Sunday, October 31, 2010

The High Altar

A painting of the high altar by Karel Verschaeren (1881-1928) in 1915 or early 1916 before the installation of the sanctuary gates and the murals of Walter Starmer, and before the organ was moved from the west end (1934).

The sanctuary lamp was given by the first vicar in February 1912 replacing the earlier lamp (consecrated by the Bishop of London in May 1911) which is now in the Lady Chapel. It is of silver-gilt and (he said) "was fashioned more than 350 years ago, and both in style and size . . . is admirably adapted for our Byzantine building". If this date is correct, it is the oldest item in the possession of the church.

The sanctuary chairs (together with a bishop's chair) were given in September 1912. The large brass candlesticks were given in March 1918 (probably by the same donor). These all remain to this day, unlike the hanging illuminated cross. This was originally in St Olave's, Hanbury Street and was brought to St Jude's in May 1913 after that church had been demolished.

The ambo - or "Lectern in keeping with the Byzantine character of the building" - was designed by H. A. Welch and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1914. It was dedicated by the Bishop of Winchester in April of that year in memory of the Rt Hon. Alfred Lyttelton.

This picture (from a postcard) shows the High altar and choir stalls in their original form. The altar is against the original flat east wall. Behind and above it is a fabric baldachino. The altar has a very high rear-table on which stands short candlesticks and a very high cross (not a crucifix) mounted on a twisted wood pillar (this is now the paschal candle holder). The choir stalls are of a simple design and are positioned further back into the space later occupied by the organ. There are no altar rails and the congregational chairs extend much further east.

Below, two paintings of the high altar in February 1960 by J. P. Offley who was sacristan at St Jude's for many years.

The credence table (to the right) was designed by Lutyens, and was an anonymous gift to the church. It was dedicated by the Bishop of Willesden on 30 May 1912 together with the choir stalls.

The stalls (shown in the first picture) (and later the repositioned organ) actually subvert the 'Byzantine' layout of the church by artificially creating a 'chancel' where there is none. In theory the congregational space comes right up to the sanctuary steps, but has now been pushed (too far) back beyond the 'crossing', presumably because of the pressure to make the church conform to Anglican expectations (see plan).
The brass sanctuary gates were unveiled in July 1916 by Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll, as a memorial to Mrs Cockroft (the probable donor of all the other items mentioned here). These were also designed by H. A. Welch.


The celebrant in this painting is presumably Father William Mansfield Masters (Vicar 1955-1962). He is assisted by a deacon and sub-deacon. The altar frontal and vestments are all still in use (and were indeed used on the day of posting, being All Saints' Sunday).

The high altar from the History of S. Jude-on-the-Hill (1923). Starmer's murals are complete in the Lady Chapel, but his paint brush has yet to reach the sanctuary. All items (and several more) present and correct. The large, brass alms-dish on the credence table was the gift of Mr A. S. Maynard of Montreal, and was dedicated in February 1912. Between 1916 and 1923 the long green curtains behind the altar have been removed, but not yet replaced with the shorter blue ones (themselves removed in about 1998). The altar still has a high back panel.

In recent weeks we have been using the high altar, rather than the new free standing altar. This is in order to accustom the servers (and the Vicar) to celebrating in the 'traditional' manner for the centenary of the consecration next year.


  1. Interesting that the ambo is facing sideways again in the early picture of the high altar....
    and the choir pews were placed in their current situation before the organ
    do you think the choir used to sing from there with the organ at the other end of the church?

    Personally I don't like not being able to see the celebrant during the service - at times like the silence at the end.
    I think it makes you much more distant and aloof.
    It was you that explained that the whole point of the new altar table was to bring you closer to the people and NOT turn your back on the congregation. We have moved a long way back since the days when we used to have an altar table under the dome. What is the purpose of the new altar table which now sits in St John's Chapel? Why are we reverting to how communion was celebrated 100 years ago?

  2. The ambo appears at various different angles in different pictures, reminding us that it is a moveable piece of furniture. I don't think it is actually 'sideways here', but at a kind of angle. It lacks the silver 'lectern, but has an extra wooden piece on the top. I can't think why they would want it at this angle. At the time the readings would all have been done from the altar, so it is hard to think exactly how the ambo was used. Bourchier, however, writes extensively about it as "in keeping with the Byzantine character of the church" which suggests he understood 'what it was for'.

    Maybe the answer is it was just positioned in this way to show off its woodwork in the best light in the painting. We must be careful about taking old pictures as a record of how things actually looked.

    As I say the choir stalls had been installed by early 1912, 20 odd years before the organ was moved. So the actual layout of the church was 'destroyed' almost from the beginning. I think the mistaken perception of what an Anglican church should look like was just too strong. On the other hand this would not have been so apparent when Mattins and Evensong were still thought of as 'main' services.

    We are actually only returning to how things were done at the high altar about six years ago, but without having the celebrant between the choir (with his back to them) and congregation.

    The point is not so much to have the celebrant closer to the people, because that simply depends on the size of the church, but to have them both 'sharing the liturgical action'.

    Actually, as celebrant, I am still 'there' as much as ever except when I am not doing anything - then I am sitting at the side - in other words when attention of the congregation should be elsewhere (ambo or pulpit). When we got the new altar we did say we would abandon or remove the high altar as has been done in many places (we are currently designing a new frontal for it). But the real point is to maintain our familiarity with the traditional manner of celebrating so we can
    'reconstruct' it at the centenary next year. It might also be appropriate to vary the 'style' of liturgy (as we already do) for different seasons of the church's year.

  3. Promenader, I can see where you are coming from, but the desire to create an inclusive atmosphere is, frankly, an irrelevance, compared to the reasons for the 'ad orientem' way of doing things. The point is this: in Western Christianity, church buildings are usually orientated towards the East (well, in St Jude's case, north-east, probably due to the constraints of the site) because it was believed that, at the Second Coming, Christ would appear from the East. The priest was supposed to be the first to welcome Christ with open arms: NOT to have his back to him, more taken up with matters of inclusiveness and political correctness.

  4. Richard

    Thank you for your comments.

    I don't think I have previously come across the specific association between the orientation of churches and a priestly welcoming of Our Lord at His Second Coming (you are not by any chance writing from a Catholic Apostolic perspective?). Rather, I have understood the 'ad orientem' to be more a matter of priest and people together more generally directing worship 'beyond themselves'. As celebrant I certainly experience the ad orientem as more 'worshipful' as I turn to face the crucifix together with my congregation (rather than feeling I am turning my back on them).

    Promenader refers to an earlier period when there was a temporary 'nave' altar in the crossing between the choir and people. An unfortunate result of this was that the choir developed a habit of facing the congregation rather than the altar. Our newer free-standing altar is placed in the large sanctuary.

    Father Alan