|The Chapel of St George and the English Martyrs|
taken a few days ago
The work being carried out involves cleaning the chapel's walls and vaulted roof, rewiring some electrics and also completing its marble frieze. Once all of this has been done, it seems that the Chapel of St George will be the next section of Westminster Cathedral to have its mosaic scheme completed.
Those who are familiar with the Chapel of St George and the English Martyrs know that its altarpiece - which displays Christ the King Crucified surrounded by St Thomas More and St John Fisher - is by Eric Gill, who also carved the Cathedral's magnificent Stations of the Cross. Gill is now much maligned, and rightly so, for his personal sins - many of which were truly heinous. Yet, he remains one of England's finest artists. He is also considered to be the major founder of the influential Arts and Crafts movement.
|The More Family (1592) by Lockey, Nostell Priory|
(source: Wikimedia Commons - in the public domain)
Owing pet monkeys seemed to have been a popular status symbol in 16th century England. Even monarchs kept them. Henry Tudor's monkey once famously destroyed the king's obsessively paranoid notes on his supposed enemies - much to the delight of those at Court who were often unfairly suspected of disloyalty!
Gill had intended the monkey in his altarpiece for Westminster Cathedral to be a symbol of worldly temptation, as well as a true representation of More's own love of animals. He also seemed to have wanted the ape to remind the viewer of man's lowliness. The windows and walls of Christian churches have often displayed animals together with saints, especially those known for their gentleness and humility - i.e. St Francis is nearly always portrayed with birds or other creatures. In that sense, Eric Gill was attempting to explore, in a rather traditional way, the zoological iconography often associated with Catholic saints.
Sadly, though, St Thomas' monkey was removed before the altarpiece was set into place in 1947. Although Eric Gill had carved the spritely creature before he died in November 1940, it had disappeared by the time the Cathedral was able at last to go ahead with those decorative projects that had been planned before the War.
Where had the monkey gone?
I'll leave it to Westminster Cathedral's historian, Patrick Rogers, to answer that question. Writing about the strange episode of the missing monkey in his book Westminster Cathedral: from Darkness to Light (Burns & Oates, Continuum 2003), he says: -
"It was when [the altarpiece] was revealed to the public that the controversy started - for the monkey had been removed. Although Cardinal Hinsley's art committee had approved the design (including the monkey) in 1938-9, the committee had lapsed with the war and Hinsley had been succeeded by Cardinal Griffin in 1943. Griffin was given a private viewing. He saw the monkey, didn't like it and ordered it to be removed.
Then the storm broke out. The Catholic Herald received a very large number of letters on the subject, some of them unpublishable. They revealed that no one had been consulted before the Cardinal's decision - neither Mary Gill (Eric's widow and executor), nor the Cathedral architect, nor even Laurie Cribb [Gill's assistant], who was putting the finishing touches to the carving in situ. Mary Gill subsequently expressed her consternation, pointing out that the altarpiece had not been fully paid for and she would not have parted with it had its fate in the Cathedral been known."
|The Chapel of St George and the English Martyrs, Westminster Cathedral|
The red circle marks the spot where the monkey once was.
(source: Wikimedia Commons - image released into the public domain)
Of course, some (a total of two) wrote to the Catholic Herald in defence of Cardinal Bernard Griffin's decision. One person suggested that having an image of a monkey in a religious building was inappropriate as it might make people smile. This, the correspondent went on to note, should not be encouraged whilst gazing upon the Crucifixion. Another supporter of the Cardinal's was a Cathedral priest, Fr Arthur Rivers. Probably writing with Griffin's tacit support, and therefore representing the Cardinal's reasons for removing the monkey, Rivers argued that Gill's ape seemed to imply a belief in evolution - a scientific theory that many Catholics were still uncomfortable with at the time.
This is part of what Arthur Rivers wrote: "Whilst [the monkey] possessed the limbs of its kind, it had no tail, and its head and torso were those of a boy. It was also to be noted that its arms were raised - apparently in prayer - towards the Figure on the Cross." He went on to argue that keeping the ape "would have achieved little more than a series of distractions, revolutionary and evolutionary." Within a year of writing his letter to the Catholic Herald, Rivers had been promoted and was appointed the Diocese of Westminster's Financial Secretary. It is probably fair to speculate that Cardinal Griffin was pleased with Fr River's act of loyalty and wished to reward it.
Although, Cardinal Griffin may have had good reasons for removing St Thomas More's monkey, I fear his actions reflect the sometimes draconian nature of authority - even within the Church. It also revealed a certain arrogance on his part, especially when most art historians would agree that images of animals have always been found in church buildings - from the very earliest times. It seems, then, that ecclesiastical vandalism was with us well before the Second Vatican Council. But was Griffin's erasing of monkey a good or bad thing to have done?
Those who visit Westminster Cathedral to venerate the relics of St John Southworth may be wondering where to find him now that the chapel where his body usually lies is closed to the public. As the photo below shows, St John is now being temporarily housed in the Chapel of the Holy Souls - next to St George's.