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The Cathedral Mosaics
The Mosaics of St Paul's Cathedral
Written by art historian Heike Zech and featuring photography by Andy Johnson, this online catalogue of more than 100 of the mosaics in St Paul’s Cathedral, has been generously sponsored by Zacharia Su and Li Li Chung.
Today, vibrant, monumental mosaics are a much loved and admired aspect of the decoration of St Paul’s Cathedral. West of the dome the cathedral still resembles the original white space provided by Christopher Wren but it is hard to imagine the east end of the cathedral without its colourful and opulent mosaic cycle.
The sparkling Quire mosaics, created for the Cathedral between 1891 and 1904, were the climax of nearly fifty years of engagement with mosaic work. The spaces beneath the dome, the floor of the crypt and the walls of St Dunstan’s Chapel were all embellished with impressive mosaics in the later half of the nineteenth century.
This online catalogue is the first comprehensive survey of the cathedral's mosaics schemes and it enables an unrivaled view of these glories in gold and glass. The information and images are intended to be inspiration to everyone with an interest in St Paul’s Cathedral, from worshippers and visitors to students and academics.
Together the mosaics of St Paul’s Cathedral tell more than just one story: biblical scenes from the Creation of the World to the Apocalypse wait to be explored. They also tell the story of changing attitudes towards religious spaces, and the quest to find the right type of material for one of the most important places of worship for the Church of England.
Mosaic as an art form has ancient roots, and was first used for the walls and ceilings of Christian places of worship during the late Roman period. It is possible that Sir Christopher Wren, the architect of St Paul’s Cathedral, had already considered mosaics for the decoration of the dome of the new cathedral. His son reported in his father’s biography Parentalia, published in 1750:
“The Judgment of the Surveyor was originally, instead of painting in the Manner it is now perform’d to have beautified the Inside of the Cupola, with the more durable Ornament of the Mosaic-work, as is nobly executed in the Cupola of St Peter’s in Rome, which strikes the Eye of the Beholder with a most magnificent and splendid Appearance; & which, without the lead Decay of Colours, is as lasting as Marble, or the Building itself. For this Purpose he had projected to have procured from Italy four of the most eminent Artists in that Profession; but as this Art was a great Novelty in England, and not generally apprehended, did not receive Encouragement it deserved; it was imagined also the Expence would prove too great, and the Time very long in Execution; but tho’ these objections were fully answered, yet his excellent Design was no further pursued.” (Parentalia, 1750, p. 152)
In the nineteenth-century it became clear that the Cathedral space needed to be reorganised to allow for larger congregations. In addition, ideas around the decoration of churches were shifting, favouring more elaborate and colourful schemes, even though the question what type and style of decoration was to be favoured, varied depending on theological and artistic affiliations and preferences. Wren’s assumed intentions therefore became the starting point for, at times, heated debate about mosaics for not only the dome, but the Cathedral on the whole. And the decoration of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome with its prominent and monumental Baroque mosaics, remained the touchstone of every decision.
The complex story of discussions has been discussed by Teresa Sladen (2006) and involved Victorian artists of such standing as Alfred Stevens, Edward Poynter, William Burges and Frederick Leighton. Edward Burne-Jones, another leading artist of the time, and designer of the famous mosaic cycle of St Paul’s-within-the-Walls, Rome, famously to work on the mosaics for St Paul’s stating that he preferred to be “far away” from the discussion. Eventually four distinct groups of mosaics were created over the course of circa half a century: the so-called Morning Prayer Chapel, today known as St Dunstan’s Chapel houses two monumental mosaics, while the dome spandrels were decorated with Italian mosaics between the 1860s and 1890s. The 1890s saw the most radical transformation of Wren’s Cathedral space: painter William Blake Richmond designed the ambitious cycle for quire and crossing which was created until 1904.
During the 1860s, the floor of the crypt was transformed with marble mosaics, created by female prisoners and known as opus criminale. (These are the only mosaics which are not part of the Cathedral Collections.)
Today, ironically, the dome as the only part Wren might have had mosaics in mind for, has not been covered in mosaics. Be this as it may, the mosaics created in and for St Paul’s are fascinating examples of monumental art in nineteenth-century. They were restored on several occasions since World War II, including repairs in 1947, a major restoration in 1961 and the most recent consolidation by Mosaics Restoration in the 1990s. Though part of fabric of the building, they are considered part of the Cathedral Collections. In total, there are more than one hundred individual panels waiting to be explored online and in the Cathedral proper.
The online catalogue
During 2015, the mosaics were the subject of new research resulting in an online catalogue and guidebook (available from the St Paul’s Cathedral Shop), as well as a study day at the Museum of London on 13 November 2015.
The high resolution photography, undertaken by Andy Johnson of AJ Photographics, provides an entirely new perspective: mosaics can now be enjoyed and studied close up, an offer that complements experiencing the mosaics during a visit to St Paul’s.
The introductions to each of the four mosaic groups provide background information and a complete list of the mosaics and related cartoons in the Cathedral Collection and elsewhere. Where available the related quotes from the earliest guide to the mosaics, An Account of the Recent Decoration, published by then Bishop of Stepney and St Paul’s Canon Forrest Browne in 1896, is included in the catalogue record to give a flavour of the contemporary view of the Chapter of St Paul’s. A digital JPEG of each drawing is available to view and enlarge using the zoom tool on the database. Requests for higher resolution images or publication requests should be directed to the Collections Manager.
The mosaics can be seen during the Cathedral’s regular opening hours. Please note that some areas of the Cathedral might not be accessible during services and other events. Specialist tours are available. /visits/visits
Copyright: 12 November 2015 The Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral
In addition to the sponsors, the author would like to thank for their generous support: Head of Collections at St Paul’s Cathedral Simon Carter and the Collections team, Sarah Radford and Jo Wisdom; Chris Allen, Philippa Glanvill, Revd Fiona Green, Adey Grummet, Jennifer Henneman, Ilona Jesnick, Kirstin Kennedy, Laura Lappin and her colleagues at Scala, Elaire Maund, Tessa Murdoch, Charlotte Russell, John Schofield, Revd. Kevin Scully, Teresa Sladen, David Toottill and Norma Vondee.