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This is Section C:   Planning the Church Building

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Overview of Section C
Section page
The present church of St. Paul’s, Bow Common
86 Overview of section C
C 87-90 What lies within? Some external aspects
C 91-92 Some broad features
C 92-93 General principles of the building
C 93-96 First impressions inside and out
97 Elements of the church
C 98-104 The Church porch and west doors
C 98-101;102-103 The Porch lettering ; a near miss
C 103-107 The Font
C 108-109 The concentric ‘Bounding Layers’ of the church
C 109-110 The colonnade
C 110-113 The processional way
C 114 Seating
C 115-116 A very flexible space
C 116-118 The Sanctuary ~ the ‘Place of Light’
C 118-119 The place of the Altar
C 119-120 The significance of steps
C 121-123 The Altar and ciborium
C 123-125 ‘Inclusive Space’
C 126 The significance of the High Altar
C 122, 127-128 The Standing Space
C 128-132 The chapels
C 133-149 The mosaic of the ‘Heavenly Host’
150-151 References
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So what do we find within the Gates of Heaven?
As seen already in the various views of the church shown already, the building presents many
aspects depending on the viewpoint. I share a frustration
with Maguire’s St. Paul’s Church in Bow Common which
I also have with the vast bulk of Michelangelo’s St. Peter’s
basilica in Rome!
Though not easily confused, one of the glories of each of
these buildings is its dome (or ‘lantern’ in our case). It is
such a striking feature from any distance and makes one
go ‘wow’ when revealed from within. But as you stand
before either building and approach it from the west with
the main doors shut, the nearer you get to the building the
more the ‘dome’ seems to disappear completely! Even
from the pavement in front of St. Paul’s, Bow Common the
lantern has almost no impact; similarly, Michelangelo’s
great dome seems to have disappeared when you look up
from in front of the great rank of steps in front of St. Peter’s
Basilica in Rome!
This aerial view of the church shows why, because even
though a ‘central’ altar is spoken of so often, in fact the
lantern and the High Altar beneath are not truly central but off-set towards the west, and the effect on
visibility of the lantern can be seen on the two views following and on the small scaled plan earlier on.
Actually, this always worked to my advantage when showing visitors the building who had never
been inside it before. I always started from outside the west doors but, because the outside gives
so little away, all one sees is
expanses of featureless brick
with precious little to divert the
eye and, apparently, little in the
way of windows and so one
imagines a dark, bleak, cavern
within – how could it be
otherwise? I have therefore kept
visitors, singly or in groups,
outside in front of the main
doors for too long, just to lead
them to a threshold of boredom!
There is plenty to talk about in
describing what first stood here
and the earlier setting of rhubarb
fields and then stinking factories
when the first church was built
on that spot (see later).
However, people can only take so much! To this point the main doors have been kept quite firmly
closed so that nothing can be guessed of what lies within. Because nothing can be seen of the lantern,
that increases the expectation of a gloomy, stark interior! And then I rumble the doors open and almost
Views of the Lantern from west & east of the church
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without exception there is a sense of shock, an intake of breath and the one most common word (even
uttered by the Duke of York on a visit to the church!), ‘Wow!’
Certainly unintended, the building is extraordinarily ‘theatrical’ in the way in which it reveals
itself. There is a sudden impact of revelation of this vast brick box as filled with light and space
and sheer volume (‘Tardis’ is another word used often by first-timers!) when the main doors are
rumbled back and all that endless prosaic brick gives way suddenly to a mystery of unexpected
spaciousness and shifting patterns of light. Or, there is an even more ‘theatrical’ way in – via the
church porch and then into the space of the building (the ‘intended’ way in), unfolding layer by
layer in an extraordinary parallel/parable of the human journey from darkness to light –
something which I began to perceive after many years there.
The papal gardens in Rome and the vicarage garden in
Bow Common are the place to go to get a real impression
of the extraordinary presence of the ‘dome’ atop each of
these remarkable buildings! Alas, both views are denied
to the general public, but I always made a point of taking
those especially interested in the building itself into the
vicarage garden to show them the very different view of
the lantern which one has from there, with that great
structure set much more towards ones point of view.
There was always a lot of clicking of cameras at this
point and much admiration for the device and its relation
to the rest of the building, seen so much more clearly
from there.
This striking view here taken by Martin Charles before
my time in the parish shows this to great effect. He
should also be credited with the two other views on this
Both the folded-slab undulation of the lower roof line, unbroken on the south side (St. Paul’s Way)
and the literally eccentric placement of the lantern produces a great variety of external aspects to
the building, early ones of which have been shown above and more recent coloured views below.
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A building which, at first sight, might seem to give little reason for a second look, in fact, reveals a
great deal of interest as one views it from different aspects, from the outside. And there can be few
churches with such a striking landscape when seen from the air!
Some of these follow …
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Some of the subtle geometry
of St. Paul’s, Bow Common
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Some broad features …
The earliest ‘guide’ that I have found to the building is in ‘Church Building’ in 1962. In that article
Bob Maguire opens with these words:
6 ‘The place of the assembly:
A church is the place of the assembly of the people of God. It is a holy place consecrated, set apart, for this
purpose. It is this characteristic which distinguishes a church from other places, rather than the things which
are done there in themselves. These two linked ideas—the place of the assembly and the Holy place—
are the basis of the design of St. Paul's. In what follows, we hope to show their influence on many parts
of the design.
The bounding wall.
The 12 ft. high brick wall bounding the church at ground level defines the place of the church. The wall is the most
important element setting the place apart.
The aisle roofs are of “folded slab" construction having a saw-tooth profile, but the top of the wall remains level.
Although quite evidently supporting the roofs the wall can be seen as a clear-cut separate element, containing the space
of the church tautly. Because of this tautness we were able to break the continuity of the wall at the chapels without
losing too much of its enclosing quality.
The West Doors.
The west doors give a good illustration of the way in which the kind of consideration of function which we
have advocated can influence the detailed design of one small part of a building. The doors are intended for
ceremonial entrance—for the bishop, for the bride at weddings, for processions. Normally they are kept closed.
They therefore differ in size, in the way they are placed in the wall, in construction, and in manner of opening,
from the doors of the porch. They are plain boarded doors without any knobs, push-plates or handles (since
they are always to be opened from within) and they roll back on sliding tracks. When closed they form a
continuation of the wall of the church: they are a piece of heavy boarded "wall" set in the brick wall, the same
height as the brick wall and capable of being rolled back in the same plane as the wall. In contrast, the porch
doors have glass between their boards, push-plates, and are pivoted; even when closed they invite entry.’
Gerald Adler, however, witnesses to my ‘breaking’ with Bob Maguire’s convention!
29 ‘The church has three significant breaches of the perimeter wall. The central west door is reserved for
ceremonial use, a distinction found in many parish churches and cathedrals, although the current incumbent,
Duncan Ross, opens the wooden sliding door wide when he wants to welcome the outside world in, and ‘show
off" the surprising interior.’
In 1998 when we began to explore the wider potential of this remarkable building, it all began with
the transfer of an exhibition of global textile art by local women, from the Victoria and Albert
Museum to St. Paul’s, Bow Common. Against all previous practice I had the great west doors
opened wide in welcome, as well as to provide a startling impact from what was within, in the
exhibition. One Saturday morning, unannounced and unrecognised because I had never met him
before, Bob Maguire came to visit this exhibition, ‘Shamiana’ and subsequently made this
28 ‘It could be said - many people do say - that Gresham, and his local church people, and St Paul's, took a
major role in the renewal of our worship. So that was the focussed objective we were making for. It was a
great, I mean big and important, objective. Looking at it now in the context of what has come about in recent
years in this church, I see that its very focus prevented us from seeing the further possibilities of the thing
that was built.
My own first introduction to these things was my visit to the exhibition Shamiana and also to meet Father
Duncan Ross, of whom l had heard much but never met. The great west doors were wide open, and people of
all sorts, many or perhaps most of whom had never been inside a church before, were going freely in and out.’
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28 ‘Many, too, had no knowledge of Christianity; but the substance of the exhibition, the wide openness, the
freedom of space and movement in the building, all combined to convey a strong message of welcome,
reconciliation and community bridge-building.’
I was greatly relieved when it was clear that he could see another potential in those enormous west
doors, as being a sign of welcome and openness, as well as an intimate bounding layer for the
liturgy and the People of God within.
Gerry Adler, in his excellent book on Maguire and Murray’s partnership, says this:
29 ‘Rudolf Wittkower was an occasional lecturer at the AA, and his rediscovery of the sacred meaning of
Renaissance geometry, explained in Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism, 1949, seemed to
Maguire as an idealistic student to be applicable to modern architecture. Wittkower's painstaking
exposition of the centralised church plans of Renaissance Italy and their symbolism impressed
itself on the young Maguire.
Maguire and Murray believed strongly in a kind of ‘deep functionalism’, in which close and accurate
observation of rites and human movement (those unaffected by architectural form) would lead to rational
and effective building forms. Maguire's student church project was developed by means of drawing coloured
pencil arrows in different configurations on the plan, representing clergy and laity in procession, or taking
communion, and developing these as a kind of choreography of the new, reformed liturgy. The ‘new, reformed
liturgy’ was just a means to an end, one
which would lead to a well-planned and
organically organised place of worship; in the
end, though, it is not ‘movement’ as such that
the architecture expresses.’
From whichever angle one views the
building the two prominent features are
the glazed lantern and the profile of the
folded-slab aisle roof framing the lantern
as seen from above & providing a ‘waveform’
upon which the huge brick ‘podium’ for the lantern rides when seen from ground level.
Gerry Adler traces the origin of this lower-level roof profile:
29 ‘In this scheme the characteristic external feature of the executed church — the folded concrete slab forming
the low roof at the periphery – is in evidence. This is a borrowing from his 4th year AA design project for a
foundry (see image above). Indeed, the scheme's simple but bold tectonic expression — simpler and bolder in
the executed church — owes a great deal to the rigorous expectations of an AA student in the early 1950s in
matters structural and constructional. ‘
General Principles …
Gerry Adler helps us frame a context and ‘bigger picture’ framing the advent of this extraordinary
building now appearing in the heat of the East End of London…
29 ‘The design of St Paul's, Bow Common, is a curiosity in late 1950s Britain. Some of the stylistic
compromises in the scheme initially submitted, such as the traditional Latin cross of nave, apse and transepts,
give the impression of a conformist church design of the 1950s, at least as regards its external form. In other
respects, the executed design appear to belong in the orbit of ‘the New Brutalism’, amid the work of the angry
young men and women of British architecture.
Function by itself was insufficient for Maguire; he was interested in style, not in the sense of ‘the (outmoded)
styles’ in the history of architecture, but rather in the sense of doing things with style, in a knowing and
sophisticated manner. For him it meant continuing and developing the architectural aesthetic of the day.’
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29 ‘In Peter Hammond's ‘Towards a Church Architecture’, a photograph of the floor pattern of Rudolf
Schwarz's church of St Anthony's, Essen (1959) has a caption referring to ‘the potentialities of the floor as
a means of creating movement pattern … like Maguire's analysis of movement inside a church, this presented
urban design as a series of movements & unfolding views, more commonly found in old towns than in new
In contrast to the polite architecture normal for churches, St Paul, Bow Common, and the later church, St
Joseph the Worker, Northolt (1966—70), have tough, industrial connotations ennobled into something of
great spiritual significance. Their layouts resonate with the new approach to liturgy, emphasising the reality
of the Eucharist and the shared participation of priest and people in worship, coupled with an aesthetic of
simple, even banal building, connecting Maguire and Murray to contemporary churches by Rudolf Schwarz,
and the younger Swiss architect Rainer Senn.
Although the commission for St Paul, Bow Common, was prestigious, it came with a client body constrained
by a curtailed budget. Most of Maguire and Murray’s clients had similarly limited means and no wish to
conceal their position.
As Maguire said at the RIBA annual conference at Hull in 1976: “ …most of the projects which we have
been engaged on are at the bottom end of the cost scale and the approach ['to serve life’] suits such work very
well; and second because in common with an increasing number of architects and other people we feel some
emotional difficulty with the idea of building at a high level of artistic pretention in a world where it is only
too obvious that many people haven’t either the food or shelter to keep themselves going. So we see our job as
craft rather than as a fine art and the aim of most of what we do as the achievement of a high standard of
St Paul's Church, Bow Common, was not only the making of the architectural practice of Robert Maguire
and Keith Murray, it was also the most famous and significant parish church to be built in Britain in the
latter half of the twentieth century. It crystallised architectural and theological thinking about the form the
church should assume in the post-war era. It was a highly symbolic project, the one which would bring the
practice critical acclaim.’
First Impressions …
Before considering features of the church in detail, here are two overall impressions of the building
exterior and interior, from 12 Nicholas Taylor in 1965 and 18 Philip Gibbons in 1990:
12 ‘The architecture of a liturgical movement church grows from its altar outwards; architects therefore tend
to forget that the general public who pass by see only the outside, looking inwards. It is one of the outstanding
merits of St Paul's, Bow Common that, unlike many of the otherwise excellent churches on the Continent,
its exterior is resolved into a clear formal expression of its internal functions. The influence of the German
architect Rudolf Schwarz is apparent in Maguire and Murray’s general approach.
Their detailing however is more characteristic of the younger 'brutalist’ architects in this country: their
glorification of ‘natural’ materials in particular. This devotion to nature is extraordinarily similar to that of
the pre-Raphaelite painters 100 years ago: far from being truly ‘as found’, each surface texture is carefully
intensified so as to be larger, truer, more honest than actual life. Aluminium is delicately ribbed, joints
between bricks are endlessly raked, steel and concrete are shamelessly exposed.’
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12 ‘This is a legitimate approach, and it is no doubt what sparked off Ian Nairn’s comparison of St Paul's with
Butterfield's multi-coloured brick church of All Saints’, Margaret Street: ‘It has an astonishingly similar
feel - deliberately angular, done with passionate sincerity.‘ There is a powerful and romantic analogy between
architectural honesty and religious honesty. But is this appropriate for present-day Stepney?
Maguire and Murray have emphasized the ‘particularity’ of their design; they were convinced that ‘it should
grow out of the actual life of the real local Christian community’ (their italics). But is rough brickwork the
actual life of Stepney today? In all honesty . . . formica or bakelite might be nearer the truth. I have a
deepening suspicion that, for all its power and beauty, the ‘image’ of St Paul’s is a subtly romantic
preconception of the ‘Old East End’, conforming more to that gnarled railway viaduct nearby than to the
affluent, packaged, glossy-but-temporary environment of the new fiat-dwellers who will live next to it next
year. Critics have made much of the way the electricity sub-station has been incorporated into the church,
claiming it as showing a natural, informal relationship with modern industry; to me it seems formally clumsy
and inappropriately self-conscious.
Lack of contact with the new East End is most emphatically betrayed when the Church is seen from the northwest:
not only does a simple industrial lightning conductor throw off balance a whole wall of that beautifully
crafted brickwork, but above the porch, an octagon under a square canopy (rather over-detailed in any case),
a giant inscriptional frieze displays the same calculated irregularity as the tablets in the aisles of Coventry
Cathedral by the same sculptor, Ralph Beyer. It announces portentously:
The lettering has revealingly been described as having ‘a kick, like Victorian pub lettering’. Precisely - not
modern coffee bar lettering. (This preference for the old-fashioned and rough can even be seen in the fatal
preference of progressive vicars for Rockers instead of Mods.) All this could perhaps be justified as a protest
against the surrounding community (the Early Christians versus an enemy world), but this is not what the
architects have said they intended. Curiously, the contracting firm responsible for the superb brickwork was
Bovis Ltd., whose principal activity is the erection of glossy multiple Stores for Marks and Spencer and
= = = = = =
18 ‘The external features strike one by their severity and angularity: the high lantern rests on a box-like cube,
surrounded by a complex of aisles, hall and parish house. The need for cleaning and repair is sadly obvious
and the interior space comes as an astonishing surprise. The entrance under the inscription "This is the
House of God..." in lettering by Ralph Beyer leads into the Font Area in the north aisle - a symbol that works,
though if one were building today a deeper font with running water would be a fitting addition?
The aisle surrounds the central space, built not only for processional use but as a zone of entry – a concept
that might be of significance today when so many who come to visit churches have great hesitancy in joining
the main congregation. The Altar under its ciborium commands the central space, and the corona which
defines the sanctuary area helps focus attention on the space where ambo, altar and president’s seat are
The judicious use of local materials - block and tackle of the font cover, the paving slabs and flint bricks -
contrast well with the simple opulence of the venetian glass in the corona, the wood and silver processional
cross, the ciborium itself and the splendid mosaics. It is an intriguing fact that photographs taken at the time
when this building was most influential do not show the mosaics - an essential part of the architect’s original
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12 ‘Whatever one’s psychological doubts about the outside, the interior of St Paul’s is a masterpiece of
disciplined liturgical space, in its rectangularity quite different from the free-flowing spaces usually
associated with recent Continental churches (and attempted by English architects at their peril). In the square
sanctuary beneath the lantern stands the altar, raised on two steps. The area is defined principally by the
flood of natural light from above; there is also a steel corona with sconces for sixteen candles, which can be
lit at festivals; the floor beneath is paved with white bricks; and above the altar itself there is a steel-framed
ciborium (canopy) with a roof of translucent marble formed with strips of green serpentino and white
All these features in unison are extremely successful in focusing attention on the heart of the liturgical action.
There is, paradoxically, more difficulty in doing this in a centrally planned church, with its wide open spaces,
than in the traditional basilica with its directional emphasis on the east end. There are grounds for criticism
in detail: the corona seems to be hung too low, and its complex outline is reminiscent of revived Art Nouveau
(or neo-Liberty, as the Italians call it); the ciborium is too closely tied to early Christian precedent (San
Clemente), though the steel and marble go well together; Jessie Harrison’s altar frontal emphasizes only the
West and east sides of the Holy Table, for which an all-round pattern would perhaps have been more suitable.
