The Message of Westminster Cathedral
Leon Peckson looks at London’s great Catholic landmark
Any discussion on Westminster Cathedral often focuses on the wonders of the individual mosaics that are spread over the vaulted ceilings of its little chapels; shortly after which follows the reverie on what panoply of colour shall cover the massive domes and arches over the central nave of the church. Then – and only then – we muse, shall we finally have, brought to the level of performance, the full symphony of mystery that the cathedral was meant to be. Centuries, we say, we shall have to wait before this can be so. Our eulogies will filter through the elevated maze work of scaffolding on which artisans of successive generations shall diligently set, piece by piece, each fragment of coloured and gilded tile. Not until then, we sigh mournfully, will we come to understand in full the Cathedral’s meaning.
True as this all is (an incomplete cathedral is an incomplete cathedral) there is yet something of the church’s meaning that we might get, in rehearsal, as it were, which on account of its present state may yet be more compelling than a completed cathedral.
Our first hint is one as subtle as perhaps it appears to be obvious. In a nation whose most important buildings are gothic (Parliament, Westminster Abbey) or roman baroque (St Paul’s, the Brompton oratory) or neoclassical (The British Museum, the National Gallery), our Cathedral is unmistakably Byzantine. Of course there is a simple reason for this: Westminster Abbey is a gothic cathedral that arrives each day from nearly a millennia of tradition and history. To build yet another gothic cathedral just down the road would be like trying to out-Beethoven Beethoven.
While this may be the case we may infer yet another reason for this rather bold design choice. When the Cathedral’s foundation stone was laid in the summer of 1895, the British Empire was well on its way to accounting for 23% of the world’s population and 24% of the earth’s total land area (Wiki). London, the centre of this empire, was the new Rome. Perhaps the designers and conceivers of our Cathedral perceived that while this was a great privilege it was as well a great temptation. The empire on which the sun never sets no longer has need to look to the sunrise – no longer sees the need to look to the east. It is its own east having come to contain the east. Could the Byzantine cathedral then be a reminder to the great Western Empire of the 20th century that there was yet need to look eastward?
But where is London’s east? Before the Western Roman Empire slid into decay and fragmentation in the 5th century, it had lived out many of its glory years looking over its shoulder at Constantinople, wary of a rival that could exceed it in beauty and power. In the consciousness of the west, the east, Byzantium, always presented the threat and hope of something greater still. So was the Byzantine cathedral then the monument of a geopolitical rival to which the centre of the British empire might have shifted? If so where was it? Where is London’s east?
The first hint comes in the form of the mosaic over the archway above the main doors of the Cathedral. Kneeling before the figure of Christ the King, is King St Edward I. The image of king kneeling to King could have at the time have been subject to a dangerously simplistic interpretation. Could the mosaic have suggested what would have been in the air still so soon after the Catholic emancipation of 1825? A monarchy church fully restored to the Pope? (Rome is after all east of London). As is made clear by the inscription above the mosaic, and as was undoubtedly understood by the gentle Edward himself, the power to which the Saint King is here depicted as kneeling, is not one of political dominion but of gentleness – the power of powerlessness: WE HAVE BEEN REDEEMED BY YOUR SACRED BLOOD. Christ’s ascent to his throne is a movement that culminates on the scaffold where he is emptied of his life. This emptying is the meaning of his power: to break open the solitude of our selfishness in a new radical openness to the beloved – an openness that leaves nothing of itself so as to be wholly the beloved’s. This is the east to which the Cathedral points: a gesture of love that comes from beyond the horizon of itself. This is dramatically expressed as the morning sun streams through the church’s rear windows, pouring down from behind the massive crucifix and onto the congregation below. The empire on which the sun never sets, which therefore no longer has need to look outside of itself for the dawn, must turn its gaze to an eastern horizon utterly beyond its ambit: the open wounds of Christ’s side. Only this can break open the solitude of an empire closed in on itself, deluded by its own grandeur that it is enough for itself.
This beckoning eastward continues as one passes through the doors and stands before the crimson columns on either side of the Cathedral’s central aisle. We are told that these columns are of a marble used nowhere else in the Cathedral. By way of this, special significance is given to them as representing the blood of Christ to which the cathedral is dedicated. Our eastward passage is thus one made through the blood of Christ. Here the covenant rituals of the old testament are recalled. When Abraham enters into the covenant with Yahweh he slays oxen and parts the beasts in two, creating a corridor drenched in the blood of the sacrificed animals. To enact sacramentally his entering into covenant he walks through the corridor. He thus enters the death of the beasts who are slain as a holocaust to the Lord. He enters the death of self-giving to the father thus prefiguring the death of self-giving of the sacrificial beast par excellence – the Agnus Dei whose entry into a death of love we are called to follow. The imposition of this imagery of the covenant, ritual on the cathedral’s aisle highlights the central truth of covenant which in turn highlights the meaning of the eastward journey to which the Cathedral’s architecture invites us: the covenant was a contract not of goods but of persons. In a covenant what is pledged between two parties is not an exchange of goods but an exchange of selves. The covenant was thus a marriage. The eastward journey through the cathedral is a bridal procession. The cathedral is a marriage proposal from the groom. Here again Christ breaks open the solitude of the empire of the self, insisting that we look to what is beyond: Christ, the rising light over the East. It is thus apt that just behind the Holy Rood, in the mosaic behind the baldachin, we are shown the holy army of martyrs who robes have been washed white in the blood of the Lamb and who thus are called to his marriage feast.
An interesting detail is worth considering in connection to this. Standing in the sanctuary, facing west, towards the doors of the Cathedral, one notices, hanging from the archway between the two blood-red columns, a clock. We presume that this may have been installed to remind the more generous preachers of the time. This indeed may be so however the clock introduces an interesting consideration to the overall message of the edifice. All material time (the mere passage of moments) chronos (χρόνος), by way of the Lamb’s marriage proposal, the call to eucharist, is transformed into the time of love: kairos (καιρός). The dirge of merely material time (Macbeth’s “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”) is transformed into the beaten rhythm of a dance, measuring not just the passing of seconds but the movement of lovers falling into fuller intimacy with one another. This is time redeemed: all time is marriage— all time is love, the promise of engagement moving towards the fulfillment of marriage.
The great artifice of the cathedral however is not one effected in brick and mortar by its human architects. It is one affected by the divine architect when representation becomes reality: THIS IS MY BODY— THIS IS MY BLOOD GIVEN UP FOR YOU. The language of symbols gives way to the reality it represents. The eastward journey arrives at the event horizon in the Holy Eucharist. Here the sun, the centre of the universe, its eastern rising, its brilliant light pouring past the great crucifix over the cathedral sanctuary, is mere material by which the cosmic architect fashions a symbol that speaks of himself, his silent, humble presence in the bread and wine that is given to be eaten. This is the never setting sun and the empire built around it truly lives in an eternal day without night. Our Cathedral is itself a movement towards the completion of this gesture of love enacted by the Eucharistic Christ. Its present state of incompletion could thus be a reminder of the Cathedral’s true glory: not that it is itself great but merely moves toward a greatness utterly transcendent of itself.