23 November 2016

The interesting art and architecture of
the Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine

Inside the Chapel of the Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine in Limehouse in the East End of London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

The values of ‘Worship, Hospitality and Service’ are at the heart of the life of the Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine and have become the motto of the foundation.

I was staying in Saint Katharine’s last week during a residential meeting in the East End of London of the trustees of the Anglican mission agency USPG, and found it was not only an oasis in the East End, but a place of beauty, with a chapel of architectural importance, and interesting works of art throughout the chapel, the house and the gardens.

The chapel was built in 1951 on the site of the bombed parish church of Saint James’s, Ratcliffe. But the 1950s were a period of austerity, and the chapel was dark with small windows and a central altar that limited its capacity and its flexibility for worship.

The chapel was refurbished in 2004 by the architect Jonathan Dinewell. He transformed the chapel successfully with larger windows, relocating the choir stalls, moving the altar to the east under a Saint Katharine’s wheel rose window, and introducing some of the foundation’s historic monuments into the chapel. His restoration led to a much lighter and brighter interior, with its large windows and enhanced sense of peace.

The entrance to the chapel with statues of Queen Philippa to the left and King Edward III to the right (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

At each side of the doors leading into the chapel are statues of Queen Philippa to the left and King Edward III to the right. The glazed entry doors came from Andrew Pynter’s chapel built in 1828 when Saint Katharine’s moved from the East End to Regent’s Park.

Above the door are carved 17th century panels with putti, the side ones making music and singing.

The Altar in the chapel designed by Keith Murray with the reredos above (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The Altar in Welsh slate was designed by Keith Murray and carved with inscriptions from Roman catacombs by Ralph Bayer. The inscription on the altar facing into the chapel reads: ‘Behold I lay in Sion a chief cornerstone, elect, precious / and he that believeth on him shall not be confounded’ (I Peter 2: 6).

The reredos above the altar is a remarkable relief of the Adoration of the Magi, which was moved out of the Cloister in 2004 and restored. The imagery is similar to a painting in the 1470s by Benevenuto di Giovanni in the National Gallery in London.

Above the reredos, an east window was installed in 2004 depicting the wheel on which Saint Katharine was tortured before her martyrdom.

In front of the Altar, in the centre of the floor of the chapel, a Compass Rose was laid in 2004 with a circle of granite brought back from Saint Catherine’s Monastery on the slopes of Mount Sinai, the world’s oldest Christian monastery.

The eight arms of the compass denote the seven days of creation and the day of the Resurrection, and point to the corners of the earth, calling us to ‘Go, proclaim the Gospel to all nations.’ The ring encircling the compass is inscribed with words of Saint Augustine of Hippo: ‘We do not come to God by navigation but by love.’

The Master’s stall among the choir stalls in the chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The richly carved choir stalls came from the mediaeval Church of Saint Katharine by the Tower. They are outstanding examples of 14th century wood-carving but, alas, are only a fragment of the 24 stalls that survived until the 18th century.

All these stalls have misericords with delightfully lively figures, including an angel blowing bagpipes, an elephant and castle with a single rider, and the devil grabbing two chattering women.

A misericord among the choir stalls in the chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The oak panels around the chapel are decorated with the coats of arms of some of the Masters of Saint Katharines’s from the 15th to the 19th century.

The hexagonal pulpit has marquetry panels of domes and spired churches. It was once believed that this pulpit was a gift of former master Sir Julius Caesar, but recent studies of the mouldings suggest that it is an 18th century work based on earlier designs.

High on the west wall of the chapel hangs a crucifix carved by Michael Groser, son of the first post-war Master, Father St John Groser.

The font in the chapel was a gift from Queen Victoria (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The font, on a 17th century pedestal, was given by Queen Victoria. The Paschal Candlestick depicts Saint Blaise and Saint Katharine.

The carved relief of Saint Katharine on the north wall of the chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

In the covered cloister outside the chapel, there are of memorials to people who were connected with Saint Katharine’s over the centuries. Outside the chapel, on the north wall, is a relief of Saint Katharine. This was moved from the East Wall of the chapel to make space for the East Window above the reredos.

A portrait of Sir Julius Caesar (1557-1636), Master of Saint Katharine’s from 1596 to 1636 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

If the chapel is a integrated work of art on its own, then there are also many interesting works of art throughout the foundation, in the buildings and in the gardens.

