orious Gilded Splendour
HILAIRE BBLLOC'S parents wed here; Nijinsky's funeral was held here St James's church, Spanish Place, in London's West End has an illustrious history. The present church, a masterpiece of late Victorian Gothic architecture, replaced the first church of St James at the Spanish embassy chapel in Spanish place. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Spanish embassy occupied Hertford House in Spanish Place now home of the Wallace collection, at the corner of Manchester Square and Spanish Place.
The second church of St James is actually in George street, opposite Spanish place, but it retains its original address. When the Spanish left Hertford House for their new embassy in Belgrave Square in 1827, they handed the chapel over to the London Vicariate, as so many Catholics were attending the church. But the parish's future was threatened a few years later when the owner of the site refused to renew the lease, and turned the chapel into flats. Cardinal Manning beseeched Mgr Michael Barry, the church rector, to "try and keep the community together and build a new church".
Mgr Barry and some of his parishioners had raised £30,000 towards a new site when a plot on the corner of George Street and Blandford Road was put up for exactly the same sum. Mgr Barry wanted JF Bentley, the architect who later designed Westminster Cathedral, to design the new church, but Cardinal Manning insisted on an open competition. Edward Goldie, the great grandson of the architect of the original chapel, designed the second St James's.
Monsignor Barry now considered he had followed Cardinal Manning's instructions, and therefore employed Bentley to design the interior of the Church. Most of St James's was completed by 1890, but the top part was completed in 1920. Bishop Craven consecrated the church in 1949.
The Spanish connection is still very much in evidence at St James's. Confessions in Spanish are held every Saturday and one of St James's priests, Fr Donal Corry LC, worked as Dean of studies at a private
University in Mexico city.
Alfonso XIII, the grandfather of the present king, Juan Carlos donated his personal standard to the church to be flown when Spanish monarchs are visiting St James's.
Two gilt crowns are suspended high above the choir stalls to mark the spot below them where King Alfonso and his wife Queen Ena sat when they came to St James'. But the abundance of images of scallop shells, the symbol of St James, is perhaps the strongest reminder of the Church's Spanish heritage. St James is thought to have worked in Spain, and is venerated by pilgrims at Santiago de Compostella in Northern Spain. Scallop shells, part of the pilgrim's stock-in-trade, were used by pilgrims to scoop water from streams on their pilgrimages.
St James's was spruced up for its centenary in 1990 when 100 years of grime and smog were cleaned off the outside of the church.
The church is a Gothic marvel. Arch upon arch sweep down the aisles to the magnificent French Gothic chancel. Below its high roof, seven gilt-edged arches supported by rich grey Purbeck marble pillasters depict old Testament scenes connected with the Eucharist. The black iron reredos in the chancel is bedecked with gilt scallop shells and flowers. Statues of St James and St Anne stand in canopied niches either end. A crown of rock crystals is suspended behind the hexagonal canopy which hangs above the Reredos. It is lowered during Benediction.
St James's possesses several fine reredos, but perhaps the most eyecatching is in the Lady Chapel. Bentley said this elaborate framework of gilded angels and intricate grapes and vineleaves caused him more sleepless nights than designing Westminster Cathedral. But his insomnia certainly paid off the gilded intricacies provide the perfect frame for the large Murillo painting of the Immaculate Conception. It portrays Our Lady with her hands devoutly clasped, and her cloak billowing out behind her as she is seemingly borne aloft by assorted clouds and cherubs. There is a certain amount of confusion over what exactly the painting is meant to portray, as Mgr Miles from St James' explains: "Most people assume the picture shows Our Lady's assumption but a relative from the noble Spanish family who gave it to us, said Murillo insisted it was the Immaculate Conception."
Behind the Lady Chapel is a smaller reredos honouring English martyrs canonised in 1970 who are depicted kneeling and standing around the triangular Tyburn gallows.
The church is not short on statues. Arguably the rarest is a 15th century German black wood statue of St Anne holding Mary, her daughter, who in turn holds the baby Jesus. Another unusual statue is that of the Golden lady, a statue of Our Lady covered with gold leaf, bar a very red pair of shoes.
The church's popularity is evident from the six Masses said over the weekend. This includes two Latin Masses, one Tridentine and one in the new rite. The Tridentine Mass is always popular. "People come up from the home counties, they will travel any distance to get to an old-rite Mass," says Mgr Miles. St James's was one of the churches chosen by Cardinal Hume to give Tridentine Masses after the Pope asked for them to be revived in the wake of the Lefebvrist controversy. The many visitors who flock to St James's on Sunday can appreciate its rich and varied iconography. "A lot of Americans and South Americans come from the hotels near the church," says Mgr Miles, "but not many families live near here because St James's is in such an expensive area". St James's certainly appears a haven of serenity in the bustling heart of the tourist mecca surrounding it.