Monday, September 20, 2010

Fr. Anthony Symondson for the Catholic Herald: Mosaic Matters

Fr. Anthony Symondson, SJ, offers the following review, which was written for The Catholic Herald:


Reflections: The Westminster Cathedral Mosaics, by Patrick Rogers, Westminster Cathedral, £19.99

by Fr. Anthony Symondson

The interior of Westminster Cathedral is defined by three features: marble, mosaic and soot-dusted, yellow stock brick. Bentley’s intention was to clad the interior with marble and mosaic in an Italo-Byzantine style and he knew that it would take a long time to finish. Now, 100 years after the Cathedral’s consecration in 1910, most of the upper levels remain undecorated and people have come to love the misty volumes of space in the domes and vaults which invest the building with an almost mystical sense of poetry, infinity and vast size. Some lament the prospect of adding a single piece of tesserae to these atmospheric planes. Yet slowly through the twentieth century the Cathedral’s sombre walls have been covered by magnificent colour, and with each addition richness is added to austere surfaces in fulfilment of Bentley’s vision.

Two years ago Patrick Rogers published The Beauty of Stone, a study of the cathedral’s marbles. Diligently he had visited the marble quarries of twenty-five countries in five continents to trace the source of over 100 marbles that now adorn the interior of the cathedral. Nobody has studied the building history of Westminster Cathedral, nor published the results of his research, more fully than him. Those who love the cathedral are permanently indebted to him for recording so meticulously the past of what some consider being the greatest English church of the Victorian age.

He has now turned his attention to the mosaics and written a comprehensive account of their origin, design and development, concluding with the mosaics by Leonard McComb erected this year in the alcoves above the holy water stoups. No better preparation could be made for the Holy Father’s impending visit when he will celebrate Mass in the cathedral and bless a new mosaic of St David, designed by Ivor Davies, sponsored by the Bishops of Wales.

Rogers sets the cathedral’s mosaics in the context of history and technique. Bentley’s preference was for the direct, rather than reverse, method in which the tesserae would be placed by hand on the surface of the wall but both methods have been used, in addition to opus sectile, by different artists and have yielded varied results.

The oldest mosaics, in the chapels of the Holy Souls and St Gregory and St Augustine, were executed by good commercial firms but they were quickly superseded by artists of the Arts & Crafts Movement, notably Robert Anning Bell, Robert Weir Schultz and Eric Gill. Schultz’s triumph is the chapel of St Andrew, given by Lord Bute, with its gold fish-scale ceiling and fish-strewn floor which is in a class of its own, unachieved by any of its companions. Bell designed the tympanum over the west door and the reredos of the Lady Chapel. Gill designed mosaics for the sanctuary and apse but none were executed. Then came the Russian Boris Anrep, one of the leading mosaicists of his generation, who had a lifelong connection with the cathedral and whose mosaics in the Blessed Sacrament chapel, finished in 1962, represent a considerable c20 artistic achievement.

The story of the Westminster mosaics is often an unhappy one, fraught with rivalries, interference and bad judgment. Cardinal Bourne and Cardinal Griffin were men of strong views but mediocre taste. Bourne made a mistake by appointing Gilbert Pownall on purely religious grounds to complete the Lady Chapel mosaics and design new ones for the sanctuary tympanum arch and eastern half-dome. This provoked Edward Hutton, a Byzantinist, to draft a letter of protest to The Times, signed by leading artists, architects and critics. Bourne ignored the letter, died soon after, and was succeeded by Cardinal Hinsley. Hinsley took the criticism seriously, dismissed Pownall, took down the partly-completed mosaics in the apse and was prepared to remove the completed tympanum mosaics.

This controversy led to the formation of an Art Committee in 1936 which promoted a new design by Gill which only the intervention of the war prevented. Griffin tried to work without the committee but Hutton again stepped in after bad decisions had been made, and from 1953 the cathedral has benefited from its advice.

Rivalries have also troubled the mosaic’s progress. Aelred Bartlett, who did more than anybody to find suitable marble for the piers and revetment, wanted to take the completion of the mosaics in charge according to Bentley’s intentions and actually designed some of them. But he did not get on with Sir John Rothenstein and the Art Committee rejected his designs for the chapel of St Paul. While the recent mosaics by Christopher Hobbs in St Joseph’s and St Thomas Becket’s chapels, though received with ‘delight and appreciation’ by the public, inspired an incongruous idea of using Young (now Middle Aged) British Artists for future work, but the cathedral has so far escaped pickled sharks and video installations.

Rogers includes chapters on individual mosaicists: George Bridge, Gertrude Martin (the only woman master mosaicist in the country), Gaetano Meo, Anrep and Tessa Hunkin. After the suspension of work on mosaics by Cardinal Heenan in 1965, since 2000 the project has resumed. Two chapels and new panels have been completed and these have been executed by Tessa Hunkin and her team from the Mosaic Workshop. Currently, proposals are being considered for putting mosaics on the high levels. Westminster Cathedral has the potential of engaging in one of the most noteworthy English works of artistic patronage of the present time, and the next 100 years promise to be as creative as the first.

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