Thursday, July 17, 2008

St Cyprian, Clarence Gate

Sir Ninian Comper built the church of St Cyprian in Marylebone, London, in 1903 but over the next 40 years he gradually added to the church, creating what has been called "the most joyful church interior in London". The red brick exterior of St Cyprian's near Regent's Park is simple and could be mistaken for a church hall, but inside it is what Anthony Symondson SJ calls "a fusion of controlled austerity and splendour". It is not accidental that its shape resembles a large preaching hall, for according to Fr Symondson, Comper was "influenced by the small basilican churches in Rome - notably S. Sabina" albeit in the mode of the English Gothic that one sees in a fine East Anglian church.

St Cyprian's, Clarence Gate

A lecture posted online at the church website makes the following observation, and explains what Comper was trying to achieve in St Cyprian's:

"Comper was particularly keen to find actual illustrations of the furnishings of churches and the ceremonial enacted within their walls. English illustrations were few and far between, but by collating the miniatures which he found in manuscripts in the British Museum with Flemish paintings, with their scrupulously detailed representations of sixteenth-century ceremonial, he was able to formulate a fairly accurate picture of a late mediaeval English parish church. And that is what we see here at St. Cyprian's - the scholar's dry researches transformed into brilliant reality in stone, timber, glass and metal in a way achieved hardly anywhere else before or since in the history of the Gothic Revival.

It is as though the Reformation had never happened. Perhaps when you came in you had the impression that inside a slightly drab red brick shell you had entered a perfect fifteenth-century church as though some fourth dimension had transported you to the rolling fields of Norfolk. That was exactly what Comper intended."

For Comper, the church was centred around the altar. As he says so movingly: "The altar is the heart of the building, made public to the whole body of worshippers ... in such a manner as shall not grossly violate the earlier traditions of the Christian Church which veiled the altar from view. the open chancel screen, the transparency of which is completed by the great windows behind it, the low down east window and those which light the altar from the sides, [make] the whole church a lantern, and the altar is the flame within it."

The Glorious Rood

The gilded and painted screen that spans the width of the church is certainly the most glorious: finely carved woodwork that resembles lace, a row of saints that run along the bottom of the screen, and at the centre a serene Rood. Beyond that one glimpses the Tester over the High Altar with Christ in Majesty and then the Risen Lord depicted in the stained glass. And thus, we realise that the Cross leads to glory...

Comper's Rood Screen details

I had the joy and privilege of photographing St Cyprian's today in London and I have begun a new set devoted to this church on my Flickr site. I shall be adding to this in the next few days. NLM readers may also be interested in my Comper set and the Comper Flickr group.

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