Glories in Gold & Glass

St. Paul's Cathedral

The Mosaics of St Paul's Cathedral

Glittering, colourful, and intricate mosaics decorate the walls of St Paul's cathedral...

They are like the sparkling jewels in the crown of this extraordinary building.

But it wasn't always this way...

The Early Days
When St Paul's was completed in 1710 plain walls and simple elegant carving predominated. 

It was the first cathedral planned after the Reformation of the Church in England.

The violent and iconoclastic transition from Roman Catholicism and the debate over the reformed faith which followed were tumultuous and the Cathedral rose at a time of heightened sensitivity to the confluence of art and religion.

By the middle of the nineteenth century the cathedral was felt to be in need of brightening up!

Queen Victoria complained that the building had become "dark, dingy and undevotional". Her sentiments coincided with a movement within the Church of England to embellish churches with decoration, which had been avoided since the Reformation.

Introducing Colour
It was argued that Wren had been unable to finish his intentions for the interior of St Paul's and that, according the account of his son, he had favoured the use of mosaic to decorate inside the dome.

Alfred Stevens was the first, in a long list of British artists, to tackle what was termed "completing the decoration". Stevens developed a model to display his proposal.

But Stevens' design for the dome and several proposals by other artists which followed were not thought appropriate and were rejected...

Instead, the v-shaped spandrels beneath the dome became the focus of attention and Stevens' design for Isaiah was the first of these to be executed in about 1864.

The Quire
By the end of the nineteenth century William Blake Richmond had been identified as the artist whom the cathedral decoration committee wished to commission to design mosaics for the Quire. 

The scheme he produced was astounding in its scope and ambition.

The ceilings of the Quire, its walls and aisles were to be encrusted with millions of tesserae made of coloured glass and gold leaf.

The imagery he proposed drew on classical cultures as well as traditional Christian iconography.

Preliminary Work
After travelling Europe to study mosaic style, iconography and the materials and techniques employed in making mosaics, William Blake Richmond set about his designs. 

He created architectural models and painted a cartoon for each mosaic. Many of these art works remain in the Cathedral Collections.

Mosaicists At Work
The first mosaics were created as panels in Richmond's workshop before being installed in the cathedral. For the majority however, Wren's stonework was cut away and a red base layer to hold the tesserae was put in place. While the layer was still wet the design was quickly marked up and the mosaicists, all trained by Richmond, applied the tiny pieces of glass directly to the walls to make up the image.
The Finished Mosaics

Two figures from Greek mythology make a surprising appearance in the mosaic work: Demeter, Goddess of harvest and Orpheus, a poet and prophet who visited and returned from the underworld.

Demeter is shown here with the vines, in an arrangement which echos roman floor mosaics, she was included by Richmond as a pre-figuration of the Virgin Mary.

David, a biblical ancestor of Christ, is one of several Old Testament characters who appear at window level in the Quire. They are shown alongside historical figures believed to have predicted the birth of Christ - among them King Cyrus of Persia. Richmond designed stained glass windows to accompany his mosaic work, but these were lost in the Second World War.

Narrative Scenes
The spaces in the north arch spandrels of the Quire were used creatively by Richmond to depict full length figures of Adam and Eve as they experience The Temptation and subsequent Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. 

Adam looks askance as a sly devil whispers to Eve.

The departure from Paradise is observed by St Michael, leaning on his sword. The postures of Adam and Eve as they leave, emphasises the utter dejection they feel at the calamity that has befallen them.

The Annunciation
The south walls of the Quire were decorated with scenes from the New Testament. Richmond used bright colours appropriate to the revelation of a new hope established by the annunciation to Mary that she would conceive and be the mother of Christ. 

This message of salvation, delivered by the angel Gabriel, is deliberately placed opposite to The Fall of Adam and Eve.

The Risen Christ
The focus of the whole mosaic scheme in the Quire is The Risen Christ in Glory at the east end. 

Taking his inspiration from the Book of Revelation, Richmond depicts Christ triumphant, his arms raised in blessing. He is flanked by recording angels who have lists of the actions, events and prayers of each individual.

The Creation
The ceiling of the cathedral Quire provides an extraordinary vision of The Creation. From west to east, the saucer domes show...

...The Creation of the Beasts

...The Creation of the Fishes

...and the Creation of the Birds. Each of the creatures can be identified as a particular species.

Richmond was most proud of The Creation of the Fishes in the central saucer dome. He uses mosaic work to masterful effect creating a turbulent, frothing sea populated with lithe and fearsome fishes.

St. Paul's Cathedral
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