In Pursuit of Beauty: All Saint’s

Matti Thal 5 March 2019
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“Pale marble chiselled by the skilful hand, silent, thou speakest as in human form”

             – G.F. Bodley

The spire of All Saint’s Church on Jesus Lane is the second tallest in Cambridge. Should you approach from the village of Fen Ditton in the East, its steeple is your first reassuring sign of the town, standing tall over the meadows and Jesus Green, before hiding amidst the line of trees as you draw closer. This steeple and the church which it stands atop were the products of the powerful mind of George Frederick Bodley, who himself had been trained by the great George Gilbert Scott. Indeed, on account of its unusual height, the church seems to have been pulled up out of the ground, soaring above the street like a mountain perched amidst a plain. Around this, the structure is adorned with the usual carved frivolities of the neo-gothic: gargoyles, strange beasts and other creatures which must have haunted the medieval mind. Indeed, it is easy to forget just how modern this church is, consecrated in the winter of 1864.

Nonetheless, a sense of modernity can be found within. The decoration of the interior was carried out by a coterie of pre-Raphaelites, whose archaic, intense conception of art has left its mark on every surface. Most striking of all are the walls, whose swirling naturalistic patterns award to the space an oriental quality, hinting at the ever-repeating shapes and symbols of Islamic design. A light green around the lower sections of the wall gives way to dark green above. Over these colours are templated an array of leaves and stems amongst the outlines of exotic fruits. On another side, a chaos of roses twists and intertwines amongst itself, above which, red waves are pierced by berries and interspersed with the white stencilled initials of Christ. This red patterning continues amongst the wooden beams of the vault overhead, wheat and other cereals now forming the white shapes overlaid. But up here, where necks are strained to view, the holy monograms are marked out in black, predominating the surrounding nature.

Despite the lustre of the walls, the best-known feature of the church is the magnificent stained-glass window behind the altar. The creative effort was shared on the part of Burne-Jones, Morris and Madox Brown, who have imbued the glass with a childlike innocence. The figures are formed of simple shapes; the products of an imagination which instinctively seeks to solidify. Bright and bold on their apparel are a palette of colours whose virtue is their lack of subtlety: blues, greens, purples, golds and pure whites. The consistency creates a unity whose effect startles. Not found here is the repetitive medievalism that can sometimes harm a Victorian church and leave it mundane and bland, begging for originality. Rather, we are given something new; a bold simplistic style which returns to those hackneyed biblical men something of their vitality. Were John the Baptist, St Peter or Elijah ever so vivid and real in life? It is almost as if the light of the sun animates each character, who now glow eternally as they might in heaven. Yet, so recognisable are their stories and actions, that the mind, grasping on familiarity, can trick itself into acting them out. And so, the instinct rises to turn back to the coloured glass, and check its images are still frozen between their iron bars.

The other man whose genius is scattered around the church is Wyndham Hope Hughes. Two sides of Hughes’ art reveal themselves, one on the painted panels of the pulpit and the other high above the chancel. On the pulpit, the figures of Saint Peter, Saint John and perhaps Saint John Chrysostom are painted with purposeful energy. All appear garbed in their stereotyped clothing: the ancient saints in tunics and barefooted, the bishop in the regalia of the early church. But their faces, bely their age. For those heads are undoubtedly Victorian, rich with the authority of sturdy agedness, assured with that strange new piety which built England’s poorhouses and adorned the centres of its towns and cities with towering carved stone. They are the faces of the schoolmaster and the churchwarden, the bank clerk and the factory owner, men who did things; men who seem even now on the brink of reprimanding us, while demanding our respect. It is this element of the Victorian spirit which Hughes has sanctified, giving it a golden halo and gold inlaid background. Nonetheless, the other product of his brush in sight is strikingly different. Sitting far above the wooden carved rude screen and its glorious, gold-coated and richly ornate cross, the tempera sprawls across the patch of stonework provided for it. In the centre sits Christ enthroned, one hand raised in benediction, the other lain aside, palm outstretched in governance. Beside him, Mary and Saint John kneel in prayer, flanked themselves by a thronging red-winged host of adoring angels. In style, it follows from the pre-Raphaelite window rather than the gothic. Its flatness is reminiscent of medieval Italian painting, but the joy taken once again in bright colours and simple sturdy forms seem altogether modern. Unlike the figures on the pulpit they are not recognisable. Set in heaven, perhaps they rightly have reasserted some denial of worldly form.

All Saint’s Church has hopefully been shown, even in so brief a span of words, to be one of Cambridge’s most forgotten treasures. Lying almost constantly dormant opposite the main gate of Jesus, it is kept open solely through the voluntary efforts of the Churches Conservation Trust, in spite of holding such a unique insight into a stage of development in English art and the English mind. Sparing an afternoon to visit ought to be considered essential.