Westminster Cathedral - London

© Copyright Peter Crawford 2013

Westminster Cathedral in London is the mother church of the Catholic community in England and Wales and the Metropolitan Church and Cathedral of the Archbishop of Westminster.

Cathedral of the Most Precious Blood
of Jesus Christ
Westminster - London
Arched Pediment Over Main Door
Westminster Cathedral
It is dedicated to the "Most Precious Blood of Jesus Christ".
The site on which the Cathedral stands originally belonged to the Benedictine monks who established the nearby Westminster Abbey and was purchased by the Archdiocese of Westminster in 1885.
The cathedral is located in Victoria, SW1, in the City of Westminster.
It is the largest Catholic church in England and Wales, and should not be confused with Westminster Abbey of the Church of England.
Westminster Cathedral is the seat of the Archbishop of Westminster, currently His Grace The Most Rev. Dr. Vincent Nichols.
As a matter of custom, each newly appointed Archbishop of Westminster has eventually been created a cardinal in consistory.
John Betjeman called it "a masterpiece in striped brick and stone in an intricate pattern of bonding, the domes being all-brick in order to prove that the good craftsman has no need of steel or concrete."

In the late 19th century, the Catholic Church's hierarchy had only recently been restored in England and Wales, and it was in memory of Cardinal Wiseman (who died in 1865, and was the first Archbishop of Westminster from 1850) that the first substantial sum of money was raised for the new cathedral.
The land was acquired in 1884 by Wiseman's successor, Cardinal Manning, having previously been occupied by the second Tothill Fields Bridewell prison.
After two false starts in 1867 (under architect Henry Clutton) and 1892 (architect Baron von Herstel), construction started in 1895 under Manning's successor, the third archbishop Cardinal Vaughan with John Francis Bentley as architect

John Francis Bentley (30 January 1839 – 2 March 1902) was the architect who was chosen to bring the dream of a Westminster Cathedral to reality.
Rather than Gothic, the style is Byzantine. Bentley was also a master of the neo-Gothic.
However the choice of style appears to have been the result of a decision of Cardinal Vaughan.
The cathedral opened in 1903, a little after Bentley's death.
For reasons of economy the decoration of the interior had hardly been started and still much remained to be completed.
It is often presumed that Westminster Cathedral was the first Catholic place of worship to be built in England after the English Reformation; however that honour belongs to St Patrick's in Soho Square built in 1792.
Britain's first Catholic churches built after the Reformation are both in Banffshire, Scotland. They are St. Ninian's, Tynet, built in 1755 and its near neighbour, St. Gregory's, Preshome, built in 1788. Both churches are still in use.
Under the laws of the Catholic Church at the time, no place of worship could be consecrated unless free from debt and having its fabric completed, so the consecration ceremony did not take place until June 28, 1910.

The space in front of the Cathedral was opened up in 1975, following the demolition of the buildings that used to run across the frontage along Victoria Street.
Further hindering access was a roadway which ran directly across the front door.
Originally, the Cathedral could be seen only close up, and from a sharp angle.
Now for the first time it was possible to see the Cathedral from afar, and the new area was christened 'The Piazza'.
The fanciful and the romantic entertained visions of Italian style piazzas, fountains and coffee shops, violin music and colourful processions.
In truth, the space created is a difficult area to categorize; spatial compromises with the premises either side mean it is an awkward shape, and the fashion of the times decreed modern grey granite office blocks having no architectural or visual connexion with the Cathedral.
Lacking atmosphere, it has been deserted by day, and at night a haunt of drunks and drug users - so much so Cardinal Hume referred to the Piazza as 'a great improvement, but also a great weight upon our shoulders.'


The whole building, in the neo-Byzantine style, covers an area of about 54,000 sqft (5, 017m2); the dominating factor of the scheme, apart from the campanile, being a spacious and uninterrupted nave, 60 ft (18.3m), covered with domical vaulting.

Temple of Saint Sava - Belgrade
Neo-Byzantine architecture had a small following in the wake of the 19th-century Gothic revival, resulting in such jewels as Westminster Cathedral in London. It was developed on a wide-scale basis in Russia during the reign of Alexander II by Grigory Gagarin and his followers who designed St Volodymyr's Cathedral in Kiev, St Nicholas Naval Cathedral in Kronstadt, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia, Saint Mark's church in Belgrade and the New Athos Monastery in New Athos near Sukhumi. The largest Neo-Byzantine project of the 20th century was the Temple of Saint Sava in Belgrade.

In planning the nave, a system of supports was adopted not unlike that to be seen in most Gothic cathedrals, where huge, yet narrow, buttresses are projected at intervals, and stiffened by transverse walls, arcading and vaulting.
Unlike in a Gothic Cathedral at Westminster they are limited to the interior.

