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A place apart by David Billingsley

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry

The crafting of architecture is achieved through how materials are used, how they enhance the manipulation of space and crucially how they are interwoven with history.

One place where such purposeful shaping can be appreciated in detail is the chapel of the College of All Souls of the Faithful Departed in Oxford. To experience this unique space made of harmoniously assembled materials you must be willing to put yourself out a little. Between 2 and 4 in the afternoon on a designated week day when the college is open you may enter the chapel by leaving the High Street, stepping up past the porters’ lodge, walking around the edge of the front quadrangle and then moving though a narrow fan vaulted corridor to arrive at an ancient panelled door. This modest fifteenth-century vestibule gives little intimation of the lofty perpendicular Gothic interior which confronts and uplifts the visitor.

The chapel has an external form dominating the whole north side of the front quadrangle, yet this is in essence only a casing for an extraordinary coupled internal space built in the shape of an inverted ‘T’ and composed of subtly fine materials. These are almost all exquisitely cut and assembled.

Constructed for prayerful reflection on the actions and intentions of those who had died in the Hundred Years War the chapel was commissioned as an act of piety in 1438 by Henry VI and Henry Chichele ( Archbishop of Canterbury and fellow of New College Oxford). Within three years the primary elements of the college including the shell of the chapel had been completed. We know the patrons’ intentions but what was it that directed the work of their stonemasons, joiners and glass makers?

There is no nave. There are just the two interlocking spaces within the chapel; the one set at 90 degrees to the other. The first is a barn like stone box with a worn stone floor of irregular slabs, smoothly cut walls and above these the original fifteenth century hammer-beam timber roof. The walls are lined with multifarious stone memorials to generations of fellows of the college; some still famous today and others now almost forgotten.

Until the 1540s this spacious antechapel would have included six side-altars, all ripped out during the Protestant Reformation in the reign of Edward VI. It is lit by some fine clear and coloured fifteenth-century glass depicting female saints at high level. There are otherwise just a few chairs. This is a place for the uninitiated to contemplate the achievements of the initiated. It is also a place of flourishing creativity that has overcome violent assault and battery.

You stand or sit and look around you in this antechapel and then glance through a monumental baroque screen at what is beyond. This black and gold visor of painted timber emphatically separates the antechapel from the chancel and the choir: Who would dare cross that screened and gated threshold uninvited? Designed by James Thornhill in 1716, this screen replaced an earlier version of 1664 attributed to Wren and was restored and re-gilded in the late twentieth century.

Beyond the screen all is embellishment and complexity: vibrant coloured glass disseminating natural light from two directions, an exuberant vault and a vast plethora of sculptured figures in stone which more than simply cladding the east end of the chapel imbue it with an inhabited vitality. Who made those carvings, that screen and the glass through which the sanctuary is illuminated?
Many related questions suggest themselves to the visitor: Where did the stone used here come from? Who cut it and how was it set out? Where was the timber felled for this screen separating the two parts of the chapel? Who cut it to shape and planed, chiselled and smoothed it so that the lustrous painted decoration could be applied? What was on the site before the chapel was built? Was everything that was there before the construction of what we see today taken away? How much has been moved, removed, restored or added to over the centuries?

We know the medieval reredos to the east end of the sanctuary was first carved in 1447, but all is not as it first seems. Within the niches behind some of the figures traces are just visible of the original medieval colouring. These niches contain statues of saints, bishops, benefactors and monarchs standing in full relief. The figures are arranged in rows on either side of a Crucifixion scene and all stand below a Last Judgement set high up under the roof. The original sculptures were destroyed by iconoclasts in the Reformation of the 1540s and the reredos was then covered in plaster that was only removed in 1870. All the statues we see today were actually carved and repositioned in the nineteenth century after restoration work by Gilbert Scott.

The virtuoso joinery of the inner chancel to the Chapel is exemplified by its complete set of original fifteenth-century misericords that lie in waiting under the wooden seats of the fellows’ stalls. Among the 42 carvings to be found there are many extraordinary figures, some sedate and others lively, grotesque and fantastical.

The contrast between the austere, almost Cistercian calm of the ante chapel and the flamboyant ornamentation of the choir sanctuary is made emphatic through the carving, modelling and placement of carefully chosen materials. The drama of this contrast has been further heightened by the unpredictable impact of historical events. Unifying the two spaces is the multitude of wooden angels that adorn the ends of the over-sailing hammer beams who owe their current brilliance to Scott’s restoration and a late twentieth century re-gilding.
At 4pm the passage of sunlight on Wren’s sundial on the wall of the Codrington Library in the adjacent Great Quadrangle silently resonates with a college clock. The time has come to leave. The chapel records the marks of craftsmen and the footsteps of history makers. Given your time and an inquisitive interest it may also leave a beneficial imprint on you.

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