‘As a piece of simple decorative and beautiful art it is perfect, and the windows very artistic.’ Oscar Wilde.
Until the eighteenth century, the college chapel had a peripatetic existence. The chapel of Gloucester College did not survive the Reformation but was probably located in the north range of the quadrangle. Loggan’s 1675 illustration of Gloucester Hall shows a ruined chapel on the site of the present chapel; the chapel at the time was in the gallery north end of the hall roughly in the middle of the present day cloister. While the new buildings, including the chapel, were built for Worcester College from 1720, the room with the barrel roof in the current Junior Common Room was used as the chapel.
Coming into the Chapel as it exists today, you could be forgiven for thinking it entirely Victorian. But it is, in fact, entirely eighteenth century, with Dr George Clarke, Henry Keene and James Wyatt being responsible for different stages of its lengthy construction (1720-91, owing to shortage of funds). The interior columns and pilasters, the dome and the delicate foliage plaster work are all Wyatt’s work. But the structure is one thing, the decoration is another. Wyatt’s cooly classical interior was not sufficiently emphatic for the tastes of militant Victorian churchmen, and between 1864 and 1866 the chapel was redecorated by William Burges. The College may have got more than it bargained for. Burges was ‘one of the most potent’ (as Nikolaus Pevsner describes him) of High Victorian architects; ‘he did not obliterate Wyatt’s work entirely but he swamped it’ in creating a Victorian vision of an early basilica. Every surface from the floor to the ceiling was decorated using all available artistic media: mosaic floor, fresco, stained glass, furniture, wood and alabaster sculpture, and silver book bindings. Every decoration is part of a theological programme celebrating the mighty works of God in nature and in human history. The floor mosaic, made from coloured marble celebrates the four Doctors of the Western Church and saints of the English Church, including Frideswide, Oxford’s own foundress and patron saint. The stall armrests include some wonderfully lively beasts (both natural and fabulous) while the bench ends have inlaid instruments of Christ’s passion (the crown of thorns, the spear, the cross etc.), thereby not only remembering Christ’s death on the cross but also pointing to the eucharistic sacrifice celebrated at the altar. Above the pews there is a painted frieze illustrating parts of the Te Deum – the powers of heaven, the glorious company of the apostles, the goodly fellowship of the prophets, and the noble army of martyrs. The next layer illustrates the Benedicite, with every aspect of creation praising and magnifying God for ever. Finally, in the lunettes above the windows are Old Testament prophets whose prophecies point to the events in the life of Christ depicted in the windows.
If all this seems suffocatingly pious, then pause to appreciate the humour that went into the scheme. The sequence of the text of the Te Deum inlaid into the backs of the pews ends in the Provost’s stall with the single word ‘God’. The Benedicite section around the middle window on the north side is on the theme of ‘O all ye Fowls of the Air, bless ye the Lord’. And with which birds has Burges chosen to illustrate the passage? The dodo and the kiwi – definitely not fowls of the air! More of the same is there for those with the wit to see.
No aspect of the chapel aroused more controversy than the four gilded statues of the Evangelists in each corner. The then college librarian, Edmund Oldfield, denounced them as ‘idolatrous’. The Reverend Charles Brown called them ‘abominations’ and an encouragement ‘to sensuous and carnal worship’, a ‘Romanizing leprosy’ that was ‘fostering in our students idolatrous thoughts’. The statues are still there; you might want to test out Brown’s arguments for yourself.
Thanks to a restoration in 2001, we can now appreciate the brilliance of Burges’ vision better than at any time since 1864.
Written by The Rev’d Peter Doll, former College Chaplain.
Book now available
Encountering Burges: Reflections of the Art and Architecture of the Chapel at Worcester College, Oxford – Susan Gillingham
The current instrument was built in 1865 by Nicholson of Worcester and was restored and enlarged by Noel Mander in 1961. A major restoration of the instrument was undertaken in 2005 by Harrison and Harrison. This included the re-instatement of all the mechanical action for the manuals, improvements to the pedal organ and four new stops.