Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Restoration of a Landmark Sydney Church

Tower and northern transept
of Saint Thomas' church, Lewisham NSW.
Earlier this year, the Saint Bede Studio was approached to be a consultant on the restoration of the interior of a famous church in Sydney NSW.

The church of Saint Thomas of Canterbury (also known as Saint Thomas Becket's) was founded in 1887 in the Sydney suburb of Lewisham. Because of its proximity to the railway line which runs into the centre of Sydney from the North, the splendid Gothic Revival tower of the church is seen by thousands of people each day as they pass by in the city's trains.

This is the first in a series of posts about the restoration of S' Thomas', to which the Saint Bede Studio has been pleased to contribute.

Friday, 29 May 2015

English Altars 2 : Walsingham

Splendid reredos of the High Altar in the
Church of Our Lady of Walsingham, Houston USA

In a previous post, we described a style of altar commonly known as The English Altar. As the name would suggest such altars developed into a particular style in England, although since the nineteenth century they have come to spread to other parts of the English-speaking world. 

The form of reredos complementing the English Altar falls into two principal varieties : (a) a dossal or curtain of rich fabric, suspended from a railing and carried around three sides of the altar; (b) a low wall which is either of painted timber or carved from stone (or an admixture of the two). In this post, we are pleased to discuss an English altar of the second variety and, indeed, one built in very recent years.

The splendid reredos of Our Lady of Walsingham Church
whilst faithfully reproducing the original altar in England,
succeeds in improving its proportions.
For reasons that are not clear,
the freestanding altar does not follow the literate design of the reredos
but happily is usually covered with an antependium.

This is the High Altar found in the Church of Our Lady of Walsingham in Houston (Texas, USA), a building conceived and built in a very simply Gothic idiom as recently as 2003. The church was designed by the architectural firm of Cram and Ferguson. The High Altar of this church is a near-replica of the altar in the Slipper Chapel, being the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in the United Kingdom. The work of reproducing this reredos in Texas was given to the Spanish firm of Granda Liturgical Arts, and is of the highest quality. It is a welcome relief from their usual Spanish oeuvre.

The English shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham was founded in the eleventh century. Walsingham became a renowned place of pilgrimage in England - second only to Canterbury Cathedral. Although several kings and queens of England, Scotland and France had made the pilgrimage, this did not prevent the Shrine being despoiled and brought to ruin by the vile King Henry VIII.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, a building used as a barn was discovered to be the original Walsingham Shrine. It was rebuilt and restored to religious use through the efforts of a devout woman, Charlotte Boyd. In 1934, the first Mass was celebrated in the Chapel in more than four centuries. The altar in the chapel was designed and built in the early twentieth century by a local artisan named Lilian Dagless. It is an interpretation of the form of reredos commonly found in England until the time of the Reformation. A carved bas-relief of the Crucifixion with Our Lady and S' John is the central scene of the reredos; on either side there are reliefs of the martyrs S' Catherine of Alexandria and S' Lawrence carrying the instruments of their martyrdom. All of these bas-reliefs are crowned by slightly-projecting canopies of Gothic tracery. Blue and red polychrome, highlighted with gold gilding, completes the ornament of this wonderful work.

Reredos of the Altar of the Slipper Chapel
in the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, England.
This reredos is smaller than the Houston replica
but has an additional arcade of tracery at its base.
The cresting along the top of this reredos is also more robust than in Houston.
We also note riddel curtains on either side of this altar
and that the not-very-large tabernacle is fittingly veiled.

General view of the wonderfully-liturgical chancel of
the Church of Our Lady of Walsingham, Houston.
The freestanding altar is usually covered with an antependium
so that it becomes visually central and not over-powered by the gilded reredos.
Little shelves added to either end of the reredos (on which flowers are placed)
are infelicitous later accretions and detract visually from its aesthetics.
Despite Mass usually being offered ad orientem in the Church of Our Lady of Walsingham, the altar is detached from the reredos and therefore is free-standing. It is possible for Mass to be offered versus populum at this altar. Here is another example of how a flexible approach to the General Instructions on the Roman Missal can result in a suitable setting for the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy which respects both aesthetics and liturgical principles.

The Cardinal-Archbishop of Galveston-Houston offering Mass at the High Altar.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

The Altar Frontal : 2

In a previous post, we introduced why altar frontals or antependia are desirable to cloth altars, based on liturgical law, sacred symbolism and aesthetics. These are compelling reasons for the use of the frontal, but so frequently two objections are offered why the altar frontal is not used :

The altar is so beautiful, why would we cover it up?

It is too difficult to be changing frontals frequently.

The answers to the first objection may be found by re-reading our first post.  But in this article we wish to begin to discuss the second objection.

A splendidly designed and embroidered altar frontal
clothing the High Altar of Westminster Cathedral (UK).
The use of the original High altar for the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy
was reintroduced by the present Archbishop of Westminster,
shewn in the photograph offering Mass.

