward Blore … and removed from the chest and set in a glazed frame, was it regarded as anything other than a curiosity by the Abbey. Since its rediscovery, the piece has been further damaged by attempted restoration efforts, which included a coating of glue intended to hold together painted layers.
Here is Christ as Salvator Mundi, holding a tiny globe of the world with animals, trees, and a small man in a boat. I’m sure there are much better quality pictures online somewhere…
Just part of Mary’s face…
Peter, the patron of the abbey, is the best preserved. Look at how finely this is painted. They say it was painted by someone experienced in illuminated manuscripts.
A 12th century capital from the Norman/Romanesque church. As far as I can see, we have two adults, one holding a baby, and a kneeling child (or adult?) coming before a bishop, whose hand is raised in blessing. So it could be portraying some family bringing their baby (to dedicate him to the abbey as a monk?) or something biblical — the Judgement of Solomon or the Presentation (if we can explain that kneeling figure somehow) or I’m not sure.
We are almost done… but first, a walk through the cloisters.
The church from inside the cloisters.
The gravestone of Abbot Gilbert Crispin, abbot from 1085-1117. After 900 years, his face has rubbed away, but he’s still here with his crozier.
I went back into the nave and noticed the coronation chair where it is displayed near the door. Then I noticed a Eucharist service was about to start, so I attended, which was interesting. I would have to go to more to get all the nuances of difference between the Roman Missal and the Book of Common Prayer — but I’m not sure which edition of the BCP he was using, either.
The really odd thing was, he prayed for Pope Benedict, and I want to say it was during the canon — I can’t remember what the wording was, but I was apparently unaware that Anglicans did this (or could do this, if they wanted). Historically, who you pray for during the canon is essentially a statement of those bishops you are in communion with, and so, in a Catholic church, you would hear prayers for, say, the Archbishop of Canterbury, or anyone else, during the “prayers of the faithful,” where often topical or local prayer requests are inserted. If Anglicans (can) name the Pope during the canon, that is a strange innovation to me (I’m sure made in the interest of ecumenism, which is nice, but still). However, I can’t remember exactly now, and maybe I got mixed up and he really only mentioned the Pope in the BCP equivalent of the prayers of the faithful. Someone who knows more can feel free to set me straight.
But I was also thinking about the age of this church, and its long history as a Catholic and then Protestant church, and about the coronation of all those kings and queens, and maybe just a little about William and Kate’s wedding.
And so — onward!!
Much later that day, in the early evening, I arrived at Westminster Cathedral, which, as you can see, is a bizarrely non-English looking church. Early 20th century neo-Byzantine, with a dash of Italian with that detached campanile/bell tower. I have a taste for neo-Byzantine since the church where I first really encountered sacred architecture is a Byzantine/Romanesque-revival building from nearly the same time period. But this one, I didn’t like as much…
I do like this Art Nouveau-ish tympanum. The Latin says: “Lord Jesus, King and Redeemer, save us by your blood.” I think “blood” is the general theme for the color scheme…
Darkness and immediate immersion in spicy-sweet incense. It’s funny, but one of the strongest smell-associations incense has for me is campfire. I’m very susceptible to smell, in general, because it is the memory sense, and I love being reminded of sitting by the fire in so many northwest and homey places whenever I smell church incense.
I walked in on Eucharistic Adoration in a side chapel. They were singing Tantum Ergo, of course, which I think I talked about when I posted about Holy Thursday and Easter. Then after I’d walked around for a while, Vespers started, which was sung and chanted in Latin. (That is rare!)
These aren’t the best looking mosaics, but there are better ones, harder to photograph, throughout the church.
But I’m just not feeling the color scheme.
Here’s a very romantic 19th century mosaic of Gregory the Great meeting the English children. For those of you who don’t know this story — Gregory the Great was the 6th century pope responsible for converting the English to Christianity. (Roman Britain was largely Christian, but once the Romans left and the Anglo-Saxon invasions/migrations started, Christianity was largely lost in the eastern and northern parts of the island.) He sent St Augustine of Canterbury on a new mission to the English after (so the legend goes) he saw a group of English children being sold as slaves in Rome. He asked who these fair-haired children were, and was told they were Angles. “Not Angles, but angels!” quoth Gregory (the pun also works in Latin). Then he asked where they were from – Deira, a kingdom in northern England – and replied, “they shall be rescued from de ira [the wrath] of God!” And having learned that their king was named Aella, he cried, “Alleluia!” IT’S A GREAT STORY.
In another side chapel, there are mosaics of Gregory and Augustine of Canterbury.
And a rather pointed list of all the English archbishops in communion with the Pope from the earliest days up to 1533, when Thomas Cranmer was deprived of his office. Then it lists the apostolic vicars until the 1850s, when there was once again a Catholic archbishop in England.
I liked this side chapel a lot! I think the color and design of the mosaic works together well.
In the chapel of St George and the English Martyrs:
In case that’s too small to read: “Here lies enshrined the body of Saint John Southworth, priest and martyr. Born in Lancashire in 1592, he was ordained priest in Douai, France, in 1618. At that time, it was illegal to celebrate Mass, and priests were liable to execution as traitors. Returning to England, Southworth ministered here in Westminster, in an area close to where the Cathedral now stands. During the plague of 1636, he tended the sick with outstanding devotion and courage. Eventually he was arrested and condemned in 1654. He was hung, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn gallows [ Marble Arch] on 28 June 1654 – the last secular priest so to suffer. His remains were taken to Doaui, and in 1930 returned to England. Here he now lies, at rest in the parish where once he labored for the Lord.”
“His corpse was sewn together and parboiled to preserve it. Following the French Revolution, his body was buried in an unmarked grave for its protection. The grave was discovered in 1927 and his remains were returned to England.”
I’m not sure what the metal/silvery parts are — was he gilded, or are those just replacements for the parts of his body that decomposed?
Finally, I feel like I have to mention the Stations of the Cross, which are rather well known.
They are the work of Eric Gill, a leading figure in the Arts and Crafts movement, and an eccentric and unorthodox Catholic. You probably know him best (though indirectly) because he designed the typeface “Gill Sans.” He designed and made these Stations in 1914. His work was often controversial, but became more so after it came out in the 80s or 90s that he’d had a string of sexually deviant behaviors, including incest and sexual abuse of his own children. It poses many questions to the tune of: “do we value an artist’s art despite the character of the artist??” to which I reply, “I don’t care, just get this sicko’s artwork out of a church.” Oddly, I was more blase about it before I had been there. Just reading about it makes it easier to tolerate, I guess.
It’s too bad to end on such an ugly note… but okay, here’s one last thing:
They provide 45 hours of confession a week.
Okay, now it’s finished. Thanks for reading!