Inside the foundation, visitors are greeted by an icon of Saint Katharine in the reception area. This was commissioned by the Community of the Resurrection, which was present here for 45 years until 1993.

In the main sitting room, a portrait of Sir Julius Caesar (1557-1636), Master of Saint Katharine’s from 1596 to 1636, hangs above the fireplace. The son of an Italian immigrant doctor, Cesare Adelmare from Treviso, a physician to Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth, Julius was baptised in the Saint Dunstan’s-in-the-East in 1558. A judge and MP for Windsor, he changed his name in his ambitious pursuit of his career, and became Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The Mystical Marriage of Saint Katharine … painted for a homesick queen (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

In a corridor nearby is a fine painting of the Mystical Marriage of Saint Katharine by the School of Corregio. The original is in the louvre in Paris. This copy was painted for Queen Henrietta Maria, the French-born wife of King Charles I and patron of Saint Katharine’s. It is said it was pained to alleviate her homesickness for France.

‘Love is My Meaning’ … a sculpture by Naomi Blake in the gardens of Saint Katharine’s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The garden outside includes a number of sculptures and statues, including one in the Queen Elizabeth Garden by Naomi Blake and named ‘Love is My Meaning,’ unveiled in 2000

Another work by Naomi Blake is ‘Genesis’ (1994), a figure of a mother and child with an inscription explaining that this work was given in honour of Lady Elizabeth Basset and ‘to promote understanding between people of different faiths.’

Naomi Blake was born in Mukaĉevo, Czechoslovakia (now Mukacheve, Ukraine) to Jewish parents in 1924. The youngest of 10 children, her original name was Zisel Dum.

She survived the Holocaust as a child in Auschwitz, although many members of her family died there. In 1942, her family included 32 members: four grandparents, her parents, nine siblings, six spouses and ten young nieces and nephews. In 1944, when Naomi was 20, most of her family was deported to Auschwitz and she was separated from everyone except her older sister Malchi, as her father, another sister and her nieces and nephews were led into the gas chambers. Of the 32 family members before the war, only had seven survived by 1945.

After World War II, she lived in Milan, Rome and Jerusalem, before making her home in North London. She changed her name to Naomi in 1948 and later she married Asher Blake. She studied at the Hornsey School of Art, now Middlesex University in 1955-1960.

Much of Naomi Blake’s work has focused on the expression of her experiences. However her work is principally optimistic, forward looking and positive. It stands determinedly to help keep alive the legacy of the six million Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust, as well as promoting her vision for uniting faiths, building understanding between religions and her hope for the future.

Her work has been exhibited in many galleries, in the Britain and abroad, and her sculptures can be seen at many sites, including Fitzroy Square and St Ethelburga’s Church, London, the University of Leicester, the Holocaust Centre, Nottinghamshire, and many royal collections.

In the week after visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau, it was startling to come across this survivor’s work in the gardens of the Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine in London.

‘The Holy City’ … one of the many works of art in the Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Matthew 3: 1-12: Preparing
the way for the coming kingdom

The Peaceable Kingdom (ca. 1848), Edward Hicks (1780-1849), oil on canvas, expresses a vision for the kingdom of God, found in Isaiah 11 and anticipated in Matthew 3

Patrick Comerford

In this tutorial group we are looking at the Gospel readings for Sunday week. The Sunday after next [4 December 2016] is the Second Sunday of Advent. The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary are: Isaiah 11: 1-10; Psalm 72: 1-7, 18-19; Romans 15: 4-13; Matthew 3: 1-12.

Matthew 3: 1-12:

1 Ἐν δὲ ταῖς ἡμέραις ἐκείναις παραγίνεται Ἰωάννης ὁ βαπτιστὴς κηρύσσων ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ τῆς Ἰουδαίας

2 [καὶ] λέγων, Μετανοεῖτε, ἤγγικεν γὰρ ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν. 3 οὗτος γάρ ἐστιν ὁ ῥηθεὶς διὰ Ἠσαΐου τοῦ προφήτου λέγοντος,

Φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ,
Ἑτοιμάσατε τὴν ὁδὸν κυρίου,
εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους αὐτοῦ.