Westminster Cathedral
Westminster Cathedral
The main piers and transverse arches that support the domes divide the nave into three compartments, each 60 sqft (5.58m2).
The domes rest on the arches at a height of 90 ft (27.4m) from the floor, the total internal height being 111 ft (33.8m).
In selecting the pendentive type of dome, of shallow concavity, for the main roofing, weight and pressure have been reduced to a minimum.
The domes and pendentures are formed of concrete, and as extraneous roofs of timber were dispensed with, it was necessary to provide a thin independent outer shell of impervious stone. The concrete flat roofing around the domes is covered with asphalt.
The sanctuary is essentially Byzantine in its system of construction.
The extensions that open out on all sides make the corona of the dome seem independent of support.
The eastern termination of the cathedral suggests the Romanesque, or Lombardic style of Northern Italy.
The crypt with openings into the sanctuary, thus closely following the Church of Saint Ambrose, Milan, the open colonnade under the eaves, the timber roof following the curve of the apex, are all familiar features.
The huge buttresses resist the pressure of a vault 48 ft (14.6m) in span.
Although the cruciform plan is hardly noticeable inside the building, it is emphasized outside by the boldly projecting transepts.
These with their twin gables, slated roofs, and square turrets with pyramidal stone cappings suggest a Norman prototype in striking contrast to the rest of the design.
The main structural parts of the building are of brick and concrete, the latter material being used for the vaulting and domes of graduated thickness and complicated curve.
Following Byzantine tradition, the interior was designed with a view to the application of marble and mosaic.
Throughout the exterior, the lavish introduction of white stone bands in connection with the red brickwork (itself quite common in the immediate area) produces an impression quite foreign to the British eye.
The main entrance façade owes its composition, in a measure, to accident rather than design. The most prominent feature of the façade is the deeply recessed arch over the central entrance, flanked by tribunes, and stairway turrets.
The elevation on the north, with a length of nearly 300 ft (91.5m) contrasted with the vertical lines of the campanile and the transepts, is most impressive.
It rests on a continuous and plain basement of granite, and only above the flat roofing of the chapels does the structure assume a varied outline.
On entering the cathedral the visitor who knows Saint Mark’s in Venice, or the churches of Constantinople, will note the absence of a spacious and well lighted outer narthex, comprising all the main entrances; but this is soon forgotten in view of the fine proportions of the nave, and the marble columns, with capitals of Byzantine type, that support the galleries and other subsidiary parts of the building.
The marbles selected for the columns were, in some instances, obtained from formations quarried by the ancient Romans, chiefly in Greece.

High Altar

High Mass
Westminster Cathedral
High Altar and Baldacchino
Westminster Cathedral
The central feature of the decoration in the cathedral is the baldacchino over the high altar.
This is one of the largest structures of its kind, the total width being 31 ft (9.5m), and the height 38 ft (11.58m).
The upper part of white marble is richly inlaid with coloured marbles, lapis lazuli, pearl, and gold.
Eight columns of yellow marble, from Verona, support the baldacchino over the high altar, and others, white and pink, from Norway, support the organ galleries.
Behind the baldacchino the crypt emerges above the floor of the sanctuary, and the podium thus formed is broken in the middle by the steps that lead up to the retro-choir.

The  Retro-choir
Wesrminster Cathedral
The Choir - Westminster Cathedral
The curved wall of the crypt is lined with narrow slabs of green carystran marble.
The curved wall is responsible for the unique and superb sound of the Cathedral choir.
opening out of this crypt is a smaller chamber, directly under the high altar.
Here are laid the remains of the first two Archbishops of Westminster, Cardinal Wiseman and Cardinal Manning.
The altar and relics of Saint Edmund of Canterbury occupy a recess on the south side of the chamber.
The little chapel of Saint Thomas of Canterbury, entered from the north transept, is used as a chantry for Cardinal Vaughan.
A large Byzantine style crucifix, suspended from the sanctuary arch, dominates the nave.


The chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, on the north side of the sanctuary, and the Lady Chapel on the south, are entered from the transepts; they are 22 ft (6.7m) wide, lofty, with open arcades, barrel vaulting, and apsidal ends.
Over the altar of the Blessed Sacrament chapel a small baldacchino is suspended from the vault, and the chapel is enclosed with bronze grilles and gates through which people may enter. In the Lady Chapel the walls are clad in marble and the altar reredos is a mosaic of the Virgin and Child, surrounded by a white marble frame.
The conches of the chapel contain predominantly blue mosaics of the Old Testament prophets Daniel, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
Unlike the Blessed Sacrament chapel, that dedicated to the Blessed Mother is completely open.
Those chapels which may be entered from the aisles of the nave are also 22 ft (6.7m) wide, and roofed with simple barrel vaulting.
The chapel of Saints Gregory and Augustine, next the baptistery, from which it is separated by an open screen of marble, was the first to have its decoration completed.
The marble lining of the piers rises to the springing level of the vaulting and this level has determined the height of the altar reredos, and of the screen opposite.
On the side wall, under the windows, the marble dado rises to but little more than half this height.
From the cornices the mosaic decoration begins on the walls and vault.
This general arrangement applies to all the chapels yet each has its own distinct artistic character.
Thus, in sharp contrast to the chapel dedicated to St. Gregory and St. Augustine which contains vibrant mosaics, the chapel of the Holy Souls employs a more subdued, almost funereal style, decoration with late Victorian on a background of silver.
As in all Catholic churches, there are the Stations of the Cross to be found along the outer aisles.
The ones at Westminster Cathedral are by the sculptor, Eric Gill, and are considered to be amongst the finest examples of his work.

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