Firstly, some terminology. The words frontal and antependium presuppose that the covering is applied only to one face of the altar namely, the front of it. This is perfectly proper when considering an altar which is attached to a reredos, or very close to a wall and therefore not freestanding. An altar, however, is a three-dimensional structure and - if it is freestanding - it ought to be fully clothed, not just clothed on those sides which are generally visible. Consequently, we also find the term altar pall which describes a parament which covers all sides of the altar or, at the least, two of them, the front face and the back face.

A free-standing altar placed in a central position which can be viewed from all sides, requires coverings at the front and the back (we leave aside the question of the linen altar cloths) in order for the covering to fulfil its purpose. It is unseemly to cover the front and not the back of an altar, unless of course, one takes the view that the altar frontal is purely used for aesthetic effect.

Where possible, and for reasons of adequately expressing sacred symbolism, the altar pall or frontal ought to be changed in accordance with the colour of the Liturgical Day or Season. It is quite acceptable, however, to have a worthy form of altar pall which is changed hardly ever. It is when several frontals or palls are used and have to be changed that the second objection becomes more prominent.

At present, as in the past, very few altars are designed with any thought given to their being covered with a pall or frontal. This is a serious deficiency in the vision of designers, but it is hardly a new one. It is very important when designing altars that serious consideration is given as to how they will be clothed. If no arrangement, or a clumsy arrangement is made for clothing an altar with a pall, quite quickly this will be cited as the reason NOT to use an altar pall or frontal. "It's too much trouble".

We will pass over without comment those execrable and unbefitting creations which, being multi-sided instead of four-sided, arrogantly defy sacred Tradition and any form of altar covering.

To be continued ...

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Abbey-Churches :
Sainte-Trinité, Lessay (Normandy)

Romanesque architecture
Abbey-Church of the Holy Trinity, Lessay (Normandy).
A magnificent expression of Romanesque.
Source :

Dotted across Europe are so many churches which are, or have been, attached to religious houses. This post concerns one such church which is almost a thousand years old attached to a former Benedictine Abbey in Normandy, France. The following description of the Abbey-Church of Sainte-Trinité (Holy Trinity) in Lessay, Normandy (France) is adapted from a brief essay found at this link.

This Benedictine Abbey was founded around 1056. By 1098 the choir of the abbey church had already been built and the nave was built in the first years of the twelfth century. The church was consecrated in 1178, but it was not fully completed at that date. It continued as a monastery until the French Revolution but became a Parish Church at that time, the monastery buildings passing into private hands.

The Benedictine plan in the form of a Latin cross is used in most of the large abbey churches of Normandy: apse with chapels to scale, abutting the aisles and the arms of the transept, and a long nave with aisles. The interior elevation is that of the Norman Romanesque churches : large arcades, an intermediate level of tribunes and high windows. The Lessay Abbey-Church features ceilings of tracery vaults : one of the earliest examples of such vaults and well before the development of rib vaults in Gothic architecture.

The church was almost totally destroyed on two occasions by war. In 1356 during the Hundred Years' War, Charles II of Navarre directed his army to destroy the Abbey and Church. The church was reconstructed between 1385 and 1420. In July, 1944, the German army, retreating after the D-Day Landing, blew-up the church, reducing large parts of it to piles of rubble. It was reconstructed with the greatest care and fidelity in the period 1945-1958 and continues to serve as a Parish church.

A more detailed history of the Abbey can be found here .

Romanesque Architecture
The austere nobility of Romanesque ecclesiastical architecture :
Nave and south transept, with the Crossing tower.

Romanesque Architecture
The rugged Crossing Tower
pierced by arcading and crowned with a pyramidal roof.
Source :

Romanesque Architecture
The splendid ribbed vault of the nave
reconstructed faithfully after World War Two.

Source :

Romanesque Churches
The nave and crossing of Sainte-Trinité :
a perfect expression of the monumental and noble art of the Romanesque period.
A new timber sanctuary, constructed in the eastern end of the Crossing,
is indifferently furnished, but at least is all
easily removable without injury to the building.

The ruins of Sainte-Trinité in 1944 :
another sad victim of war.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Ruined Churches : The Great War

World War One Churches
A shell exploding on the city of Saint-Quentin;
The partly-ruined basilica dominates the skyline.

March 1918
In Australia on this day, 25th April, we commemorate the centenary of the beginning of the campaign at the Dardanelles (modern day Turkey), which was the brainchild of Winston Churchill. This eight month campaign on the beaches and cliffs of Gallipoli was a dismal failure without any strategic gain and which resulted in the deaths of many thousands of Australian, British and New Zealand soldiers (in addition to some Canadian and Indian troops) and their Turkish adversaries. Since that day in 1915, Australia especially has commemorated this particular campaign of the First World War.

World War One Churches
French soldiers and workmen amidst the ruined nave of the Basilica of Saint Quentin 1918.
Juxtaposed with the incomprehensible scale of casualties throughout the Great War (1914-1918) is the destruction of towns in Belgium and France - the victim of heavy artillery shelling. We should not be surprised that when human life counted for so little, the sanctity of the House of God would not be respected either. Quite a number of centuries old churches and cathedrals were reduced to rubble in this horrific, senseless conflict. In this post, we illustrate just one such destruction - the Basilica of Saint-Quentin in that region of northern France called Picardy.

