Review – Westminster Abbey

4 mins read
Westminster Abbey’s new galleries have a historic setting in the eastern triforium, 16m above the abbey floor. The sarcophagus shown was originally used for the burial of Valerius Amandinus, a well-off Roman, c.AD 300-400. A cross was later added to the coffin lid, when it was adapted c.900-1000 for an unidentified Anglo Saxon occupant.
New displays in Westminster Abbey’s eastern triforium (the gallery above the nave) explore the long history of the church, its royal links, and its importance as a national monument. Lucia Marchini takes a look at the recently opened Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries.

For centuries Westminster Abbey has played host to royal weddings, state funerals, and coronations. First founded as a Benedictine monastery in AD 960, the abbey was rebuilt under Edward the Confessor in 1065, and then Henry III in 1245. It is the Gothic-style building started under Henry III that still stands today. There have, of course, been various alterations over the centuries, such as the west towers – the famous entrance to the church that was designed by the Surveyor of the Fabric of the Abbey Nicholas Hawksmoor and completed in 1745.

Following in Hawksmoor’s footsteps, the present Surveyor of the Fabric, Ptolemy Dean, has made the first major addition to the abbey’s plan since the west towers were constructed: a glass-and-lead tower situated snugly in Poets’ Corner Yard between the 13th-century Chapter House and the 16th-century Lady Chapel. Known as the Weston Tower, it provides public access to the east triforium and the lofty new museum space.

The new construction is firmly grounded in the abbey’s past: its star-like shape, made from two rotated squares, can be seen in multiple places elsewhere in the abbey, and even before ascending the tower visitors are treated to a glimpse into an ‘archaeological viewing pit’. This exposes a small section of the raft foundations of Henry III’s church, built from blocks of Caen stone that were recycled from Edward the Confessor’s earlier structure. More examples of this French stone can also be seen around the lift shaft of Dean’s tower. Here, in a well-considered decorative touch, 17 bands of stone, spanning from Purbeck marble (used in the 11th century) at the bottom of the tower to Clipsham stone (used in the 20th century) at the top, present a brief visual history of the abbey’s building materials.

The Westminster Retable, the original altarpiece from Henry III’s church, was most likely produced locally, but it shows artistic influence from the French court.

During the construction of the tower, another case of reuse came to light: an 11th-century stone coffin, found in the lightwell wall of the nearby chapter house, that is now on display at the base of the tower. It was probably placed in the wall during restoration work by another Surveyor of the Fabric, George Gilbert Scott, in the 19th century. During the recent restoration of the triforium in preparation for the galleries – a space that had been generally off-limits to the public for 700 years, and that aptly was once in use for ‘retaining items for the museum’, as reported by Gilbert Scott – 30,000 small fragments of glass spanning AD 1250-1500 were uncovered under the floor. Some of these fragments have now been given a new lease of life, reworked in the two windows that stand at the entrance to the galleries.

Other examples of glasswork from across the abbey are on display in the galleries, which showcase a rich variety of objects, materials, and techniques, covering the history of the building, worship and daily life, the monarchy, and national memory. One of the highlights is the Westminster Retable – dating to c.1269, it is the oldest surviving altarpiece in England and was probably made in Westminster by craftspeople influenced by French court art. It has suffered some damage over the years, but its original paintings – including Christ flanked by the Virgin Mary and St John, and St Peter (the dedicatee of Westminster Abbey) can still be seen. The back of the retable has also been painted to mimic purple porphyry, a highly prized stone with imperial associations that appears in the ornate Cosmati pavement in front of the high altar.

The funeral effigy of Henry VII, probably the work of Pietro Torrigiano, is notable for its naturalistic portrayal. The features were modelled on the king’s death mask.

As well as the newly rediscovered sarcophagus downstairs, up in the triforium there is plenty of other material relating to burials. The oldest exhibit is a Roman sarcophagus that was reused during the Anglo-Saxon period, but among the most intriguing exhibits are the wax and wood funeral effigies, completed with human hair and real clothing. The head of Henry VII, probably by the Italian artist Pietro Torrigiano, stands out among these depictions for its lifelike portrait of the king. Like some other effigies, it was modelled on a death mask, but its remarkable realism (even compared to the effigy of his wife, Elizabeth of York) reflects the developments in royal portraiture at the time.

Until the 17th century, effigies were used in funeral processions that took place in the abbey. The executed Charles I had no funeral and therefore no effigy, and though effigies of royals were still produced after this, resuming with Charles II, they no longer had a role in funerals. Funeral effigies were, however, created as tourist attractions. Admiral Nelson, for instance, was buried at St Paul’s Cathedral, yet Westminster has an effigy of him. The clothing is Nelson’s own and Lady Hamilton is said to have commended the likeness of the figure (but did adjust the hair a little).

A number of historical documents shed light on services and life at the abbey, and its prominence. One of the fine examples of illuminated manuscripts displayed is the 14th-century Liber Regalis. Possibly written in preparation for the 1382 coronation of Anne of Bohemia, queen of Richard II, the book outlines how to crown a king, a queen, and a king and his consort together. The basic order of service has been followed at every coronation since, including that of Elizabeth II, in whose honour the galleries have been named.

Written in the 14th century, the important Liber Regalis describes how to crown a monarch.

The order of service was reconfigured in 1689 for the coronation of William III and Mary II, the only occasion in English history when two monarchs were crowned joint rulers. A new coronation chair had to be made too. Despite having a stronger claim to the throne as the child of James II, Mary II sat on the new chair, which has since been covered in graffiti by past pupils of Westminster School. (See CA 283 for more about the history of the Coronation Chair.)

Amid all this historic grandeur, Westminster Abbey continues to serve as a place of worship, and one not reserved only for royalty. Vestments, prayer books, and more humble objects (such as a medieval monk’s shoe) reflect everyday worship in the church and contribute to a full understanding of the abbey’s past beyond the pomp of state ceremony.

This review appeared in CA 345.

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