Tuesday, June 23, 2015



It was a long time ago. An open door seemed to promise cool shade that hot summer. I remember the silence. The streets outside, with their endless tiny terraced houses, were quiet too, the ironworks silent, and the canal and boatyard nearby inactive. I think I recall a lingering smell of incense. I'm sure I remember the light and the dark – bits of painting and gilding gleamed and pale arches shone between a dark floor and brown roof timbers high above those arches and above tall windows. I remember rows of saints and the sense that this was something different – different from the run of austere nonconformist chapels and whitewashed Anglican churches I'd experienced, more colourful and lively than the pale pointed arches of cathedrals like Salisbury and Winchester that I'd been admiring not long before. I remember thinking that these round arches were somehow distinct from the ones (Norman) that I'd previously seen in parish churches. I'd not been to Italy yet, but I knew what a campanile was and that the tower of this church resembled one: square, tall, narrow, large-windowed, roofed with a pyramid. Italy. Yes, that must be what was behind this cavernous, apse-ended space with its rows of saints and its altar canopy and its rather dark east end, where hanging things and candlesticks and the pinnacles of the altar canopy glowed in the gloom.

Passing St Barnabas, Oxford, again the other day, I was delighted to find that the neighbourhood was still almost silent and that the door was open – the cleaners were finishing their work and gave me a few minutes to look again at this glowing interior while they finished and packed up their mops and brooms. Sir Arthur Blomfield’s Romanesque basilica of 1869–72 is almost exactly as I remember it from the 1970s, except that the dark floor has been renewed with paler material. There are still mosaics of saints and prophets to admire, a glorious painted and gilded pulpit, and proportions that recall the churches of Ravenna, a place I’ve visited twice since I first encountered St Barnabas. But the details of this Oxford church, such as the artfully shaped tiles that make up the mosaics above the arcades, are English, and all its own. A David with long, string-plucking fingers, a St John the Baptist with eyes that (with apologies to the ghosts of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore) seem to follow one round the room, tussocky ground, and a scaly, layered palm tree trunk. Here’s to St Barnabas, jewel of the Romanesque revival, Italianate oasis, citadel of quiet.

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Top picture by Kaihsu Tai, used under Creative Commons license 
Other pictures by Philip Wilkinson, as usual


Hels said...

Very different indeed from the austere nonconformist chapels and whitewashed Anglican churches! So I am assuming it was not built as a Catholic Church in 1865 and remained intact. Rather we have to ask why the mosaic saints, prophets and palm trees were commissioned for an Anglican church. I do not sure what an Anglo-Catholic ceremonial even means.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Golly Hels! You have opened the Anglo-Catholic can of worms! Briefly, the Anglican Church can adopt some of the features of Catholicism when it wants to, and often did in the 19th century. Especially in Oxford. I had better do another post about this soon.

Joe Treasure said...

Beautifully evocative piece about a place remembered and revisited. I'll look out for when you're ready to wield the Anglo-Catholic wormcan-opener.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Joe: Thank you. The promised Anglo-Catholic post will come, I hope. What has happened to it is the story of my working (or non-working) life. I resolve to write something, so I tell myself I should read something first. So yesterday I picked up, and began to read, slowly, Geoffrey Faber's study of the Oxford Movement. And no blog post.

A wormcan-opener: a coinage too good to be used only in a blog comment. Another resolution: recycle the good bits - descriptions, aperçus, coinages.