World War One Churches
The Basilica of Saint-Quentin, Northern France
pictured before the Great War began.
Its eclectic mixture of styles is the consequence
of being built and rebuilt over many centuries.
The city of Saint-Quentin was overrun by invading German forces in September 1914 and remained an on-and-off focus of battle to the very end of the war. Much destruction on the town and on the basilica was wrought during Operation Michael in March 1918. But the basilica had been damaged previously in 1916 and 1917.

In 1914, the Basilica of Saint Quentin (the city bears the name of the basilica) was eight centuries old. It is believed to have been commenced in the eleventh century, but of this work, the western tower seems only to survive. The eleventh century program replaced earlier churches on the site. From the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries, the basilica was constructed from its east end to the western tower. A more detailed description of its history and architecture can be found here.

World War One Churches
Ruins of the Saint-Quentin Basilica 1918.
The basilica survived an attempt by the German forces to demolish it completely with high-explosives upon their Retreat in 1918. It has been undergoing reconstruction and restoration in stages over an entire century.

Click on the images for an enlarged view.

World War One Churches
The rubble-filled ruins of the choir of the Saint-Quentin Basilica.

World War One Churches
The rebuilt apse with its chevet chapels.

World War One Churches
A recent photograph of the southern side of the Basilica.
The eclectic style of the building, the product of several centuries of construction,
was preserved during the long years of reconstruction after the Great War.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Saint James' Church
A Suburban Melbourne House of God

The Church of Saint James in Brighton, formerly known as Gardenvale, and before that Elsternwick is one of many Gothic Revival churches of the Archdiocese of Melbourne (Australia). For Easter Day, we are writing this post about Saint James', because its parishioners cannot fully share the joy of Christ's Resurrection today. Their church was gutted by fire on Monday of Holy Week, the victim of an arsonist.

Saint James' church Brighton:
North transept, nave and belltower.
Saint James' church, a brick cruciform building with stone facing, was commenced in 1891, but enlarged in 1924 with the addition of transepts, apse and sacristies complementing the original design of Edgar Henderson.

In most respects, Saint James' church was not an exceptional building, but its great glory was the magnificent decorative mosaic work on the walls of the apse and adjacent chapels. This decoration, in a style known as opus sectile, was completed in 1939.

Of all this beauty, nothing now remains. The interior of the church was completely destroyed this week past and parts of its brick and stone walls are imperilled. This is the first of a series of posts on Saint James, aimed at keeping this tragedy in people's minds and in the hope that this House of God might - to some extent at least - be rebuilt. In the meantime, let us pray for its sorrowful parishioners.

Send a message of support to the Parish here.

Charming interior of Saint James church.

A section of the magnificent decorative work
of the apse and Sacred Heart Chapel.

Saint James' ablaze early on the morning of Monday 30th March:
the view on the south side of the church.

Dramatic view of the blaze, looking through 
the tracery window of the southern transept.
Image: The Herald-Sun.

Fireman bringing the devastating blaze under control.
Image : The Herald-Sun.

Charred ruin of the transepts.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Church Towers : 1

church tower
A muscular tower:
Saint Michael and All Angels, Bothwell Tasmania.
It may be argued convincingly that the most identifying feature of a church is its tower. And even though this feature signifies firstly that the building is the House of God, towers remain a potent symbol of community life. There is such a variety in the design of church towers as will afford us many posts on the subject.

Church towers originated in ninth century Italy, but obviously the tower as a fortification existed long before they became part of church architecture. Nevertheless, many communities came to appreciate the defensive advantages of having a tower in their midst and indeed the term belfry is of teutonic origin and means a defensive place of shelter. In most places, however, mediaeval church towers were simply intended to accommodate bells, an altogether different meaning of the word belfry. In Italy the term is campanile.

The tower under discussion in this post is of the Anglican Church of Saint Michael and All Angels in Bothwell Tasmania (Australia) and looks very much like a defensive place of shelter. This church was built in stages between 1887 and 1923 to the design of Tasmanian architect Alexander North a Gothic Revivalist of no mean ability. The tower of the church, which abuts the chancel, was the last to be built and is distinctive for its robust design.

Although in that muscular vein of the later period of the 19th century Gothic Revival, this squat and robust tower is at least reminiscent of Norman architecture. Four square turrets support this tower and each turret is flanked by two unstepped buttresses, creating clean lines and a keep-like appearance. The pyramid-shaped terminations to these turrets enhance this castle-like feeling (although those four celtic crosses atop are perhaps a little "twee"). No tracery or crenellations break-up the solid parapet of this tower. The eight louvred openings clearly indicate the true purpose of this tower.

church tower
The Church of Saint Michael and All Angels, Bothwell, Tasmania.
The tower and porch of this church are the most successful features of its exterior.

The church seen from the south east.
A semi-circular turret, which serves as the stairwell to the tower,
is well-placed against the east wall

and also serves as the exterior entrance to the vestry.