SEE US IN A NEW LIGHT
A Passage to Somewhere (The Second Part!)
The first part of this blog post, published last week, can be found here.
The Very Revd Geoff Miller, Dean of Newcastle, describes some of the fascinating windows and memorials that can be found in the Cathedral’s side aisles...
I thought about post-fixing the title of this second blog post with a simple little word: ‘else’. Just to mark the difference from the first: from north and south, so to speak. Aisles sometimes need careful delineating, and we sometimes need reminding that a ‘corridor’ might be a generic term to describe a place that takes you somewhere but not anywhere. Corridors have their specificity too. So I wanted to use a curious word like ‘else’ to underline the south aisle’s difference from its northern counterpart but not to do it simply by identifying the destination.
Of course, the destination, in this case, is important, especially if you are heading to the Song School or to the Vestry hunting down the Choir or a Verger. But the whole point of this two-part blog post has been that in these cases at least, the aisles are places in their own right. This is a good reminder that sometimes journeys are as important as destinations in life. Make any pilgrimage, and you will learn this. The reflections ‘en route’, the encounters and the meditations, the simple putting one foot in front of the other… These make it a pilgrimage just as much as the end place or the horizon, which offers direction and inspiration. The southeast aisle of the Cathedral is no different in this aspect, though to labour the point, it is very different to any other aisle in the Cathedral.
Of course, the windows play a big part in the specificity. But for me, not just the windows or even the stories they tell but also the stories behind them. A lovely one in this aisle is the so-called Chemist’s Window (from the Wailes’ studio) – look just as you enter through the gate on the southeast side of the Quire. In some ways, the stained glass is not that remarkable. It was refurbished as recently as 1980, though the original was put in place in 1862. The subject matter is taken from Matthew 25 when Jesus teaches us that what we do for the least of the brethren we do for him: “When I was sick you cared for me, naked you clothed me, hungry you fed me…” Jesus incognito in the vulnerable.
The story is re-applied to a Newcastle chemist, Joseph Garnett. Garnett was born of humble parentage in Alnwick. In 1793, he was appointed Assistant at the Royal Observatory Greenwich but had to resign “owing to an affection of his eyes”. While at the Observatory, he designed and completed a new semaphore for the purpose of signalling astronomical messages. In Newcastle, he started a business as a chemist and druggist on the Side, making a considerable amount of money. He lived alone above the shop and was a great philanthropist. On his death, he left £6000 (today’s value: £732,600.69) to medical and other charities. With some irony, when the Cathedral’s nave was first closed for the rebuilding works, someone rather disparagingly suggested that street folk wanting a dry place to sleep should be directed to the area below the window so they would be ‘out of the way of public.’ Garnett would have approved, and his spirit lives on! But sadly, so does the challenge that he tried to meet.
There is a curious bit of old wood, framed and stuck on the wall nearby that, for a long time, was believed to be a small portion of the original Roman bridge built over the Tyne by Hadrian in 120AD. While archaeologists no longer believe this to be the case, there’s no denying it made a nice story: taking us back to the town’s very origins.
Three far more elegant pieces of wood usually live in this aisle – there is a set of wonderful scallop medieval pews; originally misericords, they were altered and moved in the great refurbishment of 1783. Two pieces of Jacobean furniture are also worth a look – a Credence Table and a Communion Chest: the gifts of Henry and Elizabeth Maddison (see their wonderfully colourful memorial not far away in the South Transept). Both these pieces went missing for over a hundred years, but the dedication carved into them secured a safe return.
Just before the steps down into the Eastern Chapels, both sides of the aisle contain fascinating memorials and dedication ‘boards’; though, I fear they are somewhat salutary for any Bishop or Dean. The carved name is a tribute, of course (though it makes no judgement on any achievements), and whenever I pass, I am reminded that there is space always ready for the next incumbent. If nothing else, the incumbents’ board gives testimony to the longevity of the building. It is set in an art-deco design which was undertaken by the same artist who made the beautiful silver Head Verger’s Mace topped with the figure of St Nicholas. The narrow cabinet next to the Bishops’ stone should display the carved ivory Newcastle Crozier made in 1883. Nowadays, ivory carving is rightly frowned upon; nevertheless, it is very intricate and beautiful.
