Mosaics in the Quire

Explore St Paul's Cathedral - Virtual Tour

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The mosaics which cover the roof surfaces of the east end of the Cathedral were planned by W.B. (later Sir William) Richmond, who, immediately after being commissioned in 1891, left for Italy, to study the art of mosaic work there.

The overriding theme of the mosaics is the redemption of mankind through the death of Christ on the Cross, and as originally conceived it reached its climax with the monumental crucifix which stood above the late-nineteenth century reredos,

above which Richmond's mosaic image of the Risen Christ in glory, seated between the Recording Angels, as described in the Book of Revelations, raised his hands in blessing.

Following the destruction of the old altar in World War II, and the construction of the present baldacchino, this sequence is not quite so evident.

Richmond chose to abandon the flat surface of mosaicists like Salviati, in favour of a more vibrant treatment, based on the use of jagged, irregular glass, set at angles to the plaster, so that it would catch the light. He chose this approach after studying Byzantine and early Christian work in Ravenna, Monreale and Rome.

Richmond quickly learnt that the effect of such work could only be judged in situ, and as a result, these mosaics were made at St Paul's itself.

The tesserae all cut from enormous sheets of specially made glass amount to nearly a million, and the final cost of the scheme was £78,000 at the value of the 1890's.

The Angels of the Pendentives - that is, the figures with outstretched arms which stand beneath the saucer-domes - represent the 'morning stars of the creation, the first sons of God', in the words of the Book of Job, Chapter 38. They are twelve in number, and each have individual differences. Those in the centre pendentives have words from Psalm 148, the Benedicite. This one, for example, translates as: Fire and Hail, snow and ice, wind and storm, praise ye the Lord, while the four western angels bear verses from Psalm 104.

The three saucer-domes of the Quire ceiling depict the creation of the beasts...

(elephants, lions and other creatures walking amidst palm trees), the fishes and the birds nearest the altar.

At a lower level than this, other subjects include prophets of the coming of Christ, such as the Persian and the Delphic Sibyl. These famous prophetic traditions of the Ancient world had, it was claimed by the early Christians, foretold the coming of Christ, the Delphic Sibyl being reputed to have pronounced: 'The prophet born of a Virgin shall be crowned with thorns'.

The spandrels on either side of the arches between Quire and Quire Aisles have a decorative scheme related to man's Fall and Redemption. In the middle on the south side Richmond placed the Annunciation, in which the Angel of the Lord occupies the left side, and the virgin the right.

Towards Mary flies a dove, representing the Holy Spirit. Between the two figures, the Latin text gives Mary's words: 'Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it unto me according to Thy word.'

"When the designs were approved Richmond had them enlarged to the exact scale of the space which they would occupy, with every line strongly marked, and then coloured according to the tones of the design and of the tessarae. Most of the several designs so enlarged were exhibited in position in the Cathedral so that their effect might be judged. The enlargement and colouring having been completed, the design was then transferred in pieces of suitable sizes to tracing paper, and handed to the artificers for execution in the tessarae on the cement. The artificers pierced the pattern through the lines with a bradawl on a space of cement affixed to the brickwork of such a size as not to dry up and become hard before the day's work was finished. The debt of the Cathedral to Sir William's scholarly enthusiasm can never be sufficiently acknowledged."
- W.M. Sinclair, 'Memorials of St Paul's Cathedral'