Julian Browning contemplates an altar at Holy Trinity, Sloane Street
Good Friday at Holy Trinity, Sloane Street, that vast Arts and Crafts church in Upper Chelsea where Missionary Aesthetic tends to go over the top, coaxed by John Betjeman, who places there an angel singing:
Swing the warm censer round my bruised heart,
Drop, dove-grey eyes, your penitential showers
On this pale acolyte.
Queuing for the Veneration of the Cross, the observant and curious worshipper looks beyond the Cross to the High Altar, and there, instead of the bare mensa prescribed by the liturgy, stands revealed an overwhelming depiction of the Entombment of Christ (1890) by the sculptor Harry Bates (1850-1899). This is the best kept secret of Holy Week in London. The marble altar front, work of the highest quality and of great beauty, sees the light of day only once a year, on Good Friday.
Much could be written about the place of Harry Bates in the Arts and Crafts, the Aesthetic, the New Sculpture, and the Symbolist Movements, contexts which art historians continue to untangle. More could be written on the frontal’s artistic antecedents, such as Hans Holbein the Younger, ‘Dead Christ in the Tomb’ (1521), or Giuseppe Sanmartino, ‘The Veiled Christ’ (Naples 1753), but for this article let us just look at what we see.
At first astonished glance we see what the correspondent for the Magazine of Art in 1890 called the ‘dead Christ supported by angels’. We are attuned to dying Christs in crucifix form, but here is a dead Christ in a claustrophobic coffin of cold white marble within a heavy rose coloured frame. The stooped angels in attendance emphasise the confining space. Pressing down, like a tomb inscription, on the lifeless body is the text FECIT SEPULCHRUM SUUM CUM MALEFICIIS ET CUM DIVITIBUS IN MORTE SUA (Isaiah 53.9: He made his grave among the wicked, and with the rich in his death), from the fourth Suffering Servant song. The tight ribcage, the drooping arm, the wounds all speak of mortality and death, not tucked away in an All Souls chapel, but at the high altar of an airy, light-filled church dedicated to the life of the eternal Trinity. It becomes easier to understand why the congregations of Holy Trinity have kept the Bates Entombment under more conventional altar frontals which conform to the liturgical seasons.
Yet all is not as it seems.
Julian Browning is Hon. Assistant Priest at All Saints, Margaret Street.