Sunday, February 11, 2007

Westminster Cathedral

While visually stunning, Westminster Cathedral does still startle when you run across its stripey Eastern grandeur in the midst of drizzly London. Some people, when it was first built, didn't care for it at all. Indeed, the very strange Baron Corvo called it a "pea-soup and streaky-bacon-colored caricature of an electric light station." Maybe that's a bit harsh, but you have to admit polychrome Byzantine would have not been my first choice for London's Catholic cathedral. I'm rather glad they took that unconventional route. Even with its mosaics nearly permanently unfinished, its gilded walls easily outshine the grey Gothic clutter of Westminster Abbey.

The politics that went into its design continue to fascinate. Apparently, the still-denigrated Catholic minority worried that a gigantic Gothic cathedral in the neighborhood of the royal abbey might look just an eensy bit triumphalist. Sketches for a French Gothic cathedral dedicated to St. Patrick were on the drawing board for a time, and so was a strange proposal by an eccentric MP fond of wearing multiple waistcoats at once (or was it overcoats?) to fund a replica of the Vienna Votivkirche instead. He had a fixation with Votivkirches.

Other factions advocated a duplicate of Cefalù Cathedral, a scaled-down version of St. Peter's, or any number of other solutions. Byzantine--de rigeur in certain corners of the early twentieth century--seemed a compromise, even if rather un-English at first glance. (Westminster Cathedral is a treasure-trove of forgotten yet charmingly odd proposals: there was one scheme to set up a group of Benedictines who would commute in by train to sing the Office daily, or the equally forgotten project to revive the Sarum Rite for the Cathedral's official worship.)

Certain aspects of the design I'm not so keen on, though. It is the epitome of the stately pile, but there's not much on top to pile up to. A single high dome on the order of St. Louis Cathedral would have helped a great deal. Still, the inside remains an impressive basilican reworking of the typical Byzantine centralized plan, with all the Liturgical Movement tweaks one would expect to find in a properly-run cathedral--Lady Chapel and Sacrament Chapel, a broad chancel with clergy stalls, and plenty of mosaics, marble and a nice big ambo. I have yet to see a full liturgy with choir there (their congregation, though, sings better than most parish groups in the U.S.), but if this new blog, Solomon, I Have Surpassed Thee, they're doing a good job these days.

This new blog is the work of the Cathedral's administrator, Monsignor Mark Langham, and is filled with all sorts of artistic and liturgical goodies: mosaics of St. Agatha on her feast-day, the cathedral's super-secret relic vault, the cathedral chaplains and their extraordinary brown-fur cappas, and amazing unrealized mosaic designs by turn-of-the-century artist W.C. Symons.

Definitely a blog worth watching. Thanks, Monsignor!

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