Particularly successful is the underside of the lantern, with its dark blue steel framework and green woodwool
The congregational space, although in fact quite small, has a sense of scale which is altogether unusual in
recent English architecture. The central rectangle seats about 200 people. The surrounding aisles could seat
300 more. The capacity of 500 was specified in the War Damage repayments; the way that the architects have
split up the space is realistic (given the small congregation in the parish at present) and also architecturally
The folded slab roofs of the aisles lead easily into the central space without any division being felt (G. E.
Street did the same thing in stone at All Saints, Clifton, in 1864--8). At the same time the aisles are marked
out in white paving for their use in processions (a feature particularly asked for by the parish). The floor is
other-wise of simple precast concrete flags, pink and white, broken only by heating grilles.
Close to the entrance is the octagonal font (a repetition in form of the octagonal porch); it has a satisfactory,
if rather distant, relationship with the main altar. There are also two side altars, in chapels formed by
projecting outwards two single bays of the aisles. The relationship of these to the central space is much less
convincing; it has in any case been found that the congregation prefer to hold small services at the main altar,
so it is possible that the chapels could have been omitted.
The serene enclosure of the 12-ft. bounding wall is damaged by the ‘leakage’ of space out of the main body of
the church into these chapels. This is perhaps the one point at which a disciplined sense of priorities was
lacking; it is the ruthless suppression of the irrelevant which is otherwise so striking at St Paul’s — and
until the completion of such buildings as the Leicester engineering laboratories and the Economist building
in St James’s made it so exceptional in recent English architecture.
There is also a rare unity between architecture and furnishing: Keith Murray worked as a designer of church
furnishings before becoming Robert Maguire's partner. The prismatic glass light fittings, hanging from
brackets above the apex of each arch, are equally successful whether lit or unlit. One of the advantages of so
much bare brickwork is that works of art can be gradually added, keeping it as a background; the crucifix by
William Figg high up on the south wall is a good beginning.’
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12 ‘The organ case of timber on the west wall is strong and simple and beneath it there is a special area of
artificial lighting for those with weak sight (this avoids obliterating the careful direction of natural lighting
towards the altar). In spite of the scarlet cushions and marble ciborium in the sanctuary, there is a lack of
colour in the church generally; this will be radically altered when mosaics, depicting worshipping angels and
designed Keith Murray have been installed in the triangular spandrel panels of the arcade (a special War
Damage payment covers these and work is in progress).
These mosaics will, if successful, concentrate attention more into the lower part of the building. At present
the eye strays too often to the flat ceiling of acoustic tiles around the lantern; this, with its machine-made
perforations, clashes with the substantial craftsmanship of the other materials. Another solecism is the fairfaced
concrete of the aisle roots, which has weathered badly; it is surprising, given their Brutalist preferences
elsewhere, that the architects did not specify board marking to give a mature texture.
Generally the church works well as a setting for the Mass, even though the congregation is still, even after
five years, very small. The acoustic resonance of the building rather exaggerates the isolation within it of a
small group of people, On the other hand, the space is exceedingly flexible. Maguire and Murray have
managed an ingenious middle way between the usual alternatives of puny chairs or massive pews. They have
designed elegant four-person seats, which can easily be moved as required. At a service these seats can be
clustered closely round the sanctuary, sermons being preached informally from the altar steps.
Possibly the sanctuary is a little too broad; the seats tend to remain in the conventional, frontal position. The
greatest achievement in the design of this church is the way in which flexibility and growth have been built
into its system, while at every time of day or night, empty or full, the space around the altar has a real sense
of holiness, an atmosphere which can be sensed but not described, and which is radically different from the
tepid, sentimental comforts of most recent English churches. It is truly ‘a place set apart’; even though it is
in the midst of a rapidly changing, restless community, it forms a still centre of thought and feeling — with
the strong enclosures of bare walling and paving which have always marked out sacred places.’
= = = = = =
18 ‘The benches are movable and capable of seating 200, but smaller numbers feel at home and fully in
contact with celebrant and ministers. The overall effect is of a space that draws the worshippers inwards, a
place that helps participation and gives room for prayer. It suffers a little in what used to be the normal
English greyness, and sunlight streaming through the lantern brings a great enhancement. The inclusion of
two small chapels, one in the north wall and the other in the east provoke comment. The designers themselves
stated that “The result is partially successful, but this is certainly one of the points over which we now feel
we would try for some further clarification“.
The sacrament chapel in the east wall was placed there in accord with parish tradition. It answers in a
particular way a problem that remains important in any Roman Catholic building, namely the place of
reservation for the Blessed Sacrament. Though the idea is meritorious, the chapel intrudes too much into the
central worship space and might have been better positioned away from an axial connection with the main
The Lady Chapel in the north wall was intended as a weekday chapel, but in a space defined by the liturgical
and theological principle of “one church, one altar," two smaller altars seem superfluous. The use of a
weekday chapel in such a well organised space can be questioned (unless of course winter heating proves to
be too costly) and the sacrament could be replaced on a pillar. These are minor comments reflecting attitudes
that have evolved from the forward looking vision of places like Bow Common.’
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Elements of the Church:
It was a firm and clear part of the design and ‘theory’ of the building that the large 12 foot high sliding
wooden west doors were not the normative entrance to the church. The idea of an unbroken outer enclosing
‘membrane’ was an essential element and as we have already learned the west doors were seen as two large
planes of sliding boarded wall. As mentioned above, the doors could be used for ceremonial purposes but
otherwise the intended entrance to the church was though the octagonal church porch.
As I suggest later, this opens to us a real parable of progression on a journey from light to darkness and I
fully embraced their intention in my years of ministry in the church. However, as already mentioned, from
1998 we found that Bob Maguire’s principles of ‘inclusive’ space for liturgy which is essentially relational,
also embraced perfectly other and non-liturgical areas of a community’s wider life which are also essentially
It soon became clear that in these ways of using the building, those great doors could seem excluding and
not inviting – a barrier to the otherwise open invitation which was being offered to the community. Again,
as mentioned, this all began with the transfer of an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in central
London to our unknown East End church and, indeed, hundreds of people attended over the months in
which it was open. Knowing and respecting how intentional Maguire and Murray were in all that they did,
I agonised long and hard over what my instinct was telling me, which was that the west doors should stand
open a statement of ‘unconditional welcome’ to all who passed by.
In the event I think that instinct was right and it was a great relief to receive affirmation of this from Bob
Maguire who, as we have heard, visited the exhibition and saw this how this worked for himself! Even so,
at first it gave me pangs of concern that I may have ‘misused’ both the building and the way in which it
should be entered – albeit that this was not for liturgical use. My early years at the church were quite strictly
‘constrained’ by the various traditions which had been established in the previous decades since the church
had been built! However, as time went on, it was especially rewarding to witness the wonder of those who
had been there a long time, at the flexibility and undiscovered potential of their church and, indeed, for us
all to journey together in unknown and untried directions!
However, in normal liturgical usage the Porch is the entrance way and leads us on to a journey of discovery
of a remarkable place and a remarkable space!
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The Church Porch:
In 1962 Bob Maguire wrote:
6 ‘The entrance:
We believe that the entrance to a church is important to its character as a set-apart place. Traditionally the
narthex makes a place of transition between the world outside and the church.
The porch at St. Paul‘s is intended to fulfil a similar function. There was a problem here in that the porch
had also to meet the practical need of a draught-lobby, which means having doors at both ends. A door on the
"outside" needs something extra if it is to function effectively on a symbolic level as a main entrance, and
this is the main raison d'etre of such devices as the classical portico and the Gothic open south porch. At St.
Paul's we combined the ideas of the porch and of the narthex in a deliberately mannerist way. The roof on
columns forms a portico, an outward-looking entrance place. Under this, and detached from it, stands the
octagon of the narthex, an enclosed space. From here one passes through a short "tunnel" which pierces the
bounding wall of the church.’
There are many small surprises as one explores St. Paul’s, Bow Common! The church porch
provides the first of these. With a square roof, accentuated by lintels which indicate a box-like
shape and 4 supporting pillars (the one to the right of the entrance doors cleverly also being a
downpipe to drain the square roof!), the ‘sense’ one has is of entering a cubic structure. But once
through the porch doors one finds oneself in a very clear octagonal structure which, to some, is a
surprise, as is the transition from the noise and traffic of Burdett Rd., into a still and even slightly
mysterious place, even before the main interior has yet been seen.
The unrelenting brick is still present and surrounds the visitor but there is a small but remarkable
feature as the brick walls give way at their upper edges to a continuous glazed strip all around.
The roof truly seems to float above the
brick walls! I have shown countless
groups of primary school children
around the church and have truly caused
them to wonder about this remarkable
sight of a heavy floating roof! Most have
known that I was a physicist before I was ordained and I have let them into my great secret that
this was Fr. Duncan’s anti-gravity machine! The clever reality, of course, is that the 4 external
support pillars are not at all visible from within the porch and even very intelligent adults who
hadn’t noticed them on the way in has had a furrowed brow, wondering however that roof can be
supported – certainly not on a narrow strip of glazing!
I began the first six years of my ministry in the
neighbouring parish of St. Dunstan’s, Stepney, the
ancient ‘Mother church’ of the East End, founded in
Saxon times. I only once looked inside this church in
all those years and until I did I had assumed that the
porch was, in fact, a baptistery! There seemed to me
to be something of an echo of the great external
baptisteries of Florence, Pisa or Parma, but here
connected by a narrow neck of brick. Of course it
isn’t – yet once you are inside the porch, to my mind
there is a strong presage of the first object that you
next encounter as you leave the porch and enter the church – which is the font. Alas, the growing
amount of efflorescence at the lower level inside the porch walls has increased as the drainage
system has failed, and also because the porch was added after the main church’s damp course had
been set and sits mostly above that (or so I have been told by a number or builders!).
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The layout of flooring in the porch is exactly that which
surrounds the font just a few steps away and in the centre
of the porch floor is an enigmatic red octagonal shape – the
colour very likely being the ‘bull’s blood’ tone of the porch
lettering, but now faded and worn after over 50 years of
footfall. The octagon in the floor has exactly the same
footprint and dimensions as does the font – an octagon 50
cm along each edge - and seems to ‘prepare’ one for what
is to come as one progresses into the church and that same
pattern of flooring re-appears but this time with the font
standing in that octagonal space. See later image also.
Before leaving the church porch and moving into the
church it is worth making mention of the inscription on
three sides of the porch with which this whole description
began. As mentioned, this is a quote from the Book Genesis
in the Old Testament and the resonances of those words
have also been described. Mention has already been made
of Ralph Beyer whose work this is.
Porch Lettering:
There is nothing in the surviving sparse church archive about Ralph Beyer’s commission for the
porch lettering, and very little that I have found in the literature. Of course, as seen earlier, it was
Ralph Beyer’s association with Keith Murray in their work at St. Katherine’s Foundation which
carried through to St. Paul’s, Bow Common. One reference of 1997 made this comment:
21 ‘The one playful gesture was Beyer’s lettering around the projecting porch: ‘TRULY THIS IS NONE OTHER
BUT THE HOUSE OF GOD. THIS IS THE GATE OF HEAVEN.’ Banham and Nicholas Taylor felt that
Beyer‘s work belonged to an older tradition, while it caused Andrew Saint to place the building within ‘the
compromise of styles worked out by Sir Basil Spence for his churches and cathedral at Coventry.’ But in Maguire
and Murray‘s work it is significant that such rare mannerist touches are reserved for details which contradict but
do not overwhelm the classically-inspired main body of the composition.’
In 1998 when the church began to be used for a wider use than its primary liturgical function I
made the first attempt at having the lettering renewed. After 40 years it was much worn and, as
seen below, looked very shabby indeed. I have seen two articles about urban decay which showed
the neighbouring tower block of Elmslie
Point with the shabby porch lettering in
the forefront and the porch caught on a
bad day with a lot of weeds sprouting in
font! I was much in touch with Keith
Murray at that time and asked him to
propose a matching
modern colour for the
lettering to be repainted.
Keith was a perfectionist
and in consultation with
Bob Maguire they
agreed on a colour. He even sent me a sample of the colour but then was not satisfied with the
manufacturers’ estimates of how long such a paint would last!
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He was also (rightly) concerned that the flaking paint should be removed in a very careful manner
which did not damage the surface
which then had to be repainted.
Striving for such perfection, Keith
then left London and moved to Dorset and
I never heard any more. Sadly, he died in
2005 at the age of 76. By the time the church
approached the 50th Anniversary with all the
celebrations planned, the porch lettering
was in even worse state.
With advice from Bob Maguire and our
excellent Church Architect, John Allan of Avanti, the work was finally done and the transformation
was quite astonishing, as the before and after views show! The skilled craftsman (with the unforgettable
name of ‘Brian the Brush’) who worked on this,
fully understood the job to be done. There has
been discussion earlier of what has been called
‘New Brutalism’ and St. Paul’s, Bow Common
not strictly being a pure brutalist building.
Nevertheless, the importance of the materials
used has been paramount and a feature of cast
concrete, for instance, can be
the presence of tiny air
bubbles on the surface. These
speak very much of the
‘materiality,’ if I could express
it that way, of the material
used & a conscious ‘raw’ (brutalist) feature of it.
I was impressed by the sensitivity of this restoration which did not attempt to disguise
the ‘concreteness’ of the concrete lettering but somehow to ‘celebrate’ it. The detail of
the paint work shown here demonstrates this, that the ‘bubbles’ left in the raw
concrete face of the lettering were not filled in but left to show the essential materiality
of the concrete. Such tiny details are barely noticeable
but show a real understanding of and respect for Beyer’s
original intention and, I was told, had been observed
carefully in the decayed painting and replicated by Brian the Brush.
I felt a huge sense of responsibility for this, the most visible (even if small)
restoration of what had been an original feature of the church. I had total
trust in the judgement and eye of our church architect of the time, John
Allan of Avanti Achitects, and in the skill and sensitivity of Brian the
Brush but felt personally responsible. The 50th Anniversary celebrations
went stunningly well and, unexpectedly, I received a letter some weeks
later which gave me great assurance on this restoration! It came from
Ralph Beyer’s widow who had been invited to the celebration.
Hilary Beyer married Ralph in December1960 after the lettering had been completed but held this work
in high regard. It was a privilege to welcome her and her two daughters and son-in-law to the church.
She, too, was delighted to be there and wrote to me very honestly:
‘I was apprehensive of Ralph’s letters being restored but I should not have worried. I think you and the restorers
have done a magnificent job and with Bob’s help have chosen the right colour, so we were greeted with the words
when we got out of the bus. I wish you continued flourishing and feel grateful that the church – which was such
an important innovative building – is in such enthusiastic hands.’
What a relief it was to read those words!
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There has been some ambivalence in critiques of the porch lettering: Thus, Elain Harwood:
24 ‘The one playful gesture at St Pauls was Beyer’s lettering about the projecting porch: TRULY THIS IS NONE
that Beyer’s work belonged to an older tradition, while it caused Andrew Saint to place the building within ‘the
compromise of styles worked out by Sir Basil Spence for his churches and cathedral at Coventry.’ But in Maguire
and Murray‘s work it is significant that such rare mannerist touches are reserved for details which contradict but
do not overwhelm the classically-inspired main body of the composition.’
She also refers back to Beyer’s work at St. Katherine’s Foundation & forward to Coventry
24 ‘The original design (for the chapel at St. Katherine’s) won in competition, was by Keith Murray and his
silversmith brother (not so! Michael Murray (silversmith) was not related to Keith Murray!): Robert
Maguire helped them draw up the scheme, and admits to being inspired by Soane. Most dramatic is the wrought
iron construction set over the altar carrying six candles and a hanging pyx. This skeletal frame was originally
partially covered by fabric, making a more solid corona, but this was removed at some time between 1967 and
1974. There were to be no candles on the altar itself. It was, however, carved with a long inscription by Ralph
Beyer, the son of a distinguished authority on the incised lettering and symbols found in the catacombs at Rome,
Professor Oskar Beyer. Henry Cooper, Master of the Foundation, claimed proudly that this was ‘perhaps the first
free-standing altar in modern times’. It combines many liturgical themes: it is centrally placed, its decoration
comes from the earliest Christian sources & the employment of a Jewish sculptor embodies ecumenism. Beyer was
to use the same symbols at Coventry, where he was introduced to Spence by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner the next year.’
It is interesting to note resonances here with what was to come in Bow Common – an iron suspended
corona bearing candles but no candles on the altar beneath.
Donald Williamson had slight reservation:
20 ‘One small criticism is that although lettering created by Ralph Beyer for the text at the entrance is arresting,
it is at best disjointed compared with the communication breakthrough he achieved soon after at Coventry.’
Tanya Harrod comments:
25 ‘Ralph Beyer was the only artist craftsman to be given a commission. At Coventry he carved in stone but at
Bow he used humbler materials. The sight of Beyer’s dramatic inscription THIS IS THE GATE OF HEAVEN, ‘
shutter-cast in concrete over Murray and Maguire’s bleakly functional porch made manifest the power of
‘celebrating the ordinary.’’
Gerald Adler:
29 ‘ … powerful geometric forms. That confident brickwork. The high lantern. And the words carved into its facades
by Ralph Beyer - necessary, perhaps, for the Basil Clarkes of the world - proclaiming ‘This is None Other than
the House of God’, and - just in case I might have mistaken the church for a cockney outpost of Basil Spence's
Kensington Barracks, ‘This is the Gate of Heaven’ above the entrance.
When, as a sixteen year old, I finally passed through this Heavenly Gate, I was taken aback. St Paul's was not
the site of a Damascene conversion (on the road to Limehouse), but it was a building that enabled me to connect
Modern architecture with what had gone long before it. The great central space was one I linked with the interior
of Hawksmoor's St Mary Woolnoth. Perhaps it was perverse to compare Maguire and Murray with the English
Baroque, yet St Paul's has remained one of my favourite of all city churches ever since.’