The south wall of the aisle contains some grand memorials but none so grand as that to coal baron Matthew Ridley. Indeed, Richard Pears, in an unpublished post-graduate essay, suggests the church, post the eighteenth-century refurbishment, “became the nearest thing in the North East to an elite necropolis”. This memorial (there is another of equal grandness dedicated to Matthew’s son, Sir Matthew White Ridley, near the north door) was produced by John Bacon, a Royal Academician responsible for statues of King George III and William Pitt the Elder. Both statues depict their subjects as Roman Senators, no doubt to highlight their importance and make a link to the Roman origins of the town and region. They are depicted as loyal to the King but also well aware of the role of the land-owning elite in restraining royal power. The memorial establishes the Ridleys’ importance in local and national identity through political, military, judicial and commercial accomplishments. It is truly grand, and like its counterpart, very alpha male making no reference to wife and family, even though elder Ridley’s wife Elizabeth played crucial roles in establishing the family and bestowing a large dowry on the family. The other interesting omission is that, unlike most other memorials, these two contain no religious sentiments – Richard Pears comments: “It is as though they wished to be seen not in a Christian church in Newcastle but alongside the Appian Way leading to Rome”.
This latter omission raises a fascinating issue for a regional Cathedral like ours. How religious should we be? Is it only card-carrying Christians that we celebrate? Not just for memorials but for weddings, funerals, civic service? Too easily, we could become that kind of Christian community that divides secular and religious, and in doing so, commits transcendence and God to the prison of the church. I can’t say that I am over enamoured by the idea of being a custodian of an ‘elite necropolis’, in truth, far from it. But I am more convinced than ever that the Christian understanding and experience of God is his ever-present working in every part of his creation.
I cannot turn away those who come to be married, even if the prime motivation might be the photogenic venue. I can’t say no to any who want to seek a blessing for a child from a God they have yet to acknowledge fully. I couldn’t be anything but thrilled were we to host a graduation ceremony, an art exhibition or lecture series… or even become a vaccination centre! We should be a place that delves deep into the issues, joys and laments of our society. I think (some may judge mistakenly!) that the church must celebrate its non-monopoly of the good, its belief in a God who chose incarnation as a way of redemption, and see its function as witnessing, and helping to uncover his love for all humankind. Such a role is heightened by accepting the title ‘Cathedral’ and is served by our value of radical welcome. I hope we don’t simply blur the secular/religious divide but that we obliterate it. To do less not only fails to serve the Church’s mission but, worse, blights our testimony to the Christian God. Strong words and especially so when inspired by a would-be secular memorial to an understanding of society that does not sit that easy with my social conscience.
There is a wonderful antidote to the Ridley statue right next door. A half window – I say half because that is what it is! A typical gothic style tracery is half blocked up because of the addition of the Thomlinson Library (now the Song School). The other half has been glazed with coloured and textured glass in Leonard Evett style to accompany the great Ascension window. The story goes that it once contained different glazing, but a ‘man of the street’, seeking a dry place to sleep, found himself locked in the Cathedral. Getting cold, he lit a fire before crashing out through the window. Not only the ‘great and the good’ make their mark on the church – I just wish we had recorded his name to give to the window for posterity.
So, I hope you agree that ‘else’ proves an interesting destination in itself – and I am sure that I have only scratched the surface. But enough for now. Both these aisles are often used at the start and end of grand Cathedral processions, and that for me is a fitting parable of the Cathedral’s history and the people who rest here for a while. A motley procession of restoration and conservation and folk who play their part in writing the story of this place – some good, some bad, some funny and some sad. All of value, all welcome, all on the same pilgrimage, to somewhere – else!
Newcastle Cathedral’s Common Ground in Sacred Space project, supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, is due for completion in summer 2021 – with a reopening date to be announced soon. Sign up to our e-newsletter to be notified.