The power of gravity
The Chapel of Christ the Redeemer, Culham, Berkshire A newly completed chapel in the form of a Classical temple celebrates in its numinous interiors the quality of the best 21st-century contemporary craftsmanship, art and sculpture. John Robinson reports
John Robinson lauds the newly completed Chapel of Christ the Redeemer in Berkshire
Dedicated to Christ the Redeemer, a chapel in the park at Culham, Berkshire, was consecrated on december 9, 2015 by the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster emeritus. the new chapel, completed at the end of 2015 by the architect Craig Hamilton, won the Georgian Group Award in 2016 for the best new building in the Classical tradition and is one of three chapels that he has recently designed.
each of these free-standing buildings shows his skills and originality as an architect. they also implicitly celebrate the quality of the best 21stcentury contemporary craftsmanship, art and sculpture.
the chapel is situated on a wooded eminence in the park overlooking the thames and forms an ornament in the landscape. in this respect, it is reminiscent of such churches and chapels as West Wycombe and Lulworth built in parks by 18th-century landowners. At Culham, the thames-side landscape is protected by National trust covenants, which partly dictated the site of the chapel.
it occupies the footprint of a brick post-second World War house. this had been built on land sold off from the estate in the 1950s, but it proved possible to buy back the property and demolish it as part of a general restoration of the 18th-century designed landscape under the direction of Colvin & Moggridge.
Work to the chapel began on the site in February 2013 and a foundation stone was laid in May the following year, after the completion of the vaulted crypt of the building. to enable the work to proceed seamlessly all the year round and regardless of the weather, a large steel shed like an aircraft hangar was erected over the whole site.
the Oxford builder Symm was responsible for the building and the com-
pletion date was set for December 2015. This felicitously coincided with the 200th anniversary of the firm’s establishment and the construction of the Leicester Wesleyan Chapel in 1815. Woody Clark, the project director, was crucial to its success, acting on behalf of the patrons as the masterly overseer of the project.
Cut stone was used for finishing both the interior and exterior, where it is combined with knapped flint. There is stone from the Portland, Kilkenny and Ballinasloe quarries in the walls and Hopton Wood stone was used for the floor and altar. The combination creates striking contrasts of colour and finish throughout the building.
Ketton Architectural Stone of Stamford was responsible for the masonry contract with Andre Vrona and James Taylor, the leading masons. It is exactingly worked throughout and the architect provided detailed large-scale drawings for all the masonry. Flints dug from the foundations were also used in the construction of an encircling ha-ha wall.
The chapel is a highly sophisticated essay in contemporary abstract Classicism (Fig 1). It is conceived as a Classical temple with a western entrance portico or pronaos at one end rising from a stepped platform or stylobate and an apse enclosing the high altar at the other. Externally, the walls are faced in knapped flint with Portland dressings. There are large Diocletian windows lighting the side elevations.
In the design are to be found references to such familiar Greek sources as the Temple of Apollo at Bassae, as well as details and ideas drawn from the Mannerist-classical work of Michelangelo, Bentley, Plecnik and Lutyens.
The portico façade is flanked at each corner by Bassae Doric columns and incorporates two rectangular pilasters with projecting corbels. These are intended for flanking bronze statues of St Cecilia and St Sabina. A sculpted frieze, yet to be executed, will also decorate the interior of the portico. Above the pediment is a belfry with four small Ionic columns (part of a mannered progression of orders used in the building) surmounted by a gilt orb and cross.
The entrance has a massive stone surround and doors of patinated bronze. These introduce us to a decorative motif that is encountered throughout the building: a long, thin strip of cloth worn as a vestment over the shoulders of a priest or deacon, termed a stole. Depending on its context, this can be read in many different ways. Sometimes, for example, it suggests the shroud of Christ, a symbol of his victory over death. Emerging over capitals in the architecture of the building, by contrast, it evokes the idea of the church as a tent of the Covenant. Hung from the stone stand for the Easter candle, it becomes a liturgical cloth fossilised in stone; the ephemeral trappings of ceremonial made eternal. The idea that the same motif can be read in many ways according to its particular context is a theme of the chapel’s decoration.
Beyond the doors is a small internal porch or narthex. It is enclosed to either side by screens incorporating bronze balusters with facing doors. Their detailing is partly inspired by the example of Bentley’s work at Westminster Cathedral. One leads to the exquisitely cut crypt staircase (Fig 3), the other to the baptistery. The baptistery doors are of gilt bronze and the base panels embossed with fish and fig leaves. They lead into a sumptuously embellished and intimate space dominated by a specially commissioned whitemarble font carved by Alexander Stoddart, with a supporting angel.
Over the altar is a gold-ground triptych of St John the Baptist flanked by the Angel Gabriel and Zacharia, painted by the architect, with a carved and gilt double frame (Fig 4). A semicircular
‘The visitor is struck by the use of space and the richness of the fittings’
lunette window in the baptistery contains the only stained glass in the chapel; it depicts St John and was designed by the architect and painted by Jim Budd’s stained-glass studio.