And, way back in 1965, Nicholas Taylor:
12 ‘.. above the porch, an octagon under a square canopy (rather over-detailed in any case), a giant
inscriptional frieze displays the same calculated irregularity as the tablets in the aisles of Coventry Cathedral
by the same sculptor, Ralph Beyer. It announces portentously: TRULY THIS IS NONE OTHER BUT THE
HOUSE OF GOD - THIS IS THE GATE OF HEAVEN. The lettering has revealingly been described as
having ‘a kick, like Victorian pub lettering’. Precisely -- not modern coffee bar lettering. (This preference for
the old-fashioned and rough can even be seen in the fatal preference of progressive vicars for Rockers instead
of Mods.) All this could perhaps be justified as a protest against the surrounding community (the Early
Christians versus an enemy world), but this is not what the architects have said they intended.’
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A near miss - the church and the aftermath of September 11th 2001
The church porch became the site of potential disaster in 2001 when all could have been lost. After the
terrifying attacks on the Twin Towers and elsewhere in the USA on ‘9/11’ (11th September 2001) the
world was reeling in shock. In a community such as ours with a majority Muslim population, tensions
were understandably high. The community stood together, but a couple of weeks after September 11th,
suddenly the church found itself on the front line of these tensions, though this is still quite unknown
to most people, even now.
There was furious knocking early one evening at the
vicarage door, with a passer-by urging me to go around
to the front of the church where, he said, the church was
on fire! I rushed around to the front of the church and,
indeed, amid billowing smoke, fire engines were in
attendance, hosing down both the porch doors and the
main west doors of the church. The remnants of petrol
bombs were still present and it was clear that the church
had suffered an arson attack. A witness claimed he had
seen some Muslim boys shouting out the praises of
Osama Bin Laden and then throwing petrol bombs at
both church doors - I think the only such attack in
London. It was vital not to raise tensions even further and so I kept a very low profile on this and there
were no press reports or ‘leakage’ into the already tense neighbourhood. It is no exaggeration to say
that was one of the most stressful points of my incumbency!
Fortunately, to the casual observer already dark oak does
not show much effect of having been burned. Even
church members passed by and did not notice (see
accompanying images)! The main large west doors were
not damaged but the porch doors were charred and cost
over £3000 to repair.
The wonderful congregation, mostly of local people
whom I feared might now show a negative reaction
against our Muslim neighbours, truly astonished me. The
united feeling was that it was now even more important
that the community should hold together. I stressed that
the vast majority of our Muslim neighbours were people
of peace and people of faith. My personal Muslim fiends were horrified and vowed that if they found
the boys who had done this they would bring them to my door to show contrition.
The congregation’s response was not outrage and
vengeance but, rather that they wanted to understand
Islam better as well as our mostly Bengali Muslim
neighbours. I then took 40 people on a visit to the East
London Mosque, an Understanding Islam course was
supported and Sylheti classes organised in the church hall
(Sylheti is the most familiar dialect used by our
Bangladeshi population). Their message was that, as
Christians, we recognise our Muslim population as our
close neighbours in faith. Just as there are those who have
brought shame on Christianity by violence and a
perversion of their faith, so there are Muslims who are
capable of doing the same. I was immensely proud of our congregation! But it was a narrow scrape!
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This is all so long ago now that it is probably safe to complete the story which was never fully told at the
time, except to my Bishop. I was sitting at the bus stop on St. Paul’s Way just opposite the church some
months later and two Bangladeshi lads came up to speak with me. They made it clear that they were friends
of the petrol-bombers and that I had been the intended target and not the church building! They declared
that ‘innocent Muslims had died (in 9/11 I guess) and therefore innocent Christians had to die.’
The petrol bombers had thought that I lived in the church, hence the attack on what they thought were
my ‘front doors’. To put it lightly, this was a most unnerving experience for me! And, realising that
they were actually doing something very risky in front of witnesses, in threatening my life, they both
fled shouting, ‘Next time, right?!’ The irony struck me at the time that actually we were of like colour
and like origin – Calcutta (where I was born) was part of the old East Bengal and so close to Bangladesh
– but these lads had gravely misunderstood both their own religion & mine. We probably shared far
more in our experience of living as non-white people in this society than separated us. Although the
congregation or community did not learn of this personal threat to my life, nevertheless what this event
did, in the bigger picture, was to bring to prominence for my congregation the urgency of cohesion and
greater understanding in the face of extremists of every kind. In all the community use of the church
since 1998 and in all our community partnership the church has been in open solidarity with our
Muslim friends and neighbours and all this act of violence achieved was to strengthen that solidarity.
Had this incident taken place in the middle of the night it could have been very serious indeed but,
thankfully, was spotted and the fire services attended promptly. Thus, St. Paul’s Bow Common
survived for this account to be written today!
The Font
In 1962, Bob Maguire notes:
6 ‘The font: The font is the first thing encountered on coming into the church; it confronts people coming
to Church. Its form is related to that of the porch.
It is large and is kept full of water - the heavy slate cover is
raised when the Church meets for the Eucharist - and as one
comes in the light in the central space of the church is reflected
in the water. These things are brought together to bring to
mind the baptism by which members are incorporated into the
Church and the relationship between baptism and the
In 2002 he also said:
26 ‘The font was just inside the door. This is a traditional
position and
neither we nor
the parish had
re-thought it, as
we did in our very next church. But we had to re-think the form
of the font. We came to the conclusion that the real symbol, in
baptism, is the water itself. So our fonts have always been
straightforward containers for water - a lot of it.
At Bow Common the bowl is a 19- gallon standard Doulton's
stone-ware ‘copper’ cast into a block of concrete; when the slate
slab is raised by a (5 cwt) chain-hoist bought from a nearby
docklands firm, the broad surface of the water reflects the light
from the lantern, as you enter.
The cover is raised every Sunday morning, and the font kept
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On entering the church today the font is certainly as described in 1962 and later – a concrete
octagonal shape 50 cm across each face and 90 cm high. However, in the images shown here, a
fairly prominent feature described above appears to be missing!
Where is the huge slate font lid and the lifting gear?
In 2004 it had been discovered that the whole of the
considerable area of the high level internal ceiling acoustic
tiling contained asbestos, just before a major repair
programme was embarked upon for a number of building
problems, including a complete renewal of the external high
level flat roof. These then had to be replaced urgently and,
thankfully, funds were raised and works were carried out in
2005 (more of this later). Below is a view of the church at that
time, filled with scaffolding.
The roof leaks of four decades were now cured and the
building has been watertight at high level ever since.
However, right in the middle of the works, on a random
basis two Tower Hamlets Anglican churches were selected
to have a spot check by
the Health and Safety
Executive! One of
them was St. Paul’s,
Bow Common! It felt
about the last thing we needed with the church filled with
scaffolding and a great deal of building equipment and high level
access in evidence. The very efficient and excellent lady who
carried out the inspection satisfied herself on every count,
including giving a pass to our use of glowing charcoal for incense,
the likes of which she had never seen before! All was well until
she came to the font!!
She was rightly concerned that the huge weight of the Welsh slate
font cover was hauled
up and down on an
industrial hoist which
had never had an engineering check since it was installed in
1960! It was a very fair observation and slightly alarming as I
was the one person who was most at peril every time it was
raised on a daily basis and at baptisms!
A formal order was given to have a thorough engineering test
made on the whole arrangement with the font scaffolded up
to the level of the roof above it, for such tests to be carried out
every 2 or 3 years and for the risk to be covered with an
increase on our annual insurance! Much gloom followed.
During my years at the church and subsequently, the church
had always paid its way but with little in the way of surplus.
It was simply something we could not afford to do as yet but
the prospect of the font being decommissioned was an
unhappy one.
- 105 -
The inspector readily agreed that we could adopt a Plan B, which would be to remove the font lid and
the hoist and support chains. In 2015, once again the church is engaged in costly and major roof and
drainage works (all donations gratefully received!) but hopefully one day the font cover will be
reinstated and the drama of raising the lid will once again be marvelled at! Views of the font before
this happened are shown here.
In the views here, the font is shown before and
after the slate lid was removed. The hoist
(shown left) was made locally when the
London docks were still very much in business
and industrial items such as these were
manufactured nearby.
The plate still remains bolted into the roof
above the font but the heavy slate font lid is
now laid aside. The green bag contained the
hoisting mechanism and is in storage, ready
for the day when the lid will rise again!
As an interesting post-script. It was only in my
final years at Bow Common that I learned of an
early intention of Maguire and Murray to decorate the underside of the great Welsh slate font cover!
Learn more in the section on Charles Lutyens and the mosaics!
In 1995, Maguire wrote this about the font and his rationale for it:
19 ‘Thinking back to 1957, there was a real problem with the designing of ritual objects for churches, which was
that they were expected to carry a load of popular symbolism. I say ‘popular’ because I think that is what it was,
but it had become enshrined in all the literature — official and advisory, art criticism, guide books and so on —
so that a font, for example, was seen not only as an elaborate arty-crafty object, but to be the bearer of so—called
symbolic art —John the Baptists, fishes, wavy patterns and the like.
There was a problem. These are an integral part of the developed iconography of the Christian Church. People
said, you cannot just throw them out. The problem was what had happened to them. Let me illustrate this, at
some severe risk of over—simplification, by what has happened to the popular perception of angels. Here we have
a mosaic from San Vitale at Ravenna, of the three angelic figures who visited Abraham.’
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19 ‘Centuries later, a very different and without doubt popular perception, from Bavaria, of angelic character.
And here a late twentieth-century example from a Christmas card, again without any doubt the popular
So what do you do? You could start your own re-education programme, as Eric Gill did. And in fact, with
angels we did start something like that later at Bow Common, with Charles Lutyens’ mosaics which represent
the heavenly host joining with the congregation in praise of God. But, as designers, with something like a
font we felt we should try to think it out anew, and so we applied the same procedure of observation as to the
church generally.
Fonts are there for baptism, and their utilitarian function is to hold water. For a large part of its history the
Christian Church built separate, special buildings for baptism. It was that important. The fonts are of two
main types. The early ones were designed for total immersion and many are cruciform and sunken, with
steps down into them, and a lot of water. The symbolism is totally aligned with the liturgical action — you
went down to die a death to the old self, to rise from the water reborn. Jesus’ death on the cross and his
resurrection are vividly recalled. This font, at Kélibia in Tunisia, is such a font — a cross, evolving into, or
from, a water pool shape.
The rather later fonts are great water-containers, and it seemed to us significant that the baptisteries are most
often circular or octagonal or some other regular polygon approximating to a circle, and centred on the font,
which is usually of similar plan-shape to the building.
With the abandonment of total immersion the cross symbolism declines and the water is emphasized; Jesus’
own baptism in the waters of the Jordan becomes the model. So when we look at baptism now, everything
points to the water itself being the symbol to be emphasized, and the font is to be designed as an expressive
context for water so that means first not just a teacupful, but a lot.
When one looks at water—containers, one is struck by the frequency with which they are circular or near—
circular. Ponds, pools, bowls, puddles, fountains turn out to be round with remarkable regularity. The
heraldic symbol for water is a roundel, with those wavy blue and white stripes in it. This grand little
triumphal arch at Baeza, standing inexplicably in wellie—boots in water, has chosen a quatrefoil — four
half-circles rather like the Kelibia font — for its pool. So we decided that our rather minimalist font would be
a lot of water in a round, quite earthy container.’
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19 ‘We discovered Doultons made a beautiful industrial stoneware hemisphere with a plug-hole, to hold the
curious quantity of 19 gallons (which turns out to be a firkin) and we put this into a cylinder of concrete, or
sometimes brick. They are kept full of water, and at Sunday services the lid is taken off so that as you come
into the church, the light beyond is reflected in the wide surface. These fonts are much liked by the
congregations that have them. But there is a question. Water is also fun stuff, ask any child. Architects of the
past knew how to make fun with it. Beyond the serene surface of the lower fountain bowl at Caprarola, the
water staircase bubbles and sparkles. Parapets at Villa Lante, all manner of high-jinks at Villa d’Este, use
water in a way which brings it to life.
The phrases ‘water of life’, ‘life-giving water’, and others, occur throughout the New Testament, symbolic of
the new life of the Spirit. So should the font, or the baptistery, be a more dynamic affair? Some have now
tried this, and the results so far have merely looked rather vulgar. So is it that it is inappropriate, and if so,
why? Or is it that I am still, in spite of all I have said this evening, inhibited by those churchy admonitions
concerning ‘decency’ and ‘the fitting’ — in other words, still clinging somewhere to Mr. Richards’ dignity
and repose?’
As in every feature of the church described in these pages, the various architectural elements
presented here have an essential, practical and primary function and are not just ‘nice’ pieces of
design. The font is above all the place of Christian initiation and is designed to be the first object
that one encounters on entering the church, as the Sacrament of Baptism is the first act that a
Christian encounters on entering the Christian faith. These images below bear testimony to this
primary function:
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The Concentric Bounding ‘Layers’ of the Church
In my personal reflection on how the building ‘works’ I think very much of a journey from ‘darkness to
light’ as one moves from outside on the street (where the light seems to be) to the very heart of the building
where the ‘Holy of Holies’ stands - the heart of what one truly encounters within the ‘ Gates of Heaven’ and
where the Real Light is found, in comparison with which ‘earthly light’ is mere darkness. There are three
concentric ‘zones’ which one negotiates on entering the church on a progressive journey from ‘darkness’ to
the ‘Place of Light,’ each zone ‘accessed’ through an embracing boundary – a bounding ‘membrane’- (or
‘plane’ as Maguire says) of enclosure. And very deliberately, as one progresses towards the light, each
‘membrane’ becomes more and more porous and opens to us the ‘Place of Light’ at the heart of the building.
We are invited and drawn in towards the Light.
Some pages back, as the ‘Broad Features’ were identified, the first of these ‘membranes’ was described – the
12 ft. high expanse of enigmatic brick walls, bounding and embracing all that lies within. They give nothing
away unless you take the trouble to stop and to look within – to take even a few steps inside the Gate of
Heaven. And if you start to do this, via the normative way-in, through the church porch, you immediately
find yourself at the font and beyond it you can see the ‘Place of Light’ at the heart of the building, though
there is yet a journey to go on to get to that place, through two more boundary planes or ‘membranes’, each
of which delimits a very defined ‘zone’ of activity and meaning. (The encircling and much more
‘transparent’ colonnade forms the 2nd ‘membrane and surrounding the Holy Place is the totally transparent
3rd ‘membrane – marked by the outer edge of the lantern, down through the iron corona to the change of
floor texture at ground level – more of this later.)
Once one has taken the decision not just to pass by the building but to enter it and embark upon this
progressive journey from ‘darkness to light’, the boundaries and barriers between you and the ‘Place of
Light’ become progressively more transparent.
In 1995 Maguire said this about this first element of ‘setting apart’ a sacred space:
19 ‘It is usually achieved by the use of certain archetypal architectonic devices. They can occur naturally. Pagans, for
example, recognized the arrangement of trees in some places as awesome, forming what they saw as a sacred grove.
Circles or squares of stone or other materials, once set up, begin to acquire the curious characteristic of setting a place
apart, a place which was not recognizably there before. Formalized into columns, architectural systems with which we
are familiar begin to take shape.
The temple at Segesta is fascinating because they abandoned it when it had only got this far - they actually built the
archetypal peristyle first. The rhythmic colonnade encircles and encloses and sets apart the place, but also relates
outwards, sometimes more emphatically so if, for example, the place set apart is also a symbol of civic unity and pride.
If we take the Parthenon’s peristyle, not stylistically but as an archetypal form, and turn it inside-out, then we have
the reverse effect: an intensification of the privacy of the set-apart place. So much so, that the word cloister has become
a verb: to cloister, to be cloistered. And one can observe that wherever mankind has felt the need for spiritual
refreshment through withdrawal from the world and contemplation, this archetypal form occurs: independent of date
and geography, and style, and religion.
‘You will have spotted that there is another architectonic element here - the cloister has a back Wall, and it is this
bounding Wall which is doing the heaviest job of enclosing. Obviously also related to fundamental needs for security,
the boundary wall attached to itself rituals concerning place-making and identity - beating the bounds, for example,
and in the Christian rite for the consecration of a new church there is a procession around the walls in which the bishop
anoints the wall at twelve places. The New Jerusalem, an archetype of heaven in the Book of Revelation, has four Walls
and twelve gates, three on each side. Gates through the wall are also of great significance, and so we have, across all
cultures a tremendous invention of portals, marking the solemnity of going from non-place outside to place within.
At the Barcelona Exhibition in 1929, Mies van der Rohe showed how you could use the wall in its purest form to
modulate and mould space, leading the eye and the body through a continuum in which enclosure gradually gathers,
places loosely delineated at first, through degrees of definition, in which the ideas of ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ are
deliberately lost, until without the slightest vestige of a portal one finds oneself within the complete enclosure of the
little pool and its statue.’
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19 ‘So we have a perceived symbolic function — the need to ‘set apart a place’ - and a set of architectonic
devices, timeless and essentially non-stylistic, for doing just that, but with different degrees of emphasis,
subtly different nuances. For a modern parish church, the question is how to achieve the right balance.
In the hypothetical project for a Roman Catholic church which preceded the Bow Common design, I had
experimented with a diminutive bounding wall and rather thumping pillars as supports for a heavily
emphasized diagrid roof — all very overbearing and in need of a rethink.’
Thus, though the outer boundary could not be more solid and opaque and unrevealing – that
expanse of solid brick, the next boundary is dramatically more transparent – the encircling
colonnade within the church. This layer is very clearly delineating the boundary between two
defined zones, and yet it seems also to invite one forward and inwards. Bob Maguire describes his
intention and meaning in creating this ‘device’.
