Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The Lost Reredos of St. John the Divine

One of our readers and a friend and colleague of mine, Evan McWilliams, recently passed on a great discovery to me he'd made while visiting the cathedral archives at St. John the Divine in New York, two proposals by the great Cram for the cathedral's high altar, which sadly never came to pass. I had heard rumors of their existence, but had no idea what the finished product had looked like, nor how far the design had gotten before being abandoned. Evan writes:

Part of my archival research this past week involved a look at the various incarnations of a reredos for the cathedral. There are multiple versions by R.A. Cram from the 1930s and correspondence indicating a possible design by J.N. Comper dating all the way back to 1915. Below are two of Cram's designs and a picture of the apse without reredos more or less as it currently stands as well as a photo of the Seville reredos that inspired his ideas for a proper design. I think the lack of a good focus for the amazing length and height of the nave really does the building as a whole a disservice. Cram said in a 1935 letter to Bishop Manning, "Having lived in the shadow, so to speak, of the Seville reredos, I realize its incomparable majesty and its unique place in the sphere of religious art. I thought I could visualize the cathedral, when once the choir is reconstructed [this took place in 1939 --E. McW.] and the great screen taken down, with this great area of smouldering gold drawing the whole thing together." His vision was, as always, impeccable.
Instead, sadly, there is nothing, and the great chancel, a stupendous and vast liturgical space, centers on a broad, low altar and an odd assemblage of candlesticks and Asiatic pots. Only something spectacular and gigantic could fill that gap. Fortunately, the designs are there if anyone has the sense to look.

An earlier proposal for the reredos. In some ways, this is a more nuanced design than the final proposal, but I think it lacks the weight and mass to serve as the focus for the gigantic nave and even bigger crossing.

The final design for the reredos which, as Evan notes "relates much more successfully to the apse and the building as a whole." Its massiveness and rich gilding are the only thing that can stand out in the vast space, while there are quite a few moments of subtlety, such as the Comper-like fan-vaults that crown the vast structure.

Note how oddly cluttered and at the same time empty the sanctuary seems without any sort of reredos. A temporary one of some sort existed before the '40s, when it was demolished to give an uninterrupted vista to...well, not very much, actually. But even that older altarpiece was itself rather underpowered from the few photos I have seen of it.

Seville. Evan: "Smouldering gold is right. Fantastic."

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