15 May 2014

Seeing ‘the glory of the Lord’ in Kempe’s carvings on the
triptych in the Lady Chapel

Patrick Comerford

The Herkenrode stained glass has long been one of the major visitor attractions in Lichfield Cathedral. The glass was acquired for the cathedral in Belgium in 1803, and its eagerly-awaited return to the East End is expected to make the Lady Chapel look even more beautiful.

But putting anticipation aside, it is worth visiting the Lady Chapel also to see the whole Christmas story – from the Annunciation and the Visitation through the Nativity to the Presentation in the Temple and the Visit of the Magi – told in the colourful triptych that forms the reredos for the altar in the Lady Chapel. This carved wooden reredos dates from 1895. It is a triptych (three-part) altarpiece with high relief scenes from Oberammergau, the Bavarian town that is better known for its Passion Play. But the wooden carvings were designed in England rather than in Germany. The Tractarian artist Charles Eamer Kempe (1837-1907) designed the reredos. Kempe was best known in the late Victorian period for his stained-glass windows, some of which can also be seen in the cathedral.

Kempe studied architecture under George Frederick Bodley and then at the Clayton & Bell studio before his first work was produced by them in 1865. He worked independently from 1866 into the 20th century with his own workshop from 1869. The Church Historian, Owen Chadwick, says Kempe’s work represents “the Victorian zenith” of church decoration and stained glass windows.

Fig 22 The story of the Incarnation

As he worked on the designs for the altarpiece, Kempe was deeply conscious of history, of the Lady Chapel, with its highly unusual octagonal apse. The Lady Chapel, dedicated to Saint Mary and Saint Chad, dates from the 14th century, and was incorporated into the main part of the cathedral in the 18th century. Kempe kept the dedication in mind as he drew up his plans for the reredos, which was then carved by Oskar Zwink in his family’s famous studio in Oberammergau.

Fig 23 The Nativity Scene on the triptych

The central panel of the reredos shows a Nativity scene, with the Virgin Mary and the shepherds in the middle, then the Annunciation (upper left), the Virgin Mary’s visit to her cousin Saint Elizabeth (lower left), the Adoration of the Magi (upper right) and the Presentation in the Temple (lower right). Much of the artwork is gilded with gold leaf while other areas are polychromatic paintwork.

Fig 24 The Annunciation scene

Fig 25 The Visitation of the Virgin Mary to St Elizabeth

King David, the Prophet Isaiah, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Chad are depicted on the back of the two doors, which are seen only when the triptych is closed. On either side of the Nativity scene itself are four carved figures: Saint Ambrose, Saint Jerome, Saint Augustine, and Saint Gregory – four of the seven patristic saints who are also carved in Roman cement above the south door of the cathedral.

Fig 26 The Visit of the Magi

Fig 27 The Presentation of Christ in the Temple

For generations, the Zwink family has been associated with the Passion Play, and the influences of the Passion Play can be seen in the style o the figures in the panels. This dramatic influence is more visible in the reredos Kempe and Zwink produced for Saint Andrew’s Church in Burnley in 1898. In Burnley, the central panel depicts the crucifixion, while the four side panels depict the passion like scenes from the Passion Play in Oberammergau.

Fig 28 The Kempe reredos at St Andrew’s, Burnley recently undergoing restoration & flanked by two Kempe windows

Kempe’s reredos was designed to fit in with his reordering of the Lady Chapel, for which he designed the statues of female saints, carved by Farmer and Brindley. They were installed on the walls of the Lady Chapel in 1895 and include: Saint Lucy, Saint Cecilia, Saint Werburgh and Saint Ethelreda.

Kempe also designed half the windows in Lichfield Cathedral, including: the Bishop Hacket Window (1901), celebrating the completion of the Victorian restoration; the Barnabas Window (1898); Saint Stephen preaching to the Sanhedrin (1895); Saint Peter Saint John healing (1894/1895); King David training the musicians (1890); and ‘Self-Sacrifice’ in Saint Michael’s Chapel (1904); the imposing South Transept window, ‘The Spread of the Christian Church’ (1895); other windows depicting saints; and some of the windows in the Chapter House.

Fig 29 St Chad’s Head Chapel

Kempe was also commissioned to restore the Saint Chad’s Head Chapel in the 1890s. He was seen by his contemporaries as a Tractarian, but primarily he saw his task “to beautify the place in which to celebrate the glory of God.” It is a task that reflects the theme in his images on the triptych in the Lady Chapel: “Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them …” (Luke 2: 9).

Further Reading:

Michael Greenslade (ed), ‘Lichfield Cathedral,’ A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14: Lichfield (1990).
Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Staffordshire (London: Penguin, 1974).
Patricia Scaife, The Carvings of Lichfield Cathedral (Much Wenlock: RJL Smith for Lichfield Cathedral, 2010).
Patricia Scaife, The Stained Glass of Lichfield Cathedral (Much Wenlock: RJL Smith for Lichfield Cathedral, 2009).
Mathé Shepheard, ‘The Stained Glass of John Hardman and Company under the leadership of John Hardman Powell from 1867 to 1895,’ a thesis presented at Birmingham City University, 2007.
Margaret Stavridi, Master of Glass, Charles Eamer Kempe, 1837-1907 (London: The Kempe Society, 1988).

The Revd Canon Patrick Comerford is a regular visit to Lichfield and the Cathedral. He is a Lecturer in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. www.patrickcomerford.com

Fig 30 Side panels to the Triptych

Photographs 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 29: Patrick Comerford; 22 and 30: Lichfield Camera Club.

This essay and these photographs were first published in May 2014 in the Spring Edition of Three Spires and Friends of Lichfield Cathedral, 77th Annual Report, 2014 (editor, David Wallington), pp 31-36.

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