In Pursuit of Beauty: Little St. Mary’s

Matti Thal 29 January 2019
Image credit: Flickr

Sir Simon Jenkins, in his canonical and ever engaging tome, England’s Thousand Best Churches, dismisses the parish centres of Cambridge as “disappointing, as if cowering beneath the single splendour of King’s College Chapel”. Such a description is grossly unfair. Rather, Cambridge has, amongst the cultivated glory of its Colleges, a secondary treasure: a charming myriad of Churches of great range and antiquity, which provide not only endless pleasure for the eye and interest for the mind, but also outposts of peacefulness in the infernally busy world of the modern student. Over the course of the term, this series of monographs will attempt to do justice to these holy buildings. Hopefully it shall describe them in such a way as to generate interest; that vital abstract which will guarantee their survival and protection for another generation. Many churches, devoid of the thronging congregations they once commanded, are now sustained only by generosity. May these depictions serve to show that even when empty, they hold alongside a stubborn vitality and unworldly serenity, a remarkable collection of art and architectural beauty, which are worth preserving.

Little St Mary’s is an appropriate place to find a genesis. For, it was in this otherwise unassuming building, tucked away off Trumpington Street, that scholars who had fled Merton College Oxford after an argument, first found sanctuary. It was formally passed over to their use in 1284. And so, Cambridge’s oldest College, Peterhouse, came into being. It was rebuilt by them in 1352, and that same slightly portly structure stands solid today.

Approaching the church from the street, the eye is first drawn by the empty pedestals in the wall facing out towards the road. Worn smooth by centuries of wind and rain, they give a hint of antiquity. But, more than this, the forces of nature have awarded to the carved stone an organic quality, more mountain face than wall, which make it seem as if the building has risen out of the ground at the command of heaven rather than being hewn by the hand of man. Meanwhile, their emptiness serves to remind either of the intangible state of the divine, as if some empty temple out of Jewish symbolism, or of the Puritanical forces of destruction which likely left them so unadorned.

Within, a craned neck allows the wood-beamed ceiling to be admired, whose dark corners recall the gloom of an evening sky. A triplet of angels bearing the painted crests of local notaries hold tight to the beams at the east end; a celestial host for us to admire and aim at, while fixed permanently below. Underneath lies the High Altar, in the resplendent finery which was characteristic of the last gasp of the Oxford Movement. At its four corners stand upon red and golden gilt poles, four gleaming angelic candle-bearers. In the shadows, their forms can become hazy, and their outstretched wings appear so readied, that you might not be surprised to find them flutter from their attentive positions. Upon the altar itself, six towering silver candles rear up like sentinels, straight-backed and ever-present, the guards of the mysteries of the eucharist. In the middle of these the crucifix, again in silver, bears the weight of a golden Christ. His finely wrought details glisten in the last sloping light tumbling down in diverse colours from the stained glass. On the cloth, a pattern of interweaving and flowering exotic plants is laid out four times. It appears regal, in tones of red, gold and yellow, like a coat of arms belonging to the family of some high-ranking colonial official. But with its almost rococo use of natural patterns, it has an exuberance and a joy which both celebrates the ordered wonder of heavenly creation and suggests its delicious bounty. Altogether, the altar is the work of Sir Ninian Compers, who would leave linen to bleach for months under the beating sun of a Mediterranean beach, until it had faded to the precise shade he had envisioned. “Incomparable”, the poet, Sir John Betjeman, commented. I am inclined to agree.

Another pleasing feature is the wood carved pulpit. Something of an architectural curiosity, it marks the only obvious feature of the church which was added between the Reformation and the Tractarians. Amongst the various Victorious additions, it is rather like coming unexpectedly upon a paragraph of Austen in the middle of a chapter of Dickens. Its neat geometry and lack of naturalistic stylisation give the viewer all the bitter flavours of classicism and enlightenment; few other hexagons make a case for the supremacy of the verbal over the symbolic in quite the same way.

Turning on the heel and marching to the West end, it is impossible not to admire the fine wood carved reredos, the work of the younger George Gilbert Scott, known for his masterpiece, the Roman Catholic cathedral in Norwich. Here, he has charged a panel of oak with all the fervent piety he was able to muster. Each figure reaches out to the viewer from its wooden containment with a face of dignified and pure nobility, innocent and unworn by care. Particularly satisfying is the drapery of their togas, whose very addition, by covering the bodies, forces a focus back to those wooden faces. The neo-gothic mind was an absent one; it was the sort of faith firmly rooted in the other world. Scott’s great achievement is to imbue this unworldliness into his art – we almost dare not touch the images lest their perfection disintegrates.

Out in the garden is a final joy. The graveyard is both carefully kept and left to grow to almost the ideal extent. The viewer is simultaneously convinced that nature has neither been moulded or abused, nor left to run wild. Its proportions are intensely human; each path is thin and winding, each tree stout, not towering. A brief walk amongst these leads to the discovery of a rusted trimmer and small millstone. Both are tools for human hands; nothing here is mighty or imposes upon us. Indeed, enclosed on all sides by buildings of some age, the garden stubbornly refuses to obey the commands of time. In this way, it liberates from the present and takes all fear out of the grave stones. Perhaps, amid a maddening midweek afternoon, it might be worth a visit.