4 Αὐτὸς δὲ ὁ Ἰωάννης εἶχεν τὸ ἔνδυμα αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τριχῶν καμήλου καὶ ζώνην δερματίνην περὶ τὴν ὀσφὺν αὐτοῦ, ἡ δὲ τροφὴ ἦν αὐτοῦ ἀκρίδες καὶ μέλι ἄγριον. 5 τότε ἐξεπορεύετο πρὸς αὐτὸν Ἱεροσόλυμα καὶ πᾶσα ἡ Ἰουδαία καὶ πᾶσα ἡ περίχωρος τοῦ Ἰορδάνου, 6 καὶ ἐβαπτίζοντο ἐν τῷ Ἰορδάνῃ ποταμῷ ὑπ' αὐτοῦ ἐξομολογούμενοι τὰς ἁμαρτίας αὐτῶν.

7 Ἰδὼν δὲ πολλοὺς τῶν Φαρισαίων καὶ Σαδδουκαίων ἐρχομένους ἐπὶ τὸ βάπτισμα αὐτοῦ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Γεννήματα ἐχιδνῶν, τίς ὑπέδειξεν ὑμῖν φυγεῖν ἀπὸ τῆς μελλούσης ὀργῆς; 8 ποιήσατε οὖν καρπὸν ἄξιον τῆς μετανοίας: 9 καὶ μὴ δόξητε λέγειν ἐν ἑαυτοῖς, Πατέρα ἔχομεν τὸν Ἀβραάμ, λέγω γὰρ ὑμῖν ὅτι δύναται ὁ θεὸς ἐκ τῶν λίθων τούτων ἐγεῖραι τέκνα τῷ Ἀβραάμ. 10 ἤδη δὲ ἡ ἀξίνη πρὸς τὴν ῥίζαν τῶν δένδρων κεῖται: πᾶν οὖν δένδρον μὴ ποιοῦν καρπὸν καλὸν ἐκκόπτεται καὶ εἰς πῦρ βάλλεται.

11 ἐγὼ μὲν ὑμᾶς βαπτίζω ἐν ὕδατι εἰς μετάνοιαν: ὁ δὲ ὀπίσω μου ἐρχόμενος ἰσχυρότερός μού ἐστιν, οὗ οὐκ εἰμὶ ἱκανὸς τὰ ὑποδήματα βαστάσαι: αὐτὸς ὑμᾶς βαπτίσει ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ καὶ πυρί: 12 οὗ τὸ πτύον ἐν τῇ χειρὶ αὐτοῦ, καὶ διακαθαριεῖ τὴν ἅλωνα αὐτοῦ, καὶ συνάξει τὸν σῖτον αὐτοῦ εἰς τὴν ἀποθήκην, τὸ δὲ ἄχυρον κατακαύσει πυρὶ ἀσβέστῳ.

Traslation (NRSV):

1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,

2 ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.” ’

4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’


Our Sunday readings for Advent this year are drawn from Saint Matthew’s Gospel, and prepare us for the coming of Christ in glory and majesty, which is far more important a theme for Advent than sending out Christmas cards and preparing for the office Christmas party.

The context:

The Old Testament reading (Isaiah 11: 1-10) looks to the promise of the Coming Messiah, filled with the Spirit of God, ushering in a kingdom in which the wolf shall live with the lamb, the calf with the lion, ‘and a little child shall lead them’ (verse 6) – a Messianic image that has inspired poets, painters and hymn writers throughout the generations.

You may find resonances of these images in both the Psalm (Psalm 72: 1-7, 18-19) and the Epistle reading (Romans 15: 4-13) too.

The Gospel reading develops these themes. It may seem out of place in some parishes using the Advent Wreath, for it is customary to recall John the Baptist on the Third Sunday of Advent; the sequence for the Advent Wreath normally follows this pattern:

Advent 1: The Patriarchs;
Advent 2: The Prophets;
Advent 3: John the Baptist;
Advent 4: The Virgin Mary;
Christmas Day: Christ.

But the Gospel reading for the following Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent [11 December 2016] returns to John the Baptist, and explains how his mission has pointed to Christ (see Matthew 11: 2-11).

On the other hand, this Gospel reading links with the Old Testament reading by once again prophesying, anticipating the coming of the Messiah, telling us that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near (see verse 2), and quoting the