Westminster Cathedral by JF Bentley

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Westminster Cathedral by J.F. Bentley

Continuing the exploration on modern ecclesiastical buildings from the 1900s, the second church I choose to look at is Westminster Cathedral designed by John Francis Bentley.

Completed in 1903 in a neo-Byzantine style with inspiration from Hagia Sophia and Hagia Irene in Constantinople, Westminster Cathedral defined the turn of the century in Britain. It is one of London’s noblest buildings, a unique Oriental gem contrasting the Early Gothic of the nearby Westminster Abbey and the Italian Baroque of the other major catholic church in London, Herbert Gribble’s Brompton Oratory.

Originally the site was surrounded by a number of obscure buildings but thanks to a 1970s redevelopment, a piazza opened up vistas towards the cathedral, allowing the general public to appreciate its beautifully intricate facade.

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Westminster Cathedral, view from the main piazza

The exterior is clad in red brick with large bands of Portland stone. The tympanum above the west doors is decorated with an Italian mosaic, preparing the visitor for what is to be seen inside, while the large tripartite semicircular window above is of Byzantine inspiration. The campanile, similar to that of Siena Cathedral, is placed asymmetrically above the first bay of the north range of chapels. With a hight of 87m, it stand in its slender simplicity as a beacon, signalling a sacred presence among the disarray of Late Victorian, Postmodern and High-Tech buildings surrounding it.

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Westminster Cathedral, approach from Ashley Place

What makes the cathedral most remarkable in its originality and modernity is the Byzantine adaptation of an Italian plan. It consists of a narthex, a central nave covered by a domical vault with three bays and narrow low aisles with high galleries above, flanked by low chapels, little higher than the aisles; a fourth domed bay covers the raised sanctuary where the emphasis falls on the high altar. The architect designed the baldachino to mirror the building’s vaults, thus accentuating the perspective and creating the impression of a church within a church. The large circular apse behind the altar, in the style of the first Christian churches, houses the choir and greatly amplifies the sound of Gregorian chants.

The narthex is narrow and obscure, leading into the three domed nave which is by contrast impressive in its spaciousness and solemnity. The cavernous interior reminds one of the mystery of creation. Although the architect intended to cover all surfaces in marble and mosaics, the bare, rough brickwork of the (unfinished) vaults emphasises the robust geometry and the vast curves of the domes, giving the space a primeval grandeur.  Due to the orientation and fenestration of the building, the light intensity increases as one walks through towards the sanctuary, paralleling the journey undertaken form sinfulness to holiness. The small, unadorned windows around the altar allow morning light to create wonderful effects, transforming the golden baldachino into a glowing canopy.

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Westminster Cathedral, interior, baldachino

The process of internal decoration, which started only after the main structure of the building was complete, is still ongoing. The various colours and patterns of the Italian marbles are a splendid and dignified architectural enrichment while the intricate mosaics give the cathedral an Early Christian feel.

Despite its unfinished state, this monumental church, boldly massed and with dark, cavernous spaces is remarkable through its power to impress upon visitors’ imagination. Valuable not only for its architectural merits but also for the splendid works of art which enrich its interior, it represents a wonderful, bold response in a time marked by a confusion of architectural styles and lack of direction.

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Westminster Cathedral, west doors.     All photos by author.

Bibliography

1. Heathcote, E., Moffatt, L. (2007). Contemporary church architecture. Chichester: Wiley-Academy.

2. Pevsner, N., Metcalf P. (1985). The Cathedrals of England. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

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