Dividing the narthex from the upper chapel is a pair of walnut doors by Houghtons of York, inlaid with another recurrent decorative motif: a sprig of laurel leaves tied with S-shaped ribbons, a symbol of Christ’s victory over death. Cut into the reveals of the doorway is a vine pattern growing from a Greek chalice symbolic of the Eucharist.
After the restrained geometry of the exterior, the grandeur of the chapel interior beyond comes as a surprise
(Fig 2). The visitor is struck by the monumental use of space and the richness of the fittings and decoration. An elevated tier of Diocletian windows provides clerestory lighting with plain glazing in bronze frames. Above is a shallow-coffered stone vault.
The same treatment, including the frieze and cornice, is carried round the apse of the sanctuary, except that, there, the columns are Corinthian. The exedra is lined with gold mosaic.
At the west end is a music gallery over the narthex supported on console brackets. The organ was commissioned especially from Mander Organs. It has a case of polished walnut and gilt bronze. The pews of the chapel are of walnut carved with the laurelsprig device.
Whereas so many contemporary buildings derive their interest from the illusion of rearing up effortlessly from the ground as cages of transparent glass, here, this aesthetic is effectively reversed. The grand monumentality of the chapel seems to convey the power of gravity. Elements within the structure, moreover, are part revealed and part swallowed up within layers of masonry. The treatment expresses in stone the idea of the partial human grasp of overarching divine order, as well as of mystery.
Dominating the interior of the chapel is the monumental seated figure of Christ the Redeemer by Alexander Stoddart, Sculptor Royal in Scotland. It sits behind the high altar in a giant niche lined with red Swedish stone at the east end behind the altar. Here, it has the impact of a work by Thorwaldsen or Canova (or, we may imagine, perhaps, Phidias’s lost statue of Zeus at Olympus).
Each of the niches in the side walls of the nave, currently blank, is intended for a lifesize statue of the 12 Apostles in white marble by the sculptor. The 12 niche frames are draped with stoles carved in Portland and divided by an order of half-buried black Kilkenny marble columns.
The crypt of the chapel is a mortuary chapel and approached through a lower antechamber laid out like the narthex above. Under the baptistery is the Lady Chapel with a gilded bronze screen adorned with panels of lilies and an altar supporting Mr Stoddart’s gilded and painted bronze figure of the Virgin and Child. It stands in a gilded retable with closing doors (Fig 5). There is also a large bas relief by him of the Holy Family in the same materials.
On the west wall is carved the Marian prayer, the Memorare, by Lida Cardozo Kindersley, who, with her workshop, has been responsible for all the beautiful lettercutting in the chapel.
The mortuary chapel is entered through monumental stone doors, an idea borrowed from the temples and mausoleums of Antiquity. In the doorframe are two urns, another motif
encountered in different parts of the building. Here, the urns can be read as funerary urns. Upstairs near the altar, however, the same detail refers to Christ’s first miracle of turning water into wine at the marriage of Cana. Again, we have a motif that changes its meaning as the visitor progresses round the building.
By contrast to the rich upper chapel, the crypt strikes a more sombre note, appropriate to its purpose as a mortuary chapel. It is lined with grey stone and the six burial chambers in the floor are sealed with large grey slabs (Fig 6). In the vault above each slab is a small block that can be used as a hoist for the weight of the stone.
It is not only the architecture of the building that has been thought through with such care. Vestments in green, red, purple, white and gold are in the process of being created. These are the product of a remarkable collaboration.
The fabric designs in two materials —damask and silk tissue—were created by Craig Hamilton and woven by Humphries Weaving. They incorporate the motif of sprigs of laurel. Watts and Co tailored the vestments and created the embroidery for them. In addition, the Royal School of Needlework has executed the embroidery on the altar frontals.
In the same spirit, the chapel has been furnished with liturgical silver, the bulk made by Tim Gibbs in Herefordshire, but also involving Hamilton & Inches in Edinburgh. This includes candlesticks and crucifixes for all altars and an offering bag on a stick (Fig 7).
The composer Sir James Macmillan was commissioned to write 20 minutes of music for the consecration ceremony, entitled the Culham Motets.
Altogether, the chapel at Culham is a breathtaking creation. The thoughtful and original deployment of the Classical language is complemented by the richness of polished stones and marbles and gilt bronze and the intricate carving, fine lettering and craftsmanship. It forms a remarkable unity as everything has been designed by the architect himself, including the furniture, altar plate and vestments.
With the remarkable array of statues and reliefs by Mr Stoddart, it constitutes perhaps the most complete artistic creation of its kind in modern Britain.
Fig 1 below: The chapel overlooks the Thames valley. Fig 2 right: The interior of the main chapel by candlelight looking towards the altar
Fig 3 above left: The narthex screen and stair beyond, with its exacting stonework. Fig 4 above right: The baptistery, with its new altar retable
Fig 5: The Lady Chapel. Ornamenting the altar is a beautifully embroidered frontal of lilies. The candle-stands take the form of ionic columns, with capitals copied from the Temple of Apollo at Bassae
Fig 7: Some of the liturgical plate created for the chapel. The chalice to the left is unexpectedly large, standing about 12in high
Fig 6: The vaulted crypt with its arcades of free-standing doric columns forms a striking contrast to the chapel above