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Westminster Cathedral (part two)
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Westminster Cathedral (part two)John Francis Bentley (1839-1902) designed the cathedral, for which he drew inspiration from Santa Sophia in Constantinople, the most famous of all Byzantine churches, and from the ancient churches of Ravenna, where he admired the carved capitals and the early mosaics. He aimed at an early Christian style rather than a purely Byzantine one, and Ravenna was an ideal source, for there East had met West. Bentley had at his disposal at Westminster a rectangular site, at the east end of which he had to build a hall and substantial houses for the archbishop and his clergy. The west end fronted a road running parallel with Victoria Street, which was lined with tall commercial and residential buildings. The cathedral was hidden from Victoria Street until 1975. So Bentley set back the west front of the body of the church behind a narthex, which was given an entrance more Italianate than Byzantine. The great campanile, 86.6 metres (284 feet) high, was placed on the left. Much has been made of the piazza created in 1975 between the west door and Victoria Street. The buildings that flank the piazza, however, are so unsympathetic to the cathedral that the scheme jars horribly. The cathedral belongs so much better with the contemporary mansion flats in Ambrosden Avenue and Morpeth Terrace, which share the cathedral's scheme of red brick with stone bands. The buildings that used to stand in Ashley Place fitted in well with this pattern.

Westminster Cathedral (part two)

Since the building was opened in 1903, all the lower parts of the cathedral's walls have been covered in coloured marbles and mosaics.


The nave consists of three big domed bays, 18.3 metres (60 feet) wide, with narrow aisles, and outer chapels beyond them. All the buttressing of the nave is internal. The transepts open out of the third bay from the west, but they do not extend beyond the walls of the nave's chapels. The gallery runs across the transepts' arches. At the east end, a fourth domed bay serves as the sanctuary, which is flanked by very narrow aisles and then by apsidal chapels: the Blessed Sacrament chapel on the north and the Lady chapel on the south. The large apse behind the sanctuary houses the choir. The most conspicuous windows are semicircular and are of Byzantine inspiration. The nave is so wide and the transepts relatively shallow, that there is little sense of a crossing. The focus is firmly on the raised sanctuary and on the high altar under its Italianate baldacchino.

Westminster Cathedral (part two)

The first Station of the Cross, representing Jesus being sentenced to death by Pontius Pilate, was carved by Eric Gill at the time of the First World War. The Stations are the cathedral's most important works of art.


Bentley himself began the furnishing and adornment of the interior. He designed the great baldacchino in 1901, which was made by Farmer & Brindley, and the huge cross that hangs above the sanctuary. The octagonal font in the south-west corner also is Bentley's, inspired by Ravenna. He planned to clad the interior with coloured marbles and to decorate the vaults with mosaics, to make what he called a 'veneered building'. This work proceeded gradually, with close attention paid to what Bentley would have wanted, even so late as the 1960s. He personally worked on the Holy Souls' chapel next to the campanile; the mosaics there were by Christian Symons. The chapel of St Gregory and St Augustine, on the south side, was also decorated at an early date. Clayton & Bell executed the mosaics, which depict saints of the early English Church. (It was in this chapel that Cardinal Hume was buried in 1999.) In 1915 St Andrew's chapel, also on the south side, was furnished at the expense of the 4th Marquess of Bute. His artist was R. W. S. Weir, who produced interesting ceiling mosaics of Patras, Constantinople, but more remarkable is Ernest Gimson's set of stalls, made of ebony inlaid with ivory. They represent work of a very high order. St Paul's chapel, to the east, has a floor of white Pentelic marble inlaid with red and green porphyry, which was made in the 1930s to the designs of Edward Hutton, the writer on Italian art. The Lady chapel has mosaics by G. W. Pownall, 1931-2. The Blessed Sacrament chapel, north of the sanctuary, was furnished by John Marshall early in the 20th century but was decorated in mosaic only in 1953-61, by Boris Anrep. Much money for this chapel was raised in Spain and South America by the founder's brother, Father Kenelm Vaughan.

Westminster Cathedral (part two)


The great pulpit, in early Christian style, was designed by C. A. Leonori in 1899. It was raised on columns in 1934. Just east of it there is a 15th-century alabaster statue of the Virgin and Child, known as Our Lady of Westminster. The large panels of the Stations of the Cross were fitted in 1914-18 and were carved in low relief in Hoptonwood stone by Eric Gill. They show a marvellous sense of tense solemnity. The first Station, for example, gives a due sense of Roman grandeur in Pontius Pilate's throne, the arcading in the background and in the ceremony of washing his hands. The lettering is magnificent. These Stations stand out for their skill and yet they are reticent enough to fit in well with the architecture. In front of the sanctuary steps, an inscription recalls Pope John Paul ll's Mass here in 1982, which was the first celebrated in England by a reigning Pope. The English Martyrs' chapel in the north aisle has the shrine of St. John Southworth, who was martyred at Tyburn in 1654. The Vaughan chantry further east has a monument of the founder, designed by John Marshall, with an effigy by J. Adams-Acton.

The musical tradition here is a very fine one. The first Master of Music (1901-24) was Sir Richard Terry, whose appointment by Vaughan was an astute and excellent choice. The cathedral's choir is one of the best in England.


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