Page 4, 22nd June 1973

22nd June 1973
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Page 4, 22nd June 1973 — Born of the age in which we live
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Born of the age in which we live

By Bryan Little

tinguished buildings put up, since 1945, in a city whose post-war architecture has not, on the whole, been of outstanding merit.

It is all the more fitting that, thanks to such factors as delay imposed by this year's building strike, Clifton Cathedral's consecration, on the festal day of its two patron apostles, coincides with the proud city of Bristol's celebration of the 600th anniversary of Edward III's Charter which made it, ahead of all other provincial towns in England, a county on its own.

Above the high peaked, somewhat angular lantern stage the three-limbed concrete ffeche, 167 feet high, with a concrete cross set between two of its members and with two bells transferred from the Pro-Cathedral, is now an accepted, familiar element in the Clifton skyline. It is a challcng ing, incontestably modern foil to its Anglican neighbours — the beautifully traditional Victorian spire of Christ Church and the far more modern, aluminium-clad spike of All Saints a short way down Pembroke Road.

In the rest of the exterior the main features are the turrets whose concrete structure has been left creamy and exposed, and the cladding, of large panels of pink granite chips, vertically hung but so closely set that the joints between them are inconspicuous. In a building which could, in fact, do with more curvature the tiers of the main structure have a horizontal feeling which is sympathetic to the main lines of the fine terrace and villa architecture of Clifton Park. But the cladding, in its pinkish colour corresponding to the hue of the local stone seen in garden walls and midVictorian houses, presents a real, not wholly solved problem of aesthetics.

Inside the church the architects' almost complete reliance, bar the beautifully coloured windows in the narthex, on concealed top lighting is notably successful. It means, however, as does a total reliance, in some modern lecture halls, on artificial light, that large expanses of outer walling are bleakly unpunctuated by windows of any shape or size. Some windows, or some fluting or panelling to give variety of surface or some play of light and shade, would 'lave improved the outward .ppearance of these important features. Their absence is par.icularly apparent from the north-eastern, or Pembroke Road side of the building. Though it is challengingly impressive the full height of the nave with its tower above it is gauntly unrelieved. But the stairway on this side, leading up the sloping site to the portal of St. Peter, is of a truly regal dignity, a fitting approach for the Queen when, on August 9, she is to visit the new cathedral.

The choice of an elongated hexagonal shape for the main worshipping space, and the structural technique whereby the tower is supported by a system of concrete ring beams and mutually supporting cross beams, has meant that the nave and sanctuary are a single, perfectly unified space, with the narthex, the baptistry, the Blessed Sacrament Chapel and the Lady Chapel all, in varying degrees, in visual relationship with the High Altar. The internal feeling of space and height is much greater than one would expect from outside; from the sanctuary floor to the bottom of the knuckle joint below the fleche the lantern rises internally to more than a hundred feet. The bishop's cathedra is at the back of the sanctuary; behind

it an embulatory leads round from the sacristies to the worshipping spaces. The whole feeling of this great concrete interior is one of light and space. There is no clutter as in the old Pro-Cathedral; there has, if anything, been a move to the other extreme of sparse and undercoloured austerity.

Of the furnishings and fittings I can only speak of those that are in position at the time of writing. The High Altar, a splendid work in Portland stone, is square so as to allow ample room for a fair-sized team of concelebrants. The Blessed Sacrament altar, inelegantly perched on two closely spaced piloti, is of tt e conventional shape. The font, by Simon Verity and of two sorts of stone, has stylised and symbolic doves round its bowl, a little group of fishes at the bottom of that bowl, and a beautifully lettered inscription round its rim; it should, like the windows near it in the narthex, prove one of the unquestioned aesthetic successes of the church.

The two long windows, done by Henry Haig of Firehead Magdalen, Dorset, in the dalle de verre technique and with a refreshing preponderance of glass over the epoxy resin in which the many coloured pieces are set, comprise a

splendid, unrepresentational display. One. with its colours richly recalling the onrushing tongues of fire, is called "Pentecost." The other, with a more relaxed happiness gained by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Meaning apart, the two windows can. however, be simply enjoyed for the sheer beauty of their unpatterned colouring.

The cathedral's three main doors are of wood. They are covered on both sides with low-relief designs, on no particular pattern but with a somewhat wishy-washy and generally flowing effect. By William Mitchell, they are in a mixture of grey fibreglass with some aluminium oxide infilling. As their decoration is a gift to the cathedral from the City of Bristol they bear a i vividly improving feature in their plaques of the city arms and of the diocese of Clifton. William Mitchell is also responsible, using the same fibreglass and oxide materials, for the somewhat nondescript, shallow-relief decoration on the ambo and lectern which are prominent in the sanctuary.

Mr. Mitchell, of great eminence as a sculptor in concrete, is also the artist for the fourteen narrative panels of the Way of the Cross. They are both novel in their thematic approach and controversial ip their rendering.

As a set of stations they are pioneering, the innovation of their successive subjects having been discussed with the highest liturgical authorities in Rome, and approved there before being set up, in Clifton Cathedral, for the first time in any Catholic church. They will come as a novelty to those used to the traditional set.

For their Passion narrative starts with the Last Supper, going on, through Gethsemane and St. Peter's denial to some scenes repeated from the old sequence. But two falls and the meeting with Veronica, which find no place in the Gospels, are omitted. Seen as a sculptural achievement these panels are powerful and impressive, lacking the quiet beauty of Eric Gill's Stations at Westminster and harshly remote from the soft, almost painless sentimentality of many renderings of the long familiar subjects. They grimly convey the stark horror and tragedy of an event which was, after all, no pleasurable experience; an undoubted fault in their artistry is that Christ's nose is almost always too large. Viewed from some distance, and as a complete group, they are an effective work of contemporary art. I cannot foresee their being used, at short range, in private devotional exercises.

Such furnishings as the chairs, and the sanctuary carpet with its colour blend of snuff and old gold, add useful colour to the interior, while traditionalists will find relief

in the truly sympathetic and devotional bronze statue of Our Lady which graces the Lady Shrine. It is by Terry Jones who is, like the designers of the tabernacle and of a commemorative chalice, still a student at the Royal College of Art. The screen, of iron and stainless steel, which parts the Blessed Sacrament chapel from the ambulatory, was made by Br. Patrick, O.S.B., of Prinknash Abbey.

Clifton Cathedral has a few weak points and its site, through no fault of those who chose it, will be less convenient than that of its predecessor for those who come by one of England's worst bus services. Nor can one assume that its internal decoration is as yet complete. A cathedral is not a static artistic entity, so that predominantly Norman cathedrals like Durham and Norwich have many later architectural features, and none of whatever fittings they had in the twelfth century.

One can assume that, as time goes on, some additions will be made to the devotional appartus of this cathedral in Clifton. Priority may, for instance. go to good representations of St. Paul and of the Saviour whose gospel he valiantly proclaimed.

In the meantime one can be sure that this cathedral-cumparish church is a building of commanding quality. a great credit to its designers and to the building team who have achieved so high a standard of finished work. It should certainly make Clifton diocese proud of what is probably the world's most modern cathedral setting for the proclamation of ageless truth.




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