Ni­cholas Asprey

Sir Christo­pher Wren & Henry Moore

The London Magazine - - NEWS - Ni­cholas Asprey

Be­side the Man­sion House in the City of Lon­don is a small build­ing which does not draw at­ten­tion to it­self and thou­sands of peo­ple walk past ev­ery day with­out paus­ing to ven­ture in­side. This is the church of St. Stephen Wal­brook whose in­te­rior has been praised by dis­cern­ing voices as Sir Christo­pher Wren’s mas­ter­piece among his par­ish churches since the day it was built. It is with­out ques­tion one of Lon­don’s finest ar­chi­tec­tural gems. This is what The Crit­i­cal Re­view of Publick Build­ings in Lon­don (1734) had to say about it:

Wal­brook church, so lit­tle known among us, is fa­mous all over Europe, and is justly re­puted the Mas­ter-piece of the cel­e­brated Sir Christo­pher Wren. Per­haps Italy it­self can pro­duce no mod­ern Build­ing that can vie with this, in Taste or Pro­por­tion: There is not a Beauty which the Plan would ad­mit of, that is not to be found here in its great­est Per­fec­tion; and For­eign­ers very justly call our Judg­ment in ques­tion for un­der­stand­ing its Graces no bet­ter, and al­low­ing it no higher a De­gree of Fame.

St. Stephen’s was built to re­place an ear­lier church de­stroyed in the Great Fire. It was com­pleted in 1679 and was the first domed church in Eng­land. The dome it­self was a pre­cur­sor of St. Paul’s with which it has struc­tural sim­i­lar­i­ties. It has been a great sur­vivor. De­spite ter­ri­ble dam­age dur­ing the Blitz, when the great dome was par­tially de­stroyed, and not­with­stand­ing a dan­ger­ous struc­ture no­tice in the 1970s that re­quired deep ex­ca­va­tion and restora­tion, the ev­i­dence shows that the in­te­rior is still to­day al­most ex­actly as Wren in­tended, in its struc­ture, its beauty and its el­e­gance.

In the late 1980s how­ever a change was in­tro­duced which had a pro­found ef­fect on the in­te­rior. To­day, stand­ing in the mid­dle of the church, di­rectly be­neath the dome, there is a large round al­tar carved in traver­tine mar­ble. It

sits on a foot­pace of two round slabs of pol­ished stone that cre­ate two steps up to the al­tar. Those re­ceiv­ing Holy Com­mu­nion kneel on the lower step. A kneeler dec­o­rated with brightly coloured ab­stract mo­tifs cov­ers this step. Sur­round­ing the whole en­sem­ble are rows of benches with gaps for ac­cess. The al­tar was the work of Henry Moore and the kneeler was the work of Pa­trick Heron who was noted for his art­work in tex­tiles.

The al­tar was in­stalled fol­low­ing the grant of a fac­ulty by the ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal courts in 1987 amid much con­tro­versy. Mr Peter (later Lord) Palumbo, a church­war­den at the church, and the Rev­erend Chad Varah, its rec­tor and founder of the Samaritans, pre­sented the pe­ti­tion. The rec­tor felt that the tra­di­tional po­si­tion of the al­tar at the east end of the church, with the cel­e­brant having his back to the con­gre­ga­tion, no longer ex­pressed the es­sen­tial na­ture of the Eucharist at the heart of Chris­tian worship. This view was widely shared at the time and many fac­ul­ties were is­sued to en­able al­tars to be moved away from the east wall so that the cel­e­brant could face the con­gre­ga­tion. How­ever the pro­posal for St. Stephen’s was dif­fer­ent: it was to in­stall a very mod­ern al­tar in the mid­dle of the church.

Many wit­nesses were called to give ev­i­dence. They in­cluded ex­perts on Wren’s ar­chi­tec­ture and ex­perts on mat­ters of aes­thetic taste and judge­ment. With one ex­cep­tion they agreed that the al­tar was a work of ex­cep­tional ex­cel­lence. The pe­ti­tion­ers con­tended that any two works of art, each of the high­est ex­cel­lence, can live to­gether and that each will set off and ad­van­tage the other. How­ever the chan­cel­lor of the con­sis­tory court pointed out that it would hardly be ap­pro­pri­ate to put the Venus de Milo in West­min­ster Abbey. In his view the real is­sue was whether the church and Moore’s al­tar were ‘con­gru­ent’. He con­cluded that they were not.

The ap­peal court, on the other hand, con­sid­ered that the ev­i­dence on con­gru­ency was evenly bal­anced and that there were other fac­tors in the pe­ti­tion­ers’ favour which tipped the bal­ance: most no­tably, that the al­tar was a work of ex­cep­tional ex­cel­lence cre­ated by an artist of world­wide rep­u­ta­tion; and they granted the fac­ulty.

It should be noted that Wren’s de­sign for the in­te­rior re­quired high box pews laid out in the tra­di­tional pattern: that is, in two lines on ei­ther side of the nave as far as the transepts, with fac­ing choir stalls be­tween the transepts and the chan­cel. The nave, the transepts and the chan­cel rep­re­sented the form of the cross on which Christ was cru­ci­fied; and this mo­tif was re­flected in the ar­chi­tec­ture above - in the high groin-vaulted ceil­ings of the nave and chan­cel and in the high bar­rel-vaulted ceil­ings of the transepts.

In 1887 the orig­i­nal box pews were re­moved be­cause of dry rot. That they were in­te­gral to Wren’s plan is clear be­cause he de­signed the high bases of the six­teen el­e­gant Corinthian col­umns that sup­port the entab­la­ture to ac­com­mo­date them. The re­moval of the box pews was there­fore a sig­nif­i­cant loss. Open bench pews, which were lower than the box pews, were pro­vided in­stead. When the church was dam­aged in the war the bench pews were put in stor­age, but they were never re­in­stated. When the church was even­tu­ally re­opened after the war chairs were pro­vided in­stead.

Dur­ing the fac­ulty pro­ceed­ings the pe­ti­tion to in­tro­duce Moore’s al­tar into the church was the only show in town. There was no al­ter­na­tive pro­posal to re­in­state the box pews, or even the open bench pews. In the re­sult, the is­sue on con­gru­ency ap­pears to have been whether the al­tar at ground level was con­gru­ent with Wren’s plan above that level. Not sur­pris­ingly the de­bate be­tween the ex­perts seems to have been some­what ab­struse. If the orig­i­nal box pews had still been in place, or if an al­ter­na­tive pro­posal to re­in­state the box pews or the open bench pews had been pre­sented, the out­come might have been dif­fer­ent.

At all events, the al­tar was in­stalled and the ef­fect can now be seen with the ben­e­fit of hind­sight. By re­mov­ing the Latin cross mo­tif at ground level the ar­chi­tec­ture above that level has lost much of its sig­nif­i­cance. Any per­son en­ter­ing the church to­day who is un­aware of its his­tory is likely to be puz­zled by the entab­la­ture the line of which ac­tu­ally de­fines the nave, the chan­cel and the transepts at that level; but it is now al­most mean­ing­less to speak of a nave and transepts be­cause these fea­tures have dis­ap­peared at ground level where they have most sig­nif­i­cance for any or­di­nary

church­goer. Even the chan­cel has vir­tu­ally dis­ap­peared at this level.

It is ques­tion­able whether the church can per­form its pas­toral role most ef­fec­tively while this ar­range­ment per­sists. At the time of the fac­ulty pro­ceed­ings there was only one res­i­dent par­ish mem­ber and only a few non-res­i­dent mem­bers. This de­mo­graphic pic­ture is un­likely to have changed much to­day. The church must there­fore serve those who work in the area; but any­one seek­ing a quiet refuge for soli­tude and prayer in St. Stephen’s will find lit­tle en­cour­age­ment. The benches sur­round­ing the al­tar are ex­posed to the pub­lic gaze from ev­ery quar­ter and vis­i­tors roam at leisure in front of the benches and all around the al­tar. Quite sim­ply, the church no longer in­vokes those feel­ings of quiet soli­tude and rev­er­ence and solem­nity that in­vite the vis­i­tor to kneel or sit and open his heart to the Lord.

In­deed the vis­i­tor would not know which way to look. The al­tar has no cru­ci­fix above it but it dom­i­nates the scene. The orig­i­nal al­tar has been re­tained at the east end, with cru­ci­fix and rere­dos above, but there are no seats there. The old al­tar rail has been pushed up against this al­tar and the chan­cel has al­most ceased to ex­ist. There are vast open spa­ces in which vis­i­tors can walk but which oth­er­wise seem point­less. Even the great pul­pit seems no longer to have a rest­ing place in the church. Any­one want­ing to get mar­ried there could be dis­cour­aged by the lack of a cen­tral aisle for the bride to en­ter and leave with her new hus­band.

In the fac­ulty pro­ceed­ings there was much de­bate as to whether the in­stal­la­tion of Moore’s al­tar could in prac­tice be re­versed if litur­gi­cal fash­ions changed and the al­tar was no longer re­quired. Cer­tainly the Samaritans have gone else­where and the bal­ance of the ar­gu­ment may have changed. The pe­ti­tion­ers con­tended that the al­tar could in all prob­a­bil­ity be sold in the mar­ket as a work of art. The ap­peal court agreed. Per­haps it is now time to put that con­fi­dent as­ser­tion to the test.

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