6 ‘The colonnade: (1962) (Bob Maguire)
The characteristic action for which the
church was built is the Eucharist; it is
the Eucharist which gives the primary
pattern of relationships within the
church. Although the building had to
seat 500 people as a condition of the
War Damage payment it was
necessary to design it in such a way
that a much smaller congregation would not feel lost in it, since until the surrounding area is re-developed
the congregation is unlikely to rise above 200. This defined a problem the solution of which now interests us
even where the same condition does not obtain, because there will always be times (such as on weekdays)
when a small congregation needs to worship in a large church: it should not be taken for granted that a
separate chapel is always the answer.
At St. Paul’s we have put a colonnade on all four sides of the central space. This and the clerestory wall above
it make a second plane of enclosure and the space within it is a comfortable size for congregations from 200
downwards (downwards, it has been found, to about l0 people). The columns form an effective enclosure
because they are white and the sides facing inwards are very brightly lit, compared to the wall beyond. On
the other hand when the congregation extends into the aisles the columns do not effectively cut people off
from the action in the central space, firstly because the light is much brighter there and so draws attention
inwards and secondly because the strong corrugations of the aisle roofs "throw" the space of the aisles
towards the centre of the building. This is quite unlike the aisle of a Gothic building, where the vault-form
of the roof runs in the longitudinal direction making a distinct space, a compartment with its own directional
“pull” unrelated to the place of the altar. The columns in themselves help in the making of the sense of "place"
in the building.’
Bob Maguire (1995):
19 ‘St Paul’s, Bow Common, uses two devices, the bounding wall and the encircling colonnade. But it uses them
in a way which achieves other objectives at the same time. The columns are slender, but they are white, and lit
mainly by top light from the centre. One therefore feels well enclosed when one is in the central space, the
colonnade reading as the main enclosing element, yet when one is in the ambulatory, as for example in San Stefano
Rotondo, one does not feel excluded by the columns because of the light drawing one, as it were, to the central
space. This means that small congregations and large ones both feel the church is the right size for them.
Also, the ambulatory has the spatial character of being a continuous processional delineation of the set-apart
place as a whole. Consonant with this, there is a processional path set in its floor. I should add that this East
End parish now has a greatly reinforced tradition of doing processions.’
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19 ‘From the glimpse I gave you of the other church plans and interiors, you will have seen that the use of the
virtually unbroken bounding wall, and the ring of columns standing within it, combined — usually — with
a square or near—square plan and daylighting from above, so arranged that you see lit surfaces — these are
the means of achieving what we would call the character of a set-apart place. Others have said it is the
element usually missing in modern churches and refer to it in terms such as a feeling of awe, religious
atmosphere, the numinous, a sense of the holy. Over a period of time, the use of daylight, within the space
given by the delineating wall, became the important means …’
‘The Colonnade: (2002) (Bob Maguire)
6 ‘One vital point about St Paul's and about all our subsequent churches. Most discussions about planning
for modern liturgy start with assertions
about seeing well and hearing what is going
on; and so, proceeding within the classic
modernist rational disciplines, churches
usually end up without columns (which are
said to get in the way of the view) and often
with plans which are wedge-shaped like
lecture theatres, or half-round or nearly so
like an amphitheatre, or of course (Liverpool
Roman Catholic Cathedral being the most
flagrant example) circular.
Consider for example the cloister - a backing
wall and a colonnade or arcade, arranged
around a rectangle. As different in style and proportion as, say, San Georgio Maggiore and Monreale, or
Gloucester. Cloister - the very word - ‘to cloister’ has become almost synonymous with ‘to set apart‘. Yet
take the same two elements and put them the other way around a rectangle and you have: a peristyle - very
good for large public processions around the outside. St Paul's, Bow Common, uses these two devices, the
bounding wall and the encircling colonnade. But it uses them in a way which achieves other objectives
at the same time. The columns are slender, but they are white, and lit mainly by top light from the centre.
One therefore feels well enclosed when one is in the central space, the colonnade reading as the main enclosing
element, yet when one is in the ambulatory one does not feel excluded by the columns because of the light
drawing one, as it were, to the central space.
This means that small congregations and large ones both feel the church is the right size for them. Also, the
ambulatory has the spatial character of being a continuous processional delineation of the set-apart place as
a whole. Consonant with this, there is a processional path set in its floor. I should add that this East End
parish has a great tradition of doing processions.’
The Processional Way:
St. Paul’s, Bow Common, like all religious buildings, is an architectural space which visitors of any
faith or none can find themselves exploring – especially this remarkable building which has been
recognised nationally for what it is. It hardly needs saying that it also primarily exists for its own
faith adherents and as a place of welcome for any who are on a journey of faith. They come at
various stages of exploration of faith – from the curious, the cautious seeker and explorer to a fully
committed faith member.
Over the 18 years I spent in the parish I often both observed and accompanied people on their
exploration of the church building I noticed a certain quality in the way in which the building ‘invites’
one onto the journey from ‘darkness to light’ which also parallels the journey of seeking spiritual light
or a central focus for faith.
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Classically, churches once often had a narthex.
This had the form of a lobby, or a screened off
entrance area and sometimes the font was
placed here or, in such famous examples of the
magnificent cathedrals of Florence or Pisa, as
entirely separate buildings away from the
main church. In this model a sharp line is
drawn between baptised believers who are
fully initiated members of the Christian
congregation and those who are ‘seekers’ and
even those in preparation for full membership
– the catechumens. Those Christians who have
been cast out of church fellowship for
misdemeanour and who wish to return – the
penitents – are also in this category. None on that side of the sharp line would be permitted entrance
into the nave of the church. If there was a screen they could look through it into the main church but
could not enter until either baptised or granted absolution and then reconciled. Indeed, in the Liturgy
of the Eastern churches the Deacon would cry out, ‘The doors! The doors!’ before the recitation of the
Creed so that those not yet in full communion with the Church could be excluded by the shutting of
the doors and not allowed to participate in the recitation of that full statement of Christian belief and
membership, which is what the Creed truly is.
I think that it may not be too fanciful to see this first outer ‘ring’ of the
church layout as having a resonance with this idea of the narthex, though
never has there been any suggestion of non-believers being restricted to
this area and not allowed any further in! Nevertheless, as seen on the
marked out pathway on the plan above, there is a generosity in the
building inviting one in just to circulate around this pathway and to look
into the areas of greater ‘commitment’ within, without being required to
do so. I have seen both in people exploring the building and in people
exploring faith, an early preference for a ‘safe distance’ from the heart of
the matter! It is quite
possible to explore the
fringes of faith and to
spend as long as one needs ‘circling’ any further
commitment! In an interesting way the processional
path does have an echo of the function of a narthex but
in a very generous way, not separated by a solid screen
or doors from the activities of the Christian faith –
hearing Scripture, preaching, praying, receiving the
Sacrament of Communion. Instead, the ‘separation’ is the next very porous ‘membrane’ of the
colonnade through which one can see the ‘things of the faith’ but entering only if or when one is ready.
This ‘parable’ suggests that while circling and observing and considering. on this ‘narthex-like’
pathway, a choice and a possibility is offered regularly on every circuit, with the font placed exactly in
that pathway – should a point of decision be reached, to go further and to enter within. Even if fanciful,
there is (for me) a certain telling resonance with the ancient ordering of churches. And, indeed, for all
who are fully members of the church this is not an ‘excluded’ area for them but an important
processional pathway.
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You may have read previously of the consultative
way in which Bob Maguire and Keith Murray
worked with Fr. Kirkby’s congregation during the
design process for the church. The space being used
for worship was the church hall in which much
experimentation went on, well ahead of its time. We
learn that Maguire and Murray would bring models
of what they were proposing to show the people for
their comments and responses.
The tradition at St. Paul’s, Bow Common has been
of a ‘High Church,’ catholic-minded ‘flavour’ for
generations. Indeed the first church standing on this
site was ‘notorious’ for its ritualist ways (see later).
One of the much loved features of the more catholic
tradition is the procession – an indoor journey of
faith and celebration, a mini-pilgrimage. The
devotion, especially during Lent, of the Stations of
the Cross is one such example. This has its roots in
ancient days where Christians who would never have the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to the
Holy Land could do so within their own church by processing to ‘visit’ representations of the sites they
would have venerated on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem on a sacred procession around the walls of the
church. And churches of all traditions which celebrate weddings also have bridal processions which
have become an important feature of a weddings for many now! I mentioned at the beginning of this
whole account how critically and negatively St. Paul’s, Bow Common has been regarded by traditional
And so when Maguire and Murray showed an early model of what they had in mind for the church,
we are told that an unnamed lady in the congregation had reservations about the lack of much of a
central aisle up which to process. She made a comment along the lines of ‘But we do love our
processions, don’t we, Father?’ Maguire and Murray took this to heart and broadened the outer
‘passage’ between the colonnade and the boundary walls and created an ambulatory or processional
way. In 1962 Maguire said this:
6 ‘The processional path.
Besides their function as seating space, the
aisles are designed for processions. In the
tradition of worship of this parish processions
have been found to be valuable. They help to
unite the congregation for worship. The paved
processional path around the four sides of the
church, like the bounding wall and the columns,
contributes to the character of a set-apart place,
and this contribution becomes more realised
during a procession: the members of the Church trace out the boundaries of the place which represents them,
make it more real to them and so making their incorporation in one body more real to themselves. The
processional path also helps to relate the font to the whole space of the church.’
Easter Day 2008
50th Anniversary of Consecration 2010
- 113 -
12 ’... the aisles are marked out in white
paving for their use in processions (a
feature particularly asked for by the
19 ‘.. there is a processional path set in its
floor. I should add that this East End parish
now has a greatly reinforced tradition of
doing processions.’
26 ‘.. there is a processional path set in its
floor. I should add that this East End parish
has a great tradition of doing processions.’
Whoever that lady was, possibly even making what was a slight criticism of a church without a
‘proper’ long central aisle, her comment led to more than the processional way around the
perimeter of the church walls. Inevitably it widened the ‘viewing’ distance of the inside of the
church walls and created an ideal exhibition space for art works hung on those walls, which we
discovered to much astonishment in 1998 and ever since, after the exhibition ‘Shamiana’ was
relocated to St. Paul’s, Bow Common from the Victoria and Albert Museum in central London!
Whoever could have foreseen this totally
unintended consequence of ‘inclusive space’ as
the prime design intention for the church? As
Bob Maguire wrote on the occasion of the 50th
Anniversary in 2010: ‘We were designing a
church for a new vision of Eucharistic worship.
New, but in fact ancient and original, the inclusive
and also the defining act of unity of the whole People
of God, the Christian Church. It is difficult now to
remember how, in those days of the 50s, the Holy
Communion service was attended by congregations
who spent much of their time in private prayer with
their heads bowed or even in their hands.
By contrast, we were trying to build a church which would encourage true relationships in the liturgy —
priest to people, people to one another, priest to God and people to God, the worship of the whole Church
together. Encourage, but not cause; because it is
only people coming together with understanding
and faith which bring those relationships to life. We
now (by and large) take all that for granted, and so
it could be said — many people do say — that
Gresham, and his local church people, and St
Paul's, took a major role in the renewal of our
worship. So that was the focussed objective we
were making for. It was a great — I mean big and
important — objective.
Looking at it now in the context of what has
come about in recent years in this church, l see
that its very focus prevented us from seeing the further possibilities of the thing that was built.’
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The unintended consequence of Maguire’s design intention led not only to a remarkable path of
pilgrimage but also to what I heard described by many as superb gallery space for the many works
of ‘people’s art’ which were displayed on those walls over the years since 1998.
In 2002 Bob Maguire said this:
26 ‘This is the crux of the planning of St Paul's, that no seats were ever shown on any plan: the idea was to leave
this to the parish and to provide them with moveable seating (in this case four-seat bench pews of lightweight, since
church chairs at the time, as indeed now, were hideous) and the sanctuary enjoys immense space. Moreover, the parish
had been experimenting liturgically - not with alternative texts (this was after all 1956) but with ways of expressing
what might be summed up in the phrase ‘the priesthood of all believers’. Of realising itself as One Body — the same
principle as informed the architectonic forms defining the space.
What it had arrived at was that during the Synaxis, or Ministry of the Word, the congregation would sit. There would
be a certain amount of movement as, for example in the Catholic tradition, there would be a procession with lit candles
at the reading of the Gospel, which would take place at the western end of the church. Preaching would be from the
floor, westward of the altar.
Then, at the beginning of the Ministry of the Sacrament, the entire congregation would leave the seats and
stand in the great space gathered around the altar. They would stay there until they had received
communion, which they also did standing. When everyone had received communion – and not until, as we
do at a meal - they would return to their seats.
It really is for this reason that St Paul‘s was revolutionary. That was all, already, in place, in the hall in which they
had been worshipping. Where we came in was to interpret that extraordinary understanding of what it was all about,
in terms of the physical reality of a building.’
In 1962 he had said: 6 ‘Liturgy as movement: The liturgy may be seen as a movement towards the place of the
altar: in other words the incorporation of the individual person into the sacrificial life of Christ, or movement towards
the transfiguring light. In a Gothic church, this movement is a pilgrimage in one direction, west to east, from the font
to the altar. At St. Paul's the movement can be seen as movement inwards, starting from the font through the
procession to the place of the synaxis (the seating, the place of reading and preaching of the Word) to the sanctuary;
and within the sanctuary, more specifically, the place of the altar.’
6 ‘The seats are designed to be movable. They take the form of 4-seat bench pews, partly because of the minimum
requirements of the London fire regulations for movable seating; in practice they overcome many of the disadvantages
of both pews and chairs. They can be moved easily by one person yet stay put when placed. Their detailed design was
intended to make them unimportant in the space of the church: we see them as a convenience rather than as a vital part
of the design. The backs have been kept low to make them a good height for kneeling and to prevent them from being
barriers between people in the congregation. In use these bench pews have been arranged in a number of different ways.
With the present number of seats (200) it is possible to clear the floor of the church completely because the 50 benches
can be placed in a single row against the perimeter walls.’
18 ‘The benches are movable and capable of seating 200, but smaller numbers feel at home and fully in contact with
celebrant and ministers. The overall effect is of a space that draws the worshippers inwards, a place that helps
participation and gives room for prayer.’
22 ‘ Within an almost square plan, the altar is brought forward and surrounded by pews on three sides, effectively
engaging a more immediate relationship with the congregation. Portable seating allows up to 500 people to be
accommodated with the use of the lower aisles. Flexibility is essential for not only does it remove the problem of a small
assembly feeling lost within a lofty space or being surrounded by a lot of empty seats, but it enables the building to be
used for other functions and gatherings. ‘
In the first ‘zone’ there is journeying and movement along the processional way, ‘circling’ the ‘Place of
Light’. In this second zone of seating, there is sitting and listening and preparing – a zone of ‘reception.’
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Seating for School Dance Performance 2003 Seating for Good Friday 2008
A Flexible Space, easily reconfigured …
Regular seating configuration
Seating Palm Sunday 2012
From 2013-2015 the church continued in use after part of
the lantern ceiling fell in and most of the church was out
of bounds. The flexibility of the seating made this possible.
Passover Meal (Seder) 2008
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Bob Maguire 1962:
6 ‘Preaching and reading.
There is no pulpit at present. Originally we intended to have a fixed pulpit and then it was decided that its
best position should be found by experiment after the church was finished. It has, however been found that
while the congregation is still comparatively small a pulpit would be no advantage for preaching. At the
moment preaching is generally done from the altar steps and there is a good relationship between preacher
and congregation.
As the congregation grows, it may become necessary to provide a pulpit but we have learned that this would
best be a movable piece of furniture like the pulpits common in English churches in the early post-reformation
period. This would have the advantage that it can be put in different positions according to the occasion. The
Gospel is read from the middle of the congregation; a new folding lectern is being made.’
The Sanctuary ~ the ‘Place of Light’:
Earlier I mentioned there effectively being ‘zones’ within the church – zones of meaning as well as
zones of purpose. At the heart of the second ‘seating’ zone people gather for worship or, as in recent
years, for other common activities. But, mindful of the founding principles of this place as designed for
liturgy, and also as ‘The House of God,’ beyond, and at its heart, is what has been called the ‘Place of
Light’ – both literally, with light pouring through the lantern above, as well as metaphorically. This is
the goal and destination on the ‘journey’ from darkness to light, into which the building invites us.
Unlike the axial progression in classic Gothic-style churches, from west to east, to the ‘Holy of Holies’
in the sanctuary, in this church the progression is ‘radial,’ from any point on the perimeter to the central
sanctuary. If this is the Gate of Heaven, then this heart of the building, where the sanctuary is found,
must be the dwelling place of the Most High, the Holy of Holies. Indeed, encircling that place is the
‘Heavenly Host’ whose sole purpose is to attend the Most High for eternity. Incredibly and
astonishingly, it is to such a Place that we, mere mortals, are drawn and invited by Love Itself.
Completely unlike the very solidly
established boundaries marking (and
even ‘guarding’) the sacred place in most
churches – boundaries marked by rails or
a rood screen or, in the Eastern tradition,
an iconostasis – in St. Paul’s Bow
Common there is indeed a boundary and
a ‘plane of transition,’ but here it is totally
transparent! To reach this holy space we
have first to penetrate solid brick walls.
When we are within, these then give way
to an open colonnade inviting us to move
further towards the ‘Place of Light’. And,
when we approach that holy place there
is nothing to impede our progress. But it
clear where the boundary lies and to see the markers of this inner sanctum we have both to look
upwards and also at our feet!
There is a real but transparent plane of transition marked by the high level boundary of the edge of the
lantern (shown above) and then, lower down, the line of the iron corona (yellow lines below) and, at
our feet, the change in flooring material from flagstones to a brick surround to the altar (red line
- 117 -
For me, as I grew to know the church through use of it and also reflection on how it ‘worked,’ this
is more than just an architectural device! There is an unintended but powerful statement here for
me about the Christian vision of ‘access’ to the Divine. Christianity, along with Judaism and Islam
and other faiths, has always proclaimed the ‘otherness’ and the supreme holiness of the Divine
Being, beyond our comprehension and totally beyond our direct access or approach. This utter
holiness has been expressed tangibly and architecturally by the ‘Holy of Holies’ within a temple
or sanctuary. Walls, forbidden zones, curtains, extremely limited access open only to the High
Priest, severe penalties for trespass – all of these ‘guard’ the Holy Place’ from the presumption of
mere mortals daring to approach the Divine Being. And then Christianity came along with a bold
and even shocking theology inverting all of this! Not just of mortals reaching out to touch the
Divine but, far more shockingly, of the Divine reaching out to touch human lives from within! One
who is exactly as we are – fully human - and yet who contains and embraces the fullness of Divinity
within Himself, reaches out to humanity. The veil has been torn, the walls have been breached and
the barriers broken down but – Christianity claims - radically, from within!
For me, this radical claim of Christian belief of ‘Divine
demolition’ of the barriers which keep mortals from the
Eternal seems to be echoed in the way the sanctuary is
marked in this church. Indeed the Holy remains holy –
Christianity is not a religion of ‘Divine matiness,’ where
the Divine is confused with the material and the human
and it is all one Holy mess – but our ‘access’ to the Divine
and what is Holy is now unblocked and unhindered. My
reflection on all of this considers how the whole journey
from darkness to light, from separation to integration with
the Holy, is presaged from the moment one enters from
the church porch. This particular definition of the
sanctuary also gives it a very ‘vertical’ component which
literally ‘raises the roof! This great ‘cube’ of the sanctuary
pushes itself up above the lower level of the church roof
and onwards and upwards as the ‘Holy Place’ reaches up
and proclaims itself silently for all to see – an act of
‘invitation,’ far from a privatised religion, secreted only
for the initiates and insiders to have access!
The great ‘Cube’ of the Sanctuary
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The church reveals and invites and offers us a pathway, increasingly unhindered, if we but take the first
step. Indeed, as we enter through the porch – whether as total stranger, pilgrim or curious enquirer – the
first step we take places us literally onto the octagonal extension into the porch of the white brick
processional way which continues around the first zone of the church! Whether we just circumnavigate the
inner zones or pause to receive Baptism and then progress ever inwards is entirely out choice! But the
invitation is made from the moment one enters the church! None of this was intended consciously by its
designers and creators but such was the integrity of their overall vision – not just the architectural vision –
that this all seems to me to hold together.
In 1962 Bob Maguire wrote:
6 ‘The place of the altar.
The church is the place of the assembly of the people of God, called together by the Word of God. Seen from another
point of view it is the place of the altar table. Traditionally this has been seen as the symbol of Christ in His Church,
both because it is the place of the Eucharistic offering and because of its association with the idea of “the stone which
the builders rejected“, “the corner stone". It is the fixed symbol of the relationship between Christ and His Church.
At St. Paul's, it was our object to relate the whole space of the church to the place of the altar. We believe
that the detailed disposition of seats is far less important in achieving this relationship than is currently thought; the
relationship is primarily determined by the organisation of the space of the whole interior. This is perhaps best
illustrated by saying that anyone standing or sitting anywhere in the whole building shall feel related to the place of
the altar by means of the arrangement of floor, wall, roofs, columns, intensity and direction of light, and so on; all those
things which mould and shape the three-dimensional space. And it is the character of this space which is the true
architectural character of the building, far more important than any of the bits and pieces which shape it. The design
of the place of the altar developed from two considerations: that it is the place of Calvary and that it is the
setting of the table of the mystical banquet—the sacrificial place and the place of communion.
The ciborium over the altar has a similar function in maintaining the balance between the complementary concepts of
the meal and the sacrifice. This balance becomes more difficult to achieve when the altar is “in the midst" (not the
middle) of the Church. The ciborium sets apart the place of the altar just as the bounding wall sets apart the place of
the church; sets apart but does not cut off. (This has been borne out in practice despite many predictions to the
contrary during the time between the completion of the church and the installation of the ciborium.) The ciborium is a
lightweight structure with thin steel columns and the marble roof spans by itself; the idea of the tent has influenced
us, and the structure is technically “moveable".’
And so we arrive at the heart of the church, the destination to which we have been drawn from our
very first step inside the church, the Sanctuary, the ‘Place of Light,’ the Holy of Holies but also the
Table of Communion and Fellowship. Bob Maguire says this:
6 ‘The sanctuary is defined at three levels; by paving on the floor (but at the same level as the floor of the church),
by a hanging corona with candles for festivals, and by the lantern in the roof through which comes most of the
daylight in the church. The “normal” way to define a sanctuary is by steps and rails. Our objection to this method
is that it cuts off the sanctuary from the rest of the church tending to make the Eucharist appear as something
performed by those in the sanctuary and observed by those outside; a dramatic performance.
The white paving bricks run out to a
line beyond the corona, making a
gentle transition. The corona makes a
strong definition of the sanctuary
space, but does not create a barrier; in fact, the three semi- circular “arches" on each side exemplify the idea
of movement into the sanctuary. At communion the laity actually go into the sanctuary and kneel on the
first step. The corona is related in space to the lantern above. It extends the space of the light-filled lantern
downwards and emphasises the fact that the sanctuary is the place of light. The pattern of natural lighting
in the building was for us an important part of the design. We believe that the way in which light falls on
surfaces is more important than major artistic efforts spent on the windows themselves, and all the windows
of the church are of clear glass letting in uncoloured daylight. In particular, the white columns of the church
pick up the light and emphasise the light-filled quality of the interior.’
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26 ‘The central space, as you see in a plan, is three bays wide and four bays long, and the altar in its square
sanctuary space, and the lantern directly above it, are centred on the three bays by three bays towards the
east end. Incidentally, the three by four proportion governs all the principal relationships between
elements in the building. There is nothing pseudo-sacred about this, but it does, as Alberti or Palladio
would say, lend harmony to all the parts.
Hanging from the edge of the lantern opening in the flat ceiling
is a square corona supporting lights; this is made of off-shelf
rolled steel sections (as are the steel sections of the ciborium) and
it works like a series of balance-arms on fulcrums. I should say
that I was very keen on Alexander Calder at the time (as I am
still) and was making serious mobiles. The corona and the lantern over define the sanctuary area: there
is no step and no communion rail, only a change of paving material.
There are however two steps up to the altar. Put an altar on the floor of the church, and it looks as if it could be
on casters, able to be trundled anywhere like a buffet trolley. Raise it on a step or two, and the worrying sensation
has gone. But steps have been such a subject of
church rubrics in the past, especially relating
to the sanctuary of a church, where various
numbers of steps from time to time have been
laid down precisely. On looking into these the
reason appears to be the analogy with the holy
hill, hilltops having been seen as very holy
places, even symbolically in the Old Testament as the dwelling-place of God, as in Psalms 15 and 24.
Assuming that such symbolism still has some deep-seated psychological or spiritual meaning - and I think there
is a good case to be made - the question for us was ‘How many steps to make a symbolic holy hill?‘ At Bow
Common we came up with the answer, two, which is one less than both the Church of England and the Roman
Catholic Church were stipulating at the time. Actually I now think one step is enough to fix an object spatially.
But it does not make the object special. If you are designing a cenotaph, or the Albert Memorial, as designers have
always known, you need more than one step. This is never much talked about, I think perhaps because designers
have recently found themselves unable to produce rational defensive positions: but since under the regulations
(in themselves admirable) for designing for the disabled, level floors or at best ramps are becoming the norm,
architects have found themselves missing something from their vocabulary which in retrospect seems more vital
than they thought.
There is a baldachin over the altar. Now, this is a very unmodern thing to do, because of the rationalist argument
that columns get in the way of the view. The real purpose of many canopies, from those over statues on the outside
of cathedrals to Prince Albert sitting out in Hyde Park, is to enhance the importance of the person or object or
activity covered. An altar is necessarily limited in size because its height is fixed, and when you bring the altar
off the east wall, it becomes a Wall if it is of any great length. The canopy gives visual importance to something
which is of great intrinsic importance but dimensionally slight.’
In 1962 Maguire had said:
6 ‘We decided to set the altar on two rather than the more usual three steps. Three steps is an archetypal image of
a hill (the hill of Calvary) and is complete in itself. This completeness, we believe, tends to cut off the place of
Calvary from the rest of the church, suggesting a dissociation of the action of the priest from that of the people in
the liturgy.
If, however, two steps are used the general floor level of the church becomes one of the three levels; priest and
people are on the hill together, although still in a hierarchic relationship. If, on the other hand, we had set the altar
table down on the general floor level, this would “speak” of the meal but not of the sacrifice. An altar set on too
many steps (characteristic of most Gothic Revival churches and continued in many modern churches) speaks only
of the sacrifice.’
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In 1999, Tanya Harrod commented on the Sanctuary:
25 ‘The corona was made up of standard rolled steel sections bolted and welded by a construction firm (Fig.
397). The steel beams of the ciborium were also of high quality. If tugged, the corona oscillates, an intentional
feature which for Maguire made pleasing allusion to mobiles by
Alexander Calder
and for Murray
made manifest an
description of
lights moving in
Hagia Sophia in
There were little touches of luxury. The
candle sconces on the corona were of purple
glass, specially made in Murano. The
ciborium was roofed in thin sheets of
serpentine and white Carrara marble. The
altar was of plain concrete but the altar cloth
was of 'Thai silk designed by Murray and
embroidered at Watts & Co.’
This is a very early
interior view of the
church (possibly
taken at Harvesttide
1960 to judge
by the harvest sheaf
resting against a
The spandrels,
designed to receive
the mosaics of the ‘Heavenly Host,’ remain blank. Keith
Murray was to have executed these but now in
partnership with Bob Maguire as Maguire and Murray,
they both went on to design other churches and
buildings. The commission was handed to Charles
Lutyens who worked on this enormous project from
1963-68 to produce the remarkable work we see today –
very likely the largest contemporary mosaic in Britain,
and possibly the largest mosaic in the country executed
by one person.
The church was consecrated on 30th April 1960 without
the mosaics and also without the organ yet in place or,
as can be seen here, the ciborium or baldachino yet
erected. From earlier images in this account it is clear that the High Altar was used without the canopy to
begin with.
From what I heard from the few members of the congregation who went back to those early days there was
resistance to the installing the ciborium! They rather liked the openness of the High Altar on its own and
did not want the fussiness or embellishment of a canopy! Feistiness was a feature of some of that early
congregation and remained alive and active even up to my time as Incumbent as I learned in my first three
years at Bow Common! But their rebellion did not prevail and the ciborium was installed.
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The Altar and Ciborium (Baldachin):
In his work on Maguire and Murray, Gerald Adler says this:
29 ‘Maguire's understanding of functionalism in architecture included fostering and representing the life
within. The idea of ‘form finding’ is amplified to take account of intangible and psychological factors. In the
church of St Paul's this means inter alia placing the altar in a forward position towards the middle of the
church, raised up onto a dais. As Banham wrote in his review of the church:
“The Liturgical Movement sets … [the architect] a double functional problem to be resolved in a single
solution: to create a functional space … to house the priest and the congregation in the celebration of the
ritual, and a symbolic space … to house the altar … This double objective might be achieved by applying
symbols to a functional structure, but that would simply be window-dressing. The outcome is only
architecture if the functional and symbolical are indissoluble.”
The design and location of the altar goes to the heart of
what Maguire and Murray were seeking in their
rethinking of the church in terms of liturgy‘ The altar is
‘the place of Calvary [as well as being] the table of the
mystical banquet — the sacrificial place and the place of
communion?’ The design of the altar therefore involves an
inevitable compromise between its symbolism as the hill of
Calvary, the place where the crucifixion occurred, and that
of the dining table, most famously depicted as the scene of
Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper.
The altar sits on a square platform raised two steps up from
the general floor level of the sanctuary, in other words, one
step less than the usual representation of the hill of
Calvary. This is sufficient to make the altar a space apart,
while still insisting that it is part and parcel of the
sanctuary, located amid the congregation. Two other
devices frame and focus the altar: the ciborium or canopy,
and the corona or hanging crown above. The communion
rail, the ‘separating fence’, as Murray called it, is entirely
absent. The ciborium harks back to Early Christian
practice and is a canopy framing the altar. It gives a certain
intimacy to the Eucharist service, beneath a tent-like cover with connotations of the temporary.’
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29 ‘Made of standard steel sections and roofed in two kinds of simple spanning stone, serpentine and white
Sicilian marble slabs, it is reminiscent of the ciborium
at S. Clemente, Rome, a distant cousin of the Jewish
wedding canopy, the Chuppah, and the temporary booth
known as the Sukkah, which forms a focus for festivities
at the festival of Tabernacles. It symbolises that, while
the crucifixion took place at a specific place (Calvary),
one may encounter God anywhere.
This strong inward focus culminates in the hanging
corona, fabricated again from standard rolled steel
sections. The flat bars of the steel structure provide
myriad places for candles to be placed. Although not at
first obvious, the flexibility revealed by a slight touch
shows how this structure related to Maguire's interest
in Alexander Calder's mobiles.’
Maguire (1995):
19 ‘Some of our churches have a baldachin over the altar. Now this is a very unmodern thing to do, because of
the rationalist argument that the columns get in the way of the view. Some of the parishes felt that, so did not
have one, and some felt it was just too popish. I have to say that I think baldachins are often a good thing, and
that particularly St. Matthew’s, Perry Beeches and St. Joseph’s, Northolt, need one.
Canopies are, of course, useful for keeping the weather off, but their real purpose is to enhance the importance of
the person or object or activity covered. It can be a saint (I like the economy of this one: just two canopies for three
saints) or a little crucifix, or the Sultan while he admires the view, or the ceremonial taking of tea, or the playing
of music in the park (where you also get the advantage of acoustic reflection), or the carrying of the Blessed
Sacrament in procession (this is of solid silver and it is in Baeza Cathedral) or Prince Albert sitting out in Hyde
Park. What all these canopies have in common is their symbolic function - they give visual importance to
something which is itself of great intrinsic importance but is dimensionally slight.
This can easily be appreciated in St Peter’s, Rome. An altar cannot for anthropometric reasons be higher than one
metre. Even if you make it very long, which is anyway inconvenient, it will be totally insignificant in a space as
vast as St Peter’s. The baldachino corrects this, and it does so by symbolic means that we all take for granted.
At San Clemente there is not the problem of the scale of the surroundings to the same extent. Cosmati altars,
however - like Early Christian altars — are normally the sensible and most symbolically suitable size, about two
metres by one metre by one metre high (that satisfying double cube) and this really very small object is given
command of the whole space by the baldachino which itself is quite complex in its symbolic functioning: this top
part sitting on the architrave beam is of course a peristyled temple - place set apart within set—apart place!
The simple baldachins at Bow Common and Crewe both owe much to that at San Clemente. Bow Common’s
altar is vertically under the lantern, as I have already said, and in a way the lantern — and the corona which
hangs from its periphery — already serve the same symbolic purpose. But at Crewe it would be difficult to imagine
the altar without its enshrining canopy. In neither case, incidentally, has anyone ever complained of the columns
obscuring their view.’
Standing space. (Maguire 1962)
6 ‘The sanctuary and the space immediately around it are sufficiently large to enable the whole of the
congregation to stand or kneel around the altar for the Eucharist proper. i.e. from the offertory onwards.
Many people concerned with the development of the responsible acts of the laity in the liturgy have felt that
in order to achieve this it is necessary for the members of the Church to stand around the altar itself for the
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I’m not sure this was done on a regular basis by Fr. Kirkby but in my time in the parish it was a
wonderful experience to gather the whole congregation around the altar for major festivals.
There are two altars in Italy with ciboria over them which resonate closely with that at St. Paul’s, Bow
Common. The 12th century altar of San Clemente in Rome (below left), in particular, was seen to
embody perfectly what Maguire was looking for. The earlier 10th century altar at Sant’ Elia, north of
Rome, is very similar in form (right).
It is hard today to relocate our minds and our responses to this building to the time in which it was
built. Maguire and Murray truly were mapping new territory which nowadays is seen as an obvious
and familiar landscape. The barriers had been raised for centuries and lay worshippers knew their
place. The sanctuary was to greater or lesser extent an exclusion zone into which the chosen few were
admitted because of their status or role. A bit of an extreme synopsis but not totally inaccurate!
‘Inclusive Space’
As seen already in the section on the Liturgical Movement the status quo began to be challenged
well before St. Paul’s Bow Common was even thought about, but when it appeared it embodied
the more open principles in a radical and ‘holistic’ way. I say ‘holistic’ because of our discovery in
recent years that Maguire’s principle of ‘inclusive space’ underpinning the design of the church
purely for liturgical use is also, in fact, effective for other uses in the ‘whole’ life of a community.
Once one sees how essentially relational liturgy is, it is not surprising that other relational activities
of a gathered group of people is also aided and enhanced by a principle of ‘inclusive space’ – or
‘relational space’ as I have come to see it.
In a lecture of 1995, Maguire said more about this:
19 ‘ … certain kinds of interior space … possess a definable character. The trouble has been to find the words
actually to describe this definable character. I have opted for ‘inclusive space’. Inclusive space is a space
within which, wherever a person is situated and no matter how many others are also in the space or where
they are situated, that person feels included in whatever is going on.’
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19 ‘I remember first having this conviction about an interior architectural
space in the Pazzi Chapel (in Florence), which also probably rates — and of
course it is an absurd statement really — as my favourite building …
To move from the humble to the immense, Hagia Sophia has this quality.’
— still has it, despite the distraction of the Qu’ranic texts and other more
geometrically disorientating additions.
The size of this space is enormous. As anyone will know who has ever tried
to design a space in which a very large number of people are to gather, yet
which needs to retain a feeling of intimacy, the task seems entirely selfcontradictory.
Yet Hagia Sophia not only achieves that, it goes a step further
and has this quality of being inclusive space as I have defined it.
Naturally one wonders why this should be, and it is of some help to observe
the entirely different spatial character in the Suleyman Mosque just up the road, of similar size and with an
almost identical basic plan and structural arrangement, yet lit in such a way that all surfaces receive an equal
amount of light, the whole building being knowable at a glance, the spatial delineation of the structural form being
almost of incidental interest, and no part of this vast and beautiful hall having any differentiation.
At Hagia Sophia, the great central space is held in firm yet
light delineation by structural components which exist within
a continuum of somewhat ambiguous space and all is defined
by light, both inside and out … in Hagia Sophia there is the
feeling that the structure and the space and light are all one
thing, totally dependent on each other and making a place
which includes one’s own self as an integral part, and so joins
one in a general oneness with others there.
This is no accident, and relates to the Pauline theory of the
oneness of the Church, the idea of each person as a member in
the anatomical sense, of the Church as the mystical Body of Christ. The Eastern Orthodox have a theology of
sacred space as they have one relating to the function of icons.
We have been looking at Byzantine buildings, but there are many examples in Western Christendom which
possess the characteristics of inclusive space.. but it is so hard to define. One can, it seems, only recognize it when
one sees it. ‘Aha, you may say, all these buildings have domes. But there are hundreds of buildings with domes
that do not have it. One thing seemed clear: they are all buildings with a centralizing structure, rather than a
structure (like a nave vault, for instance) which has rhythms which lead the eye in one direction. They pick up
your attention, as it were, and relate it back to the space enclosed. And there is also the function of light, in some
way dissolving the mass of the structure while allowing it to define the space in that proper spatio-structural way
which I believe to be the essential architectural quality.
To create such a space for a modern church, what one is searching for is an appropriate centralizing structure
which one then has to handle using certain qualities of light. At St Paul’s, Bow Common, this is not yet really an
integrated structure; the great lantern sits in a flat ceiling, its method of support hidden away, but geometrically
directly above the sanctuary area.’
In 2002 Maguire returns to this defining principle:
26 ‘One last but vital point about St Paul's and about all our subsequent churches. Most discussions about
planning for modern liturgy start with assertions about seeing well and hearing what is going on; and so,
proceeding within the classic modernist rational disciplines, churches usually end up without columns (which
are said to get in the way of the view) and often with plans which are wedge-shaped like lecture theatres, or halfround
or nearly so like an amphitheatre, or of course (Liverpool Roman Catholic Cathedral being the most flagrant
example) circular.’
Santa Fosca (Florence) (Image: Wikipedia)
Hagia Sophia(Istanbul) (Image: Wikipedia)
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26 ‘Liturgy, however, is not lecturing, nor theatre, nor is it is a circus. And if one produces a building whose
spatial characteristics have been developed for one of these uses, liturgy will tend to be forced down that road
~ it can easily become, through misunderstanding, a kind of lecture seminar, and in particular, theatre.
Throw in a fervent choir and an ambitious organist, and parish worship aspires to the Albert Hall.
The nature of Christian worship is otherwise, and the Eucharistic liturgy properly involves complex
relationships between all present (and of course I include God in that). But this does not itself generate
architectural form. However, these complex relationships actually seem to look after themselves - the liturgy
itself being the dynamic relationship generator - in certain kinds of interior space which, we observed,
possessed a definable character. The trouble has been to find the words actually to describe this definable
character. I have opted for ’inclusive space’, that is a space within which, wherever a person is situated and
no matter how many others are also in the space or where they are situated, that person feels included in
whatever is going on.
Buildings in which I have experienced this with intensity are the Pazzi Chapel, Santa Fosca at Torcello,
Hosios Loukas near the road from Athens to Delphi. It is independent of style, and it resists easy prescriptions
like ‘a dome will work‘. It is a question of the way structure defines space, and the way the delineation of that
space is achieved by quality of light. But one cannot generalise; and if I say that we have found that
centralising structures (and I don't mean centralised plans) seem to offer the best possibilities, I have to
qualify that at once by saying that there are many that don't, and conversely there are wonderful historical
examples that defy that description. Inclusive space has been our quest in all our subsequent churches, with
various degrees of success.’
As I grew to know and explore how this remarkable building ‘works,’ fanciful as such a notion
might seem, I genuinely came to understand that the building has a genius in recognising certain
obvious but essential things. Thus, churches are nothing without people, and people are nothing
without relationships. Architecture can either work with and enable, or go against and negate that basic
truth and purpose in a building designed to bring people together not just as spectators.
In the case of St. Paul’s, Bow Common, the building has a genius of understanding this and opens
itself up and enables relationship, either relationship with your fellow worshippers and with the
Divine, or relationships socially when people gather. It’s always best that people should be in
relationship and the architecture of this space encourages and enables that, even when strangers
gather. Relationships need space and in this extraordinary building there is ‘verticality’ and there
is volume and there is also intimacy and these things are an essential part of relationship, whether
with the Divine or with your fellow, and somehow this building understands that & provides &
encourages all of that.
From what I have understood, liturgy is meant to be a ‘dialogue’ and interaction between the
presiding ministers and the gathered laity – and together, with the Divine Being. In the first half
of the Liturgy there is the ‘Liturgy of the Word’ centred on what goes on at the lectern, just inside
the sanctuary and forward of the High Altar. From here confession is led and absolution given,
Scripture is read, preaching is done and intercessions led. Essentially, for all of this the High Altar
is disregarded! I heard from Keith Murray about how the altar was not dressed until after the
action moved from the lectern to the altar at the Offertory. And when the priest moved to the altar,
so did the laity, to stand in the great brick paved space defining the sanctuary and able to hold the
whole congregation.
The longer I came to know the extraordinary geometry and purposeful design of the sanctuary the
more I grew to arrange the liturgy around its purpose. From the very beginning when I discovered
what the duality was, which the High altar embodies, I knew that this was a remarkably revealing
sacred space.
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The significance of the High Altar
At first sight the structure of the High Altar is puzzling and even complicated – certainly I have never seen
an altar like it. There are two distinct elements of support holding up the fine slate slab of the altar stone,
incised with the traditional five consecration crosses. There is what is, basically, a cruciform concrete block,
upon which the slate slab rests exactly.
But there are also four legs supporting the corners of the slate slab, set in the angles of the solid cross-shaped
central support. This could seem like a serious example of over-engineering, of belt and braces! The altar
slab could more than adequately be supported either by the legs or the central cruciform support. There
seems to be a degree of redundancy here!
Not so! As already indicated above by Maguire and also by Adler, there is a dichotomy of view about the
nature of the Sacrament of Holy Communion – the sacred meal of Bread and Wine re-enacting the Last
Supper and instituted by Christ and repeated ever since, in obedience to his command.
One view is that it is the Meal of Christian Fellowship at which, indeed, Christians believe Christ is
mystically present. A table is the appropriate place at which to celebrate such a Meal.
The other view sees this as the offering of Sacrifice, the self-Sacrifice of Christ, which in the tradition of the
Jewish Temple made expiation for human sins and renews our oneness with God. A sacrificial slab is
appropriate for this to be done, in this case very appropriately supported by a cruciform pedestal.
Each of these views is embodied in altars which are simply tables with legs, or in altars with a stone
‘sacrificial’ slab upon which the Bread and Wine are offered as the Body and Blood of Christ. As in so many
matters of faith we are expected to opt for ‘either/or’ – for one interpretation as ‘right’ which somewhere
hints that any other interpretation is ‘wrong.’
One of the many saving carry-overs from which I have benefitted in my former training and career as a
physicist, is the sheer mystery of reality! Physics is a deeply humbling discipline as it challenges so many
of one’s black or white views of reality. Thus we discover that light acts both as a wave and as particles;
that mass is also pure energy; that particles truly can be in many places at the same time … and so on.
People of faith can often lack a basic humility, to allow things to be – maybe – what they truly are rather
then we would like them to be/believe them to be. Thus, within the mystery of that central action of faith
which takes place at an altar, there is BOTH an act of fellowship at the table of communion AND an offering
of sacrifice, of self-giving and self-offering, both of Christ and of those who gather around that altar.
Remarkably and with a simple unadorned ‘materiality,’ the High Altar at St. Paul’s, Bow Common disposes
itself for both these vital understandings, as the place of self-sacrifice and the place of intense and profound
communion, one with another and each with Christ. This ‘duality’ of meaning is barely noticed as the altar
is covered throughout the year except from Maundy Thursday night to the Eve of Easter Day. But then most
important things lie unseen beneath their externals!
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The Standing Space
One of the ‘defining planes’ of the sanctuary is the change of floor surface, from the large paving
slabs of the seating area to the brick paving also found in the processional way. This forms what
Bob Maguire calls the ‘Standing Space’ in 1962 and liturgically is one of the most potent signs of
liturgical revolution proclaimed by this church!
For centuries long the people of God have known their place and that has been very firmly in their
seats or standing spaces as the holy mysteries are performed by the priest at the altar. However,
the rather radical message of this church and of its sanctuary is that when the priest moves to the
altar so do the people, to stand around him (or now, thankfully, her!) while the elements of Bread
and Wine are consecrated and then received, before returning to their seats. This is no longer a
sacred zone forbidden to the People of God!
Not intended, but for me meaningful as I have stood at that altar, is that the simple brick paving
of the people’s ‘standing space’ does not change into precious marble or some more noble flooring
material or even carpeting as the sacred altar is approached. Insignificant as it must seem,
nevertheless I have so often been aware of this further solidarity between priest and people that
we stand on the same simple kind of ground, even at the most sacred moments of the liturgy.
Hierarchy and status are levelled as we stand together before the loving Divine Presence.
My experience of this building was one of giving enormous freedom for liturgy. Examples have
already been shown of how readily the seating and layout of the church can be reconfigured.
Something gradually dawned upon me as we celebrated in church the events of the last week and
the Passion of Christ. For the first several years I used the High Altar as the place for all the holy
days to be celebrated – the Last Supper, the Passion and the Resurrection.
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And then the obvious struck me, which was that originally, all those events took place away from
the Temple or any synagogue or sacred place, but instead right in the midst of the people. That
feels very significant, that if these deeds were pivotal and for our Salvation then they took place
not in the Holy of Holies but in the midst of ordinary life – just as the whole Christian story began
not in a royal palace or the Temple but in a poor manger.
So after Palm Sunday, for the last several years of my time in the church, the Sanctuary was
abandoned & the liturgy took place on the floor of the church in the midst of the people; the Last
Supper, the Raising of the Cross & the lighting of the Easter (Paschal) Candle. And in all of these
liturgies I made sure that the Altar stood as a ‘bridge’, straddling the interface (yellow line above)
between the white brick Sanctuary flooring and the People’s seating space of paving slabs (shaded
area). In many churches and, indeed, in many religious views – even those of some Christians,
these are utterly different and excluding zones – the sacred and the secular; the Holy of Holies and
the Human zone; Heaven and the here and now which every one of us experiences. Christ on His
Cross is laid down as a bridge across this uncrossable divide. And, indeed, these great events of
Holy Week are the building blocks of this bridge and, for Christians, truly make the kind of bridge
between earth and heaven which this building is so good at proclaiming and celebrating!
As mentioned before, the initial impact that the
church has on newcomers is due, in part, to finding
almost the entire volume of the building revealed
for view. It seems to me that this was the intention
of Maguire and Murray but not that of Fr. Kirkby!
He was not one to give way on what he felt deeply
about and this was one such case.
In the catholic tradition the reserved Sacrament of
the consecrated Bread and Wine at the Mass would
be afforded a chapel in which to be reserved, with a
sanctuary lamp burning constantly. Also, the
Blessed Virgin Mary is held in high honour and a
‘Lady Chapel’ has long been a place of honour for
her in churches and cathedrals.
From what I understand, Fr. Kirkby cited the
precedent of there having been both a Sacrament
Chapel and a Lady Chapel in the earlier church
which stood on that site.
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As described in a later
section, the first St. Paul’s,
Bow Common, was
notorious for its ritualist
reputation and a strong
Tractarian influence. Indeed
the church was built with a
rather inflammatory empty
niche on the western street
front which would have
been provocative in 1858
when the church was built,
suggesting that maybe a
statue of Mary might one
day be placed there! By the
time it was destroyed in the
War there may well have
been such chapels in the old church and Fr. Kirkby would have had ample contemporary accounts
of what had been in the church which he only knew as a ruin.
However, I remember
conversations with Keith
Murray in which he still
expressed reservations about
the chapels being there at all.
‘One church, one altar’ and
therefore one focus – this was
the basic formula for this and
later churches by Maguire
and Murray. And it seems
likely that Fr. Kirkby’s wishes
prevailed and resulted in the
Sacrament Chapel (above)
and Lady Chapel (right)!
In 1962 Bob Maguire wrote this:
6 ‘To fulfil its symbolic function, the altar must be unique in the church. In this parish, however, there was
a tradition of reservation of the Blessed Sacrament in a tabernacle at an altar; the need for a Lady chapel was
also felt strongly, and for a separate chapel for weekday celebrations of the Eucharist. We have provided two
chapels, one on the east and the other on the north side. The relationship of these chapels to the space of the
church was complicated by two opposed needs. The first was the consideration of the uniqueness of the altar
in the church which suggested that the chapel should be entirely separated. Against this it was felt that the
Blessed Sacrament should be reserved in the space of the church, and that the Lady chapel should not be a
space divided off completely. Consequently we have made a discontinuity in the bounding wall of the church
at each chapel, and built the chapel "outside" the wall, but run the vault of the aisle roof through to link the
chapel to the church. The result is, we think, at least partially successful, but this is certainly one of the points
over which we now feel we would try for some further clarification of the programme, were we doing it again.
Although the chapels have been provided, it is interesting that even when congregations are very small people
prefer to gather at the main altar.’
Sacrament Chapel
Lady Chapel
- 130 -
Gerry Adler also comments:
29 ‘The two other openings are for chapels, one for the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament in a tabernacle at
an altar; the second for a Lady Chapel used as a separate chapel for weekday celebrations of the Eucharist.
However, Maguire was careful to give the perception that these two chapels were ‘outside’ the church by
introducing vertical slots of glazing that interrupt the U-shape of their enclosing walls. This enhances the
focus on the central sanctuary, and ensures that the altar is not compromised in its significance.’
I think that I do agree with Maguire and Murray’s reservations
about the chapels. The aerial view above shows a slight
awkwardness as the chapels roofs ‘poke out’ from the rest of the
building and are asymmetric not being balanced to south or
west by similar elements. However, I think that Maguire
ultimately got his way by pretty totally dissociating the chapels
from the church proper – as Gerry Adler mentions above! The
walls of each of the chapels has no connection at all with the rest
of the main church walls and effectively they sit in the vicarage
garden or the council green land alongside the church!
This adjacent views show that
that the external bounding walls
of the church simply carry on
across the chapel entrance and
then stop enough to permit
entrance! What would have been
a gap between the three
independent and free-standing
chapel walls and the main church boundary wall has been glazed
and, as a further kindness, the folded slab lower perimeter church
roof stretches out over the chapel walls to provide cover. Otherwise,
the chapels, structurally have nothing to do with the main church
buildings! Even when in use for small communion services, it is only
the priest who fits inside the chapel and for greatest comfort the
congregation has to sit on benches in the main church at the entrance
to the chapel, so not a happy arrangement, really. The High Altar, I
found, ‘worked’ very well even with a single figure congregation in the main church.
There is (for me) a revealing little detail in the
way in which the main church walls form an
entrance to each of the two chapels. These
views of the left hand entrance to the Lady
Chapel show the main perimeter wall of the
church simply carrying on past the chapel
perimeter wall as if ignoring this structural
intrusion! And as one zooms in on the detail
of how the top of the wall deals with the
chapel roof it can be seen that no concession is
made and no attempt either to stop at the
point at which the roof starts to slope away, or
to rise up to meet it. That little gap seems to
me like a bit of a protest from the main church
walls that it does not recognise the intrusive chapels and protests that its otherwise unbroken
embrace of the whole building has been broken in this way! Twice!
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Similarly, at the entrance to each of the chapels
is this coloured threshold – like the previous
detail never mentioned in any write-up of the
building but surely purposeful, as is every
detail of this church. It seems to me to
underline that each of the chapels is basically a
piece of the external world and mark
‘entrances’ to the church from without
(compare the octagon in the church porch
which acts as a threshold to the church. Like the
octagon in the porch, these thresholds seem to
be paintedin the ‘bull’s blood’ hue that we find
in the lettering and fascia at high level.
Much as everywhere else in the building, apart
with the porch lettering, unadorned cast concrete is what
one sees in all three altars of the church (even if veiled in
frontals) with slate slab tops. Not so the front of the
Sacrament Chapel Altar, however! When I arrived in 1995
I didn’t even know that this decoration was on the altar
until my first Good Friday in 1996 when the altar was
stripped! I then noted a strong disapproval from those
who had been there from the beginning, of this blatant
piece of Christian symbolism in a building otherwise
devoid of any kind of ornamentation or symbols (except
on the’ President’s Chair, shown below)’. It was a bit of a
mystery to me but I was the ‘new boy’ and had no strong
feelings about it.
I was aware that this symbol
was an early Christian
symbol and had seen it in the
Catacomb of San Callisto in
Rome on the Appian Way
dating back to the 2nd – 4th
centuries. Such a petroglyph
is shown here. It represents
the ‘anchor’ that Christ is to the believer in
stormy times. I could only imagine that rather
like the very simple stylised figures on the
President’s Chair this, too, was by Ralph
Beyer and reflected his great interest in the art
of the catacombs, derived from his father’s
deep knowledge & interest in the same
subject. Why it should be there with no other
symbolism anywhere in the church puzzled
me but I could live with that!
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A few pages earlier were shown two ancient altars in Italy, in particular that of San Clemente in Rome
from the C12. Looking at the High Altar in Bow Common it is evident that was inspired by the altar at
San Clemente which stands some distance above the grave of St. Clement in Rome.
Thus, around 2010 I visited San Clemente while in Rome and, though I had been
there many times before, for the first time I was struck not only by the strong echoes
of that altar at St. Paul’s, Bow Common, but also this time by the emblem carved
on the pediment at the front of the altar! Shown here, it is exactly what appears on
the Sacrament Chapel at Bow Common, though set back some distance from the
High Altar in ‘San Clemente’ style ! Now I really was puzzled!
Could that emblem on the Sacrament Chapel altar be derived from San Clemente and from its altar
and not just be a one-off ‘random’ piece of Christian symbolism unmatched anywhere else in the
church? St. Clement was tied to an anchor and drowned in the Black Sea and thus the anchor became
his symbol. But, there is no connection at all between St. Clement and St. Paul’s. Bow Common. Indeed,
Clement may well have been mentioned by St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians and he was a very
early Bishop of Rome, martyred around 99AD, but such a link would be extremely tenuous and not
strong enough to embody it in Bow Common.
This account is being written in spring and summer 2015 and while contacting Bob Maguire with some
queries as I was writing this, I mentioned to him the mystery of the large symbol on the Sacrament
altar – was it his idea or Ralph Beyer’s? Was it anything to do with St. Clement and, if so, why? Or, was
it the early Christian symbol and, if so, why? I had just been to Rome and had visited San Clemente
and taken an (illicit!) photograph of the ciborium over the High Altar.
He e-mailed me thus on 27th April 2015:
‘Dear Duncan
Thank you for sending the really good photo of the ciborium at S. Clemente. Yes, it is one of my very
favourite things of any kind! And certainly the inspiration for St Paul's.
There is quite a difficult form/symbol problem in designing a ciborium. I've always argued the case for one
on the grounds that a canopy lends symbolic importance to an object (any object - Prince Albert sitting out
in Kensington Gardens, the Pope or a bishop in procession etc.) which is physically small in the scale of its
surroundings. With modern congregations, the argument seldom succeeds (hurrah for Gresham) because
the rationalists say the columns will get in the way of seeing what's going on.
However, once you accept the idea, there is the problem of form. Especially in the UK's weather, it's usual to put
up a gazebo tent over the sandwiches etc., and there are so many shapes/structures one could use which are
redolent of other, usually utilitarian purposes. Somehow, S. Clemente's answer is just exactly right.
Castel Sant'Elia: I vaguely remember going there, but cannot recall anything at all.
About the anchor. This is a mystery to me too. I can't imagine myself putting an anchor on a
sacrament altar. If I were to be pressed to put some relevant symbol on (which as you mention is
against my feeling about such things) it might be a chi rho, but not an anchor. Where is it? Inset into
the concrete (like the porch lettering), or incised either into the concrete (difficult to do, and definitely
later) or the slate? It would not have been Ralph Beyer's idea, although it could be his handiwork.
Also, the symbolic link with S. Clemente must be entirely coincidental - and amazingly
tenuous! Certainly not my way of thinking about such things, nor Keith's.
Very mysterious. I can't think of an explanation.’
A mystery indeed, and one which may not ever be solved if Bob Maguire is now puzzled by it and
almost all of the other main ‘players’ in this story are now no longer here to offer suggestions!
Beyond the main volume of the church there is little more – an electricity sub-station built in to the
south perimeter, the usual facilities, a bank of electricity meters plus a sacristy and a modest sized
church hall with a small kitchen area. These will be visited later. However, as an integral part of
the design of the church, the mosaics are a major feature of St. Paul’s, Bow Common.
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The Mosaic of the ‘Heavenly Host’
- 134 -
As already mentioned, Bob Maguire was architect for the church and Keith Murray was to have
executed the huge mosaic of the ‘Heavenly Host’ which they had designed to be an essential part
of the interior design. The important thing was to have the church built and open for use and this
took perhaps less than a year with the Foundation Stone laid in December 1958 and the church
open late in 1959 though not consecrated until 30th April 1960. But, as already seen, some of the
now prominent features were not yet in place, such as the organ, the ciborium over the altar and,
most importantly, the mosaic. This was an essential part of the ‘meaning’ of the building and not
just decoration. It was intentional and even though not yet present when the building was
consecrated, blank spaces were left upon which they would be created.
In 1962 Bob Maguire wrote this:
6 ‘Above each column the triangular spandrel panel of the concrete beam will be decorated with mosaic. These
panels will represent angels, with their hands lifted up in the ancient position of prayer the position of prayer
of the priest in the Eucharist. Their function in the symbolic pattern of the church is to present the idea of
the church as the heavenly place (this is heralded by the inscription around the porch).
The angels will play their part particularly when the church is empty helping those alone in the building to
be aware of the relationship between their worship and the worship of heaven.’
In private correspondence with me in 2009 about the ‘First Design’ for the church, Bob Maguire,
referring to the earliest days of the planning of the building, said this:
27 ‘The arrangement was that I would design and supervise the contract for building the church, and Keith
would design and execute £8,000-worth of glass mosaics, also to be paid for by the WDC in lieu of
the stained glass of the bombed church. £8,000 was an immense commission then — the whole
church was valued at £50,000.
… Keith is also credited as ‘consulting designer’ under his artist’s alias Keith Fendall, as we were naturally
in constant discussion on how to produce a building that would carry that huge amount of mosaics
as an integral part of a space for Eucharistic worship. It was important to us both that the mosaics
should not feel ‘tacked on’ but to be part of the total concept.
It was Keith’s idea that they should depict the Heavenly Host in constant adoration, and surround the
Christian people, and this seemed to go well with the idea that I had developed of a wrapped-around colonnade
defining an ambulatory enclosing the central space on all four sides.
The breakthrough came when I had the idea of the balanced-cantilever spandrels above the columns
which provided a ‘blank canvass’, wing-spread shaped, and which doubled up as the beam from
which folded-slab ambulatory roofs could ‘hang’. We then had a total-surround virtual space which
could be inhabited by angels, slightly recessive, not dominating.
This was slightly compromised in the first design because the corner panels were not wing-spread shaped,
but many, many other things were worse compromises.’
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In 1990, Keith Murray wrote:
17 ‘ St. Paul's was built using a War Damage payment which provided
only enough money for a “plain substitute building" to replace a
bombed nineteenth century Gothic church, formerly on the site. The
War Damage Act distinguished between money for buildings and for
stained glass, and at St Paul's the stained glass payment was used to
cover the cost of the mosaics.
The Church was redesigned several times. Initially there was to be a
baptistery with a large stained glass window. A sketch was made for this: a desert scene, with a distant
baptism, seen through a flock of flamingos standing in the Jordan. Later, glass set in concrete units was
considered for the upper walls of the building, each unit including an angel. As built, the spandrel panels
between the folded concrete aisle roofs were designed for the angels with out-spread wings. A design by Keith
Murray was approved by the Diocesan Advisory Committee.
After prolonged negotiations the War Damage Commission accepted that mosaic could be counted as
“stained glass". Charles Lutyens was asked to take on the commission for the mosaics.
The church is designed to be “a place set apart“, where the Church - priest and people- gather for the
Eucharist. The mosaic angels brings to mind the participation of the Church “in the liturgy celebrated in
heaven by the angels and saints", not only when the Church is gathered together but when the building is
empty. In the architecture of the Church the angels seem to support the upper walls and roof, as the angels
in the choir of King's College Chapel carry the vault. The angels stand in the space created by their receding
green-blue mosaic ground as the figures in Byzantine mosaics stand within the golden space around them.
Where much of twentieth century religious art is restless, the angels are still: they do not impose themselves
and seem to achieve their liturgical purpose almost subliminally.’
In the event, things had moved on and before 1959 had ended the new practice of Maguire and
Murray had come into being. Keith Murray had worked on the design of the Heavenly Host and
some of his sketches can be seen below. However, the newly formed practice could not afford him
having to take even a couple of years out to execute the mosaics at Bow Common. The commission
had to be handed on and it was with Charles Lutyens that the task now lay.
From 1957 onwards Keith Murray had been evolving a design in notebooks. In 2011 Gerry Adler
Began his research for his excellent work on Maguire and Murray with a visit to St. Paul’s, Bow
Common. I introduced him in my vicarage to Charles Lutyens and he had meanwhile visited Keith
Murray’s widow and borrowed his notebooks. These extracts come from them:
Very early images of the church showing blank spandrels
awaiting the mosaic of the ‘Heavenly Host’ which Charles
Lutyens was to create single-handedly between 1963 and 1968.
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- 137 -
Charles Lutyens: b 1933
I had the great privilege and pleasure of getting to know Charles
and Marianna Lutyens as personal friends and of working with
Charles at St. Paul’s Bow Common. When it became clear that
Keith Murray would not be able to execute the mosaic of the
‘Heavenly Host,’ intended as an integral part of the church, it was
to Charles Lutyens that Maguire and Murray turned for this
important commission in 1963. His work is one of the great
treasures of the church and, I believe, of national importance as
well as being, very likely, the largest contemporary mosaic mural
in the UK. All that follows comes from Charles Lutyens’ own account of how the Heavenly Host
came into being, both from a paper of 1989 and then an edited version for an article about this
work in ‘Andimento’, the Journal of BAMM (the British Association for Modern Mosaic) in 2012.
Both are very revealing and well worth reading.
Charles Lutyens is great nephew of the great Sir Edwin Lutyens and spent his childhood during
the War in Berkshire and at school in Shropshire. During his time at Bryanston School in Dorset he
decided to become an artist. He studied oil painting and sculpture at the Chelsea, Slade, St.
Martin’s and Central Schools of Art in London and at the age of 24 in Paris with Andre Lhote. He
worked mainly in oils but also with clay, wood stone and, of course, mosaic. His one major
perspective in all his art is a reflection on what the human experience is, of ‘Being in the World.’
He says this …
31 ‘Maguire and Murray, knowing the serious and personal nature of my creative work as a painter and
sculptor, approached me in I963 concerning the implementation of the mural. They did not know any
mosaicists, but they felt that they could talk with me; I was, of course, very interested. Consequently they
asked me to make a design for this work. There was already a concept for the commission: that the Angels of
the Heavenly Host were to be haloed, dressed in white and to stand in an open attitude of worship, as at the
moment of the consecration of bread and wine. I soon realised that I had a serious problem. Angels of the
Heavenly Host are defined as being Angels in the attendance of God only, as distinct from Messenger Angels,
Guardian Angels and other man-visiting Beings.
As a young artist in the Fifties, I experienced the prevalence of abstraction and the absence of the
representation of the human figure. After centuries being central in art, I wondered whether, after two World
Wars, Man could no longer look at himself and was banished from canvas and stone. I determined to uphold
his human presence in the world, to paint and create images that evidenced his existence. It followed that I
could only make images from my own experience, hence the title of my recent exhibition ‘Being in the World’.
As an artist this has been my central concern ever since.’
Lutyens describes with enormous honesty and integrity his approach to this work which he clearly
didn’t want to be a tribute to his artistic genius but much more an expression of the reality of the
‘Heavenly Host’ which he was struggling to make present on those 800 sq. feet of blank space and
fully integrated with the vision of Maguire and Murray for the rest of the church. In his account of
the painstaking (and at times painful) creation of the mosaic there is such a sense of his struggle to
remain true to his brief, not imposing his own designs or aesthetic upon what he was so committed
to allowing to emerge and ‘appear’ in its own right.
31 ‘Thus, in 1963 my integrity was challenged: by what authority could 1 make an image of the Angels of the
Heavenly Host? I had never seen an Angel. I became chillingly aware of what seemed like arrogance and
conceit in assuming access to God’s Heavenly Throne. I was seriously considering not going through with
this commission. I had been exploring the subject with pencil and paint and in the process I showed my work
to the architects, who commented that it was good to see, because it showed what they did not want!’
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31 ‘I asked them whether I could not instead portray Messenger Angels or such like, even - throwing away
my own values - whether I could depict them in abstract form, but they confirmed that this mural had to
depict Angels of the Heavenly Host.
As an artist I have always worked through the reality of my own experience and because I had never seen an
angel I was in a great dilemma. I was required to make a design which necessitated me to create an image for
which I had no basis of experience. How was I to carry out this work and remain true to myself? I had
certainly never seen an angel who administers to man, how then was I to experience an angel of the
"Heavenly Host", who stand at the throne of God and administer only to him. Yet, I had accepted the
commission. I felt it presumptuous and arrogant of me to have done so. It seemed to suggest in me some kind
of intent of self-elevation into God's presence to have a glimpse of these special and divine beings, simply so
that I could represent them in mosaic in St. Paul‘s church, London E3. And yet, what alternative? I was
angry with the angels and their demands.
On this I returned to my Workplace and wept. I felt as I did on my first day in school when I was given an
open book and told to read it. I could not read and in my helplessness and failure, I cried. It was out of the
question for me to make Angels derived from mediaeval Angels or the representations of Botticelli, the Pre-
Raphaelites or Christmas card angels. These Angels had to be relevant and meaningful to our times or it was
not worth doing. Clearly, in the last resort this was a question of faith today & particularly of where I stood.
Having read about Angels in the V&A library and in the stories of the Old and New Testaments, it was
dawning on me that Angels ‘appear’ and that the person to Whom they appear does not know beforehand
what they will look like. So I began to develop a scheme of colours which I felt was sympathetic to Angels and
could be an environment from which Angels could ‘appear’.
The architects spoke of the necessity that this mural should not appear to detach itself from the substance of
the building, but should, while existing in its own terms of colour, design and the imagery, actual and
symbolic of the Spirit and Faith, rest on the plane of the wall’s surface to form part of the containment of the
sacred space.
While they waited for my images & indication of my intent, I came and told them that it was not possible for
me to provide them with a design, for while it may be an appropriate & time-tested convention that Angels
have haloes and are dressed in white and so forth, it was outside their nature and practice to be seen before
they ‘appear’. Any design therefore would preclude the possibility of it being an Angel. Liking my colour
scheme the architects, acknowledging that I could not provide a design, said, ‘Then, "appear" us an Angel.’
This was an extraordinary leap of faith on their part as commissioners of the mural. From a place of not
knowing, they committed themselves to the expense of sending me to Murano, Venice, with £500 to purchase
the tesserae with which to ‘appear’ the Angels.
As it turned out, I remained on the island for two weeks, transferring my colour scheme onto sample strips
with which the manufacturer, Hugo, Donna et Figlio, could match my chosen colours, of which there were
700, to their vast stock of smalti. Also, there was the impossible task of calculating and deciding on the
quantity and proportions of each colour in the order, without actually being in possession of a design.
On completion, after placing the order, I went to see the famous mosaics of Ravenna and Rome, making
enquiries and seeking advice from mosaic studios there. I soon concluded that I needed either to take a full
three years training in mosaic methods or return home and get on with the work. I did the latter.
I was living with a number of families and single people in London who had chosen to live together as an
extended family. In order to live our commitment we met each week as a group to work through (rather than
avoid) the personal and inter-personal difficulties and differences that inevitably arose in the course of our
shared lives. The nature of the response and enquiry of the group was such as to create an openness through
which the experience of pain, realities of self and life and of being human would be encountered … During
the execution of the mural itself I tried to keep in touch with this experience and remain myself in a state of
- 139 -
31 ‘It was 1964. The spandrels had been empty since the church was consecrated in 1960. Preparation for the
work began.’ ‘On the arrival of the first order of materials in England I proceeded, on the request of the
architect, to ‘appear’ an Angel on a panel in their offices. I made a head and torso which they saw and liked.
They suggested that we put it up in the church and they then asked that I finish the panel. I did this in a
mixture of paint and tesserae. They found this ‘Sketch Angel‘ good and asked me to ‘appear’ a further
Angel, this time directly onto the wall of the church. In this way the commission was officially
begun, still without a design, but I had a colour scheme inside my head.
I made a 16 ft. long mobile platform from
builders’ scaffolding with three levels, the lower
two for the materials.’ ‘I scoured shoe shops for
boxes, collected flower pots, milk cartons … I put
up there two boxes of mixes. I’d look in the box
and wait and see which colour I liked; it was all
instinctive.… The 700 colours were sorted into
boxes of single colours, each colour containing
up to 25 tones. The tesserae were pre-cut, on
account of time, from their original dinner-plate
size glass form, interspersed with some irregular
uncut pieces. I found a ready-made cement of the
right consistency purchasable in a tin with which
to work on the vertical surface of the wall. I had
to make my own tests as the manufacturers
would not provide me with a guarantee. …I
researched into pre-mixed commercial cements
until I found one I could use. I discovered that
the scaffold with its platforms loaded was too
heavy and too long to manoeuver round corners
and church furniture. With a hacksaw l cut the
scaffold into two. … Fortunately, I was just able
to move the loaded
platforms singlehanded.
I and an assistant spent 4 weeks in a dust containing plastic tent to
hammer the paint from the concrete surface and make a key for the finished work.
I gathered tools, the cleaning acid, made an 18ft long brush, rigged up heating
and light. I placed the first stone, it was not visible from the church's floor. And
so the mural began.
It was necessary, before applying the tesserae to the wall, to remove the smooth
painted surface of the spandrels, providing a key for the cement. Having prepared
the first panel, I applied a palm’s width amount of cement and laid the first stone.
I no longer remember where or for what part of the image this stone was placed. I
remember climbing down, removing the ladder and shunting the platform away
in order to look at this first stone in celebration of the event, but it was not visible
from the ground!
I looked 360 degrees around the church at the fourteen panels that waited, as
inanimate things do, for the 800 square feet of wall to be covered in every small
part with mosaic pieces. I had, in this panel, to discover a skeletal design that
would serve as a basis on which to hang the glorious colours of each individual
‘appearance’ on each panel throughout the church. During the creation of this
panel it became clear to me that I could not ‘bend’ an Angel around any corner,
but the commission required the introduction of an Angel in all fourteen
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31 ‘After consideration I concluded that the four corners of the mural would contain representations of the
four elements, Earth, Air, Fire and Water, because these reach back to the Creation into which Man has
looked through the ages for his beginning and for evidence of God, and because they express the qualities and
feelings of Man himself.’
The ‘Earth Creature’ (in the south-west corner) above, with
its right eye (upper right) and missing left eye (lower right)
up to May 2011 when it was completed (see later)!
The ‘Fire Corner’ (above the font in the north-west corner) –
not a creature unlike the other elements – and shown in
more detail to the right.
The ‘Water Corner’ in the south-east corner)
– a whale-like creature leaping up with open
(shown to the left)
- 141 -
31 ‘On entering the church through its
octagonal porch over which is written in
red letters; TRULY THIS IS NONE
one is confronted by the Font which, when
uncovered for baptism, reflects the light
from the lantern roof over the altar space.
Above it I placed the element of Fire to acknowledge baptism also by desire. It is at the Warm area of the
church behind the worshippers. In the Water corner I did a Fish with open mouth reaching its head up out
of the waves, crying up to the sky. In the Fire corner, Fire is depicted, on account of its heat and power to
consume, as subdued, like embers; the Air corner holds the image of a Bird with an angry red beak, which
seems to be descending as if to land. It was done without drawings; the whole thing appeared in the making.
The centre of the panel representing Earth, ‘matter’, is held together by cellular shapes that gather loosely to
define the head of a Beast. It is not entirely clear; I liked the idea of seeing and not seeing. These were the last
things I did.
There emerged changing colours around the church: the reds of the Fire corner, browns of the Earth corner
and the Earth Angel, blues and violets of the Water and Air corners, providing a progression of warmth and
cool between the east and west ends of the church, startling in comparison and contrast. There also unfolded
a subtle pattern within the panels which progressed colour from the central area of the Angels upwards and
outwards to meet at their extremities.
While the first image took shape and form over a period of 4-5 months the whole mural was taking shape in
my mind. A structure developed in this first panel through which I tried to convey openness. The halo orbs
the angel's head with open space. The mosaic spreads to another encircling shadow of a colour change,
surrounding his being to his waist, from which two circles split to roll apart to the boundaries of the angel's
open and embracing arms. These circles are sent as one in an upward and outward movement by open hands
in a lightening of colour to arc up into the wall above.
This shape of opening and openness became the structure that I drew with the help of a plywood template
onto the wall in all the panels.’ (plywood template seen below in a detail from a late image 1967/68)
In 2011 Charles Lutyens produced a very helpful sheet for visitors to the church to understand
some of the ideas behind his mosaic. The diagram below depicts the structure of circles which
evolved early on as a common format for each of the Angels of the Heavenly Host.
The ‘Air Creature’ to left
(at the north-west corner)
- 142 -
‘From the centre of each
image interplaying circles
reach upwards and outwards
with lines through the wings
spreading horizontally in a
continual connection between
the Angels, allowing for
‘openness’. It seemed that this
structure held also “my
acceptance of the anxiety of
not knowing and not predetermining
the ‘appearance’
of the Angels”.’ Each panel is individual in colour, expression, and in drawing.’
Aware of Charles Lutyens as the considerable artist that he is, in 2011 his family and I prevailed
upon him to present a retrospective exhibition of his life’s work called, ‘Being In The World,’ at St.
Paul’s, Bow Common. It showed the breadth and depth of his reflection and observation of his
place in the world as an artist. It also bought together some early sketches and ideas for the mosaic
which was also very much a part of that exhibition. Some of these are shown here.
- 143 -
- 144 -
Five pages or so earlier there was mention of what Lutyens called the ‘Sketch Angel’ produced for
Maguire and Murray as an indication of what was in his head and then the first angel actually to
be created on one of the spandrels. These flanked what was to become the ‘Fire Corner,’ above the
font and where the Fire mosaic was to be created.
31 ‘So the first Angel on which I was working I came to call Fire Angel and its margins took on the redness
and heat of fire & his clothes and halo took on flame-like shapes & the greenness in which he stood, a hint of
warmth. This first Angel has remained, until now, almost half a century later, my favourite Angel of the ten.
It was during work in this panel that, dissatisfied with a considerable area between the Angel body and arm,
I cut out what represented two weeks’ work. I realised that I could not do this again. I had placed each
individual tessera with feeling and intuition, allowing the colours, as it were, to ‘call me.’ To remove an area
such as this did not accord with my chosen method of working, to be ‘open to what comes,’ which was the
means by which, with hope and expectation, the images of the Angels would emerge. As an artist and maker
of the mosaic it was not my job to criticise what ‘appeared’ or to determine myself what should replace it; nor
could I practically afford again to cut out what represented time, money and emotion.
In the process of developing the ‘Sketch’ Angel and the Fire Angel, and moving on to work on other images
in the church, the skeletal structure emerged. There are horizontal lines, as if between the wing feathers,
joining the Angels together around the church and echoing the dark horizontal lines between the bricks of
the wall above. There are circles in the approximate, ambivalent position for the haloes, which hold the faces
of Angels, and the central circle from which two others open up to left and right; there is the Circle created
by these and defined through the lights from the Angels’ hands rising into the wall above. These structures
became clarified and confirmed as a basis for all the panels. (see diagram, two pages above)
The Fire Angel, being the first, was a complex task where, without experience, I had to find my way. After
the Fire Angel was largely established with a whole week creating his left hand, the first hand of the mural,
but well before the panel was complete, I shunted the platform across the floor to establish the framework on
one of the opposite panels and later again a third. At the point when several panels had been started and this
sketch design became clear, I made a template from sheets of ply-wood to the shape and area of a spandrel,
with which to transfer the design rhythmically around the church in a series of dots with coloured dye. At
an early stage I also made a long, long brush, with which I could reach from the floor to stab the surface of
the concrete and make marks from a distance.’ (see small image, three pages above)
Thus, for 5 years, single-handedly for the far greater part, Charles Lutyens went on a remarkable
and costly journey of discovery, refusing to compromise on remaining open to what was to be
‘given’ or to ‘appear.’
- 145 -
31 ‘Five years is a long time. On my daily one hour’s journey crossing London from west to east and
returning, I read all twelve volumes of Churchill’s The Second World War. Re-ordering of tesserae was made,
but certain colours became unobtainable over time
There were days when it was so cold that cement froze to the wall. There were changes of the community and
congregation, while old terraced streets were knocked down to build balcony blocks. There were questions in
me about Angels and the colours black and white and questions as to how, standing on the floor below, I
could see into the palms of the hands above. So I depicted one hand of the right-hand Water Angel to appear
as if seen from below. I did not like it, so I decided to drop the question as it introduced complications I did
not want.
People in the congregation would comment on the Angels, even saying that one or the other moved or looked
or winked. The Priest’s housekeeper, Winnie Wyatt, who every day brought me a cup of tea and two biscuits,
used at times to take me by the arm to an Angel and speak about him. There was one in particular, to the left
of the Water corner, of which, on one occasion she said, seeing what I recognised as two random stones in a
circular gap, that there was a baby on his shoulder. Some while later, l completed the area and left for her
there the image of small baby.’
‘Winnie’s Angel’
amazed visitors
when I showed it
to them – such
visible openness
to the total
commitment of
Charles Lutyens
to what was
waiting to be
given him to
embody in the
mosaic. Winnie
was acknowledged by all as a godly woman and there
is an icon in the church dedicated to her. When the icon
was blessed during my time at the church both Fr.
Kirkby and Charles Lutyens returned to the church and Charles told the story of ‘Winnie’s Angel.’
- 146 -
I remember two other examples of Charles Lutyens using what was ‘given’ to him in creating the
mosaic. I remember him telling me that as he created the angels he wondered why they were
appearing as white figures. One of the angels therefore is depicted as a black angel but he was not
satisfied with the end result, but is still there as it was given. This image of the mosaic is poor, alas.
This angel is on the north side of the church. At the
east end the ‘Air Angel’ long puzzled me as it seemed
to be an angel with two faces – one in profile and one
face on. When I asked Charles about this he simply
said that it was ‘given’ and so had to ‘appear’!
When looked at from below there is an impression of
the cranium of a skull projecting fr4om the left side of
the angel’s face and an eye and mouth to the right of the face.
Five years had passed and time and money were running out. 31 ‘There were frantic times, taking on
assistants and finding it necessary to ask a really good one to leave because his ‘beautiful’ technique of work
was standing out from the norm, & another to leave because he announced that he had not come to make me
tea. These were brief interludes. And so, as time does not stop, the church became increasingly infused with
colour. The areas of naked concrete became smaller & fewer. Images became complete & panels joined up.
Towards the ending, after years of solitary work, Maria from Seville,
young volatile, passionate, who had never drawn or painted or had
anything to do with mosaic, joined me to bring the mural to
completion. She was able to lay the tesserae in harmony with and
indistinguishable from my own. As the mural came to an end and we
were completing work in and around the Earth corner, the money for
its making was running out.’
- 147 -
In 2010 some 42 years after she had last seen it Maria Roncero came to visit the mosaic with her
son, Jèsus! It was such a delight to meet her!
Charles Lutyens reached the end of this journey in 1968 and he felt dissatisfied. This had been a
long journey under difficult personal circumstances with his marriage having broken down just
beforehand and access to his children not possible. I remember him telling me that he tried not to
complete any one figure before the others in case all his depression was contained in that figure.
And yet what emerged out of all his striving gives no hint of any of that and they truly are strong
spiritual figures who show none of the cost of their maker’s travails.
I learned early on of Charles’ feeling of his work being unfinished though it was not until maybe
10 years later that I heard about the blank ‘protest’ patch of unfinished mosaic. But I think it was
in 1998 that he and Marianna called into the church with son, Ben, and maybe other family
members. They had been on a Lutyens family reunion and were passing through. And then
something happened for Charles and he wept copiously. He said that he now loved his work and
was astonished by it! More than that he wanted to ‘own’ it and to sign it! I remember he got a
ladder and climbed up to the Fire corner and examined the Fire Angel closely. It was a memorable
and deeply moving moment.
And then in 2010 I discovered that Charles was working in his studio in Oxford on a huge and
remarkable figure – the Outraged Christ. I half arm-twisted and half invited him to bring it to Bow
Common and display it in the church. With it I also insisted that there needed to be a display of
his life’s work in a Lutyens’ Retrospective and all of this was planned for 2011. But first, I felt
strongly that he now needed to complete his work on the Heavenly Host some 22 years after he
left his empty patch of cement! And so on 30th June 2010 he ascended a ladder to the Earth Beast
and carried out investigations!
This view shows the top of the ladder leading
up to the two ‘eyes’ of the Earth Beast
(circled) – one completed in 1968 the other a
patch of blank cement, soon to be completed!
In fact it was nearly a year later on 9th May
2011 that Charles and Marianna came once
again to St. Paul’s, Bow Common with
buckets of tesserae and cement and that
purposeful look in his eye!
There were no issues with this being a listed
building as nothing was being altered but
simply that an artist was finally completing
his unfinished work – albeit after 43 years!
There is a unique record from that day of the of the completion of the ‘Heavenly Host’ and these
views show some moments from the three hours in which the work was finally completed.
I was expecting Charles to give the Earth Beast its second eye in the style of the first eye and had
no idea what he was intending to do, though I should have remembered that turnabout day of
fulfilment in 1998 when Charles had declared his intention!
This time there was no great scaffolding arrangement but simply the church ladder and a ladder
rack to hold buckets of tesserae and cement and the like and Marianna Lutyens and the Vicar in
attendance as required.
- 148 -
In the views which follow the ladder can be seen and the empty patch before Charles climbed up
to do his work. Then appears the first clue as to what he intended to do with the blank cement
patch now marked up! The rest shows the progress of the work and then the final descent of the
artist, his work now finally completed.
5.25 pm May 9th 2011
The artist descends the
ladder and has now
completed his work, some
47 years after beginning it!
Charles Lutyens ascends to complete his
mosaic. Then (above) the letters ‘CL’ can be
seen marked on the area to be worked!
The Earth Beast has its second
eye at last – with Charles
Lutyens having finally signed
his largest work of art –
with the letters ‘CL’
- 149 -
Little known is that the first idea Maguire and Murray had was for Charles to decorate the
underside of the font with mosaic!
The font has already been described and its large and
hugely heavy slate lid, once hoisted up by block and tackle
and now laid aside until the church can afford to put it
back. It is entirely undecorated. Part of the ‘journey’ into
the church via the porch entrance involved an encounter
with the font with its lid raised high so that a glimpse of
the light-filled lantern beyond could be had in the surface
of the water in the font kept filled high. The ‘norm,’
therefore, was for the font lid to be raised when the church
was occupied – much higher than shown here. This also
enabled the holy water in the font to be readily available as
a ‘holy water stoup’ for any who entered & wished to sign
themselves with the sign of the cross – a familiar devotion for catholic minded Christians. I kept
the lid raised throughout my time until 2005 when the font lid had to be taken down.
This means that the underside of the font would be visible for most of the time and a decorative
mosaic scheme was considered for it but never executed! Knowing the mind of Bob Maguire I feel
sure that pure decoration would not have been reason enough to do this as this is a very spare
building and everything is there for a reason. Indeed, in 1962 he said, 6 ‘In contrast to the "industrial"
materials, a small amount of richer materials have been used. For instance, the roof of the ciborium is in
serpentine and white Sicilian marbles; the candle sconces on the corona are of amethyst glass, specially made
in Venice ’ and, of course the coloured glass tesserae of the mosaic of the ‘Heavenly Host.’
Charles Lutyens made at least 6 sketches for the underside of a font cover two of which are shown
here but wasn’t totally convinced by the idea! They were never executed.
(Itteshad Hossain’s 16m clip of 30 May 2015 on You Tube, ‘Angels of the Heavenly Host’ logging Charles
Lutyens lecture in church is well worth viewing. There is a link to it on the church website.)
All © DUNCAN ROSS 2015
- 150 -
1 1956 Edward D Mills: The Modern Church (book) Architectural Press London
2 1958 Peter Hammond: A Liturgical Brief Architectural Review, London
3 1960 Peter Hammond: Liturgy and Architecture (book) Barrie & Rockliffe, London
4 1962 Ed: Peter Hammond: Towards a Church Architecture (book) Architectural Press,
… London
5 1960 Rayner Banham: A Modern Church on Liturgical Principles Architectural Review
… London December 1960
6 1962 Maguire and Murray: An Anglican Church in Stepney Churchbuilding
7 1962 Rayner Banham: Guide to Modern Architecture (book) Architectural Press, London
8 1963 Gilbert Cope: Trends in Modern European Church Architecture Studia Liturgica,
…. Rotterdam December 1963 Volume II, Number 4
9 1964 Ian Nairn: Modern Buildings in London (book) London Transport
10 1964 G.E. Kidder-Smith : The New Churches of Europe Architectural Press, London
11 1964 Maguire & Murray: Modern Churches of the World (book) Dutton Vista, London
12 1965 Nicholas Taylor: St. Paul’s, Bow Common, A Realistic Church for our Time
Vol 8 No 1 ‘East London Papers’ : New Architecture IV
13 1966 Ian Nairn: Nairn’s London (book) Penguin Books: Harmondsworth
14 1969 Michael Webb: Architecture in Britain Today (book) Country Life, London
15 1970 Nigel Melhuish: Church building in the ‘sixties Architects’ Journal, London
… 8 July 1965
16 1973 Nigel Melhuish: Church Building in Britain The Architect, London January 1973
17 1990 Keith Murray: Introduction to Lutyens’ Mosaic Churchbuilding,
… London, Spring 1990
18 1990: Colin Coward: Forward to the Fifties: Churchbuilding,
……..Robert Philip Gibbons: St. Paul’s, Bow Common, A voice in the wilderness:
……. A Tribute to the Vicar of St. Paul’s: Robert Maguire London, Winter 1990
19 1995 Robert Maguire: Annual Lecture, Continuity and Modernity in the Holy Place.
Architectural History: Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians
20 1995 Donald Williamson: MA Thesis The religious and architectural significance of
…. All Saints Church, Crewe, Cheshire
21 1997 RIBA Exhibition ‘The 20th Century Church’: notes
22 1997 Edwin Heathcote & Iona Spens: Church Builders Academy Editions, Chichester
23 1998 Alan Doig: Theology Reflects on the Arts Epworth Review, Volume 25, No.1
.. January 1998
24 1998 Elain Harwood: Liturgy and Architecture The Twentieth Society, London
25 1999 Tanya Harrod: The Crafts in Britain in the 20th Century Yale University Press
26 2002 Robert Maguire: Ecclesiology Today Journal of the Ecclesiological Society
.. January 2002
- 151 -
27 2009 Robert Maguire: Private correspondence with Duncan Ross (unpublished)
28 2010 Robert Maguire: Reflection on the 50th Anniversary (unpublished)
29 2012 Gerald Adler: Robert Maguire & Keith Murray Twentieth Century Architects
C20 Society, RIBA, English Heritage
30 2013 Robert McGuire: St Paul's as resurrection Communication with Duncan Ross
.. (unpublished)
31 2012 Andamento: Journal of the British Association for Modern Mosaic (BAMM) Vol. 6
Angels of the Heavenly Host: Article by Charles Lutyens
32 1905 T. Francis Bumpus: London Churches Ancient and Modern Pub. T. Werner Laurie,
………………………………………………………………Clifford’s Inn, London
33 1967 Gordon Barnes: Stepney Churches, An Historical Account The Faith Press
35 2009 Kenneth Leech: Father Gresham Kirkby 1916-2006 Anglo-Catholic History Society
All © DUNCAN ROSS 2015

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