Westminster Abbey, Sanctum of Solace | Daily News

Westminster Abbey, Sanctum of Solace

The High Altar
The High Altar

"One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life” - Psalm 27, The Bible

This week there has been much focus on Westminster Abbey, as it is the venue for the funeral service of HM Queen Elizabeth II. It is time for us to understand the history and religious significance of this awe inspiring house of Almighty God. This sacred sanctuary has witnessed the victories and vicissitudes of the British Empire. England is embellished with many cathedrals and churches. An architectural masterpiece of the 13th to 16th Centuries, Westminster Abbey also presents a unique pageant of British history – the shrine of St Edward the Confessor, the tombs of kings and queens, and countless memorials to the famous and the great. In this respect Westminster Abbey stands alone amongst the buildings of the world. There are some which surpass it in beauty or grandeur; there are others which surpass it in depth and sublimity of association; but there is none which has been entwined by so many continuous threads with the history of a whole nation.

It has been the setting for every Coronation since 1066 and for numerous other royal occasions, including sixteen royal weddings. Benedictine monks founded Westminster Abbey in 960 AD which continues to be the coronation church since 1066 and is the final resting place of 17 monarchs. The church we see today was begun by Henry III in 1245. It’s one of the most important Gothic buildings in the country and has the medieval shrine of an Anglo-Saxon saint at its heart. There are 30 kings and queens buried in the Abbey, the first of whom was Edward the Confessor whose magnificent shrine stands at the centre of the church. In the 23rd Psalm we recall the words –‘Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and staff, they comfort me’.

The Thames is the parent of London. The chief river of England has, by a natural consequence, secured for its chief city that supremacy over all the other towns which have at various times claimed to be the seats of sovereignty in England- York, Canterbury, and Winchester. Next comes King Lucius, the legendary founder of the originals of St. Peter's Church, Cornhill, Gloucester, Canterbury, Dover, Bangor, Glastonbury, Cambridge and Winchester. It was he who is said to have converted the two London temples into churches. The idea of a regal Abbey on a hitherto unexampled scale may have been suggested by the accounts brought back to the king about Reims in France, where his envoys had been present at the consecration of the Abbey of St. Remy -Basilica of Saint Remi- the cathedral in which the French kings were crowned.

Westminster Abbey

Today this massive church stands as a glorious sentinel of the Anglican Church, dedicated to regular worship and to the celebration of great events in the life of the nation. Neither a cathedral nor a parish church, Westminster Abbey (the Collegiate Church of St Peter, Westminster) is a “Royal Peculiar” under the jurisdiction of a Dean and Chapter, subject only to the Sovereign and not to any Bishop.

Exploring its deep history I was surprised to learn there are around 3,300 burials in the church and cloisters and many more memorials. The Abbey also contains over 600 monuments, and wall tablets – the most varied collection of monumental sculpture anywhere in the United Kingdom. Notable among the burials is the Unknown Warrior, whose grave, close to the West door, has become a place of pilgrimage. Heads of State who are visiting the country observe the custom of laying a wreath at this grave.

Every monarch since William the Conqueror has been crowned in the Abbey, with the exception of Edward V and Edward VIII (who abdicated) who were never crowned. The ancient Coronation Chair can still be seen in the church. It was natural that Henry III should wish to translate the body of the saintly Edward the Confessor into a more magnificent tomb behind the High Altar in his new church. This shrine survives and around it are buried a cluster of medieval kings and their consorts including Henry III. The late Queen’s regal coronation and her opulent wedding to Prince Philip in 1947 was blessed and witnessed in the magnificent Westminster Abbey, which has seen many royal occasions.

The 13th Century Westminster Retable is England's oldest altarpiece. It was most probably designed for the High Altar of the Abbey. It is made of solid English Oak which has endured for centuries. The Panel includes an image of St Peter, the patron saint of Westminster Abbey, holding the key of Heaven, four small medallions depicting the Miracles of Christ - the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the healing of the blind man, the feeding of the multitude of about 5,000 and another totally defaced subject).The full length figures in the centre depicting Christ holding a globe of the world, flanked by the Blessed Virgin Mary holding a palm, and St John the Evangelist. These images from the Holy Bible are meant to inspire faith in Jesus Christ, and about his ability to transform our lives. Miracles will happen when we trust the divine, totally.

The most important wall paintings in the Abbey are from the late 13th Century i.e. the figure of St Faith in her chapel and the figures of Christ with St Thomas and St Christopher in the South transept. The series of 14th Century paintings of the Apocalypse and the Last Judgement in the Chapter House are the most extensive. The Incredulity of St Thomas is painted on a vermilion ground, diapered with fleurs de lys which were once gold, as was the cross, that Christ holds in his left hand. With his right he grasps the hand of the kneeling St Thomas to put it against the wound in his side and dispel the doubt of the disciple. Christ wears a pink coloured mantle and the apostle, whose faith is renewed, wears a pale yellow tunic and dark green over-mantle.

Cosmati pavements are usually associated with Italy, but two of the most important ones are to be found in Westminster Abbey in London. They are both unusual and important in the history of England. The Great Pavement of Westminster Abbey was laid down by Italian craftsmen in 1268 for Henry III. This type of stone--work is described in architectural terms by the Roman name ‘opus sectile'. The Cosmati were a family of decorative stone masons living in Rome in the 12th Century who established this captivating and beautiful method of paving.

A remarkable new addition to the Abbey was the glorious Lady Chapel built by King Henry VII, first of the Tudor monarchs, which now bears his name. This has a spectacular vaulted roof and the craftsmanship of Italian sculptor Pietro Torrigiano can be seen in Henry's fine tomb. The chapel was consecrated on February 19, 1516. Since 1725, it has been associated with the Most Honourable Order of the Bath and the banners of the current Knights Grand Cross surround the walls.

Two centuries later a further addition was made to the Abbey when the Western towers (left unfinished from medieval times) were completed in 1745, to a design by Nicholas Hawksmoor. Little remains of the original medieval stained glass, once one of the Abbey's chief glories. Some 13th Century panels can be seen in the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Galleries. The great West window and the rose window in the North transept date from the early 18th Century. It is said the remainder of the glass is from the 19th Century onwards. The newest stained glass is in The Queen Elizabeth II window, designed by David Hockney.

For many years, the triforium was essentially Westminster’s attic, used as storage space or as a spillover viewing gallery for coronations (one ticket, found during the renovation and now part of the display, was from the 1702 coronation of Queen Anne).

Since its foundation in the late 14th Century when the Abbey was a Benedictine monastery, the Choir’s primary purpose has been the rendition of hymns at the daily services. In addition, it also plays a central role in the many royal, State and national occasions which take place at Westminster Abbey. The amazing Abbey will remain as a radiant beacon of faith and hope for centuries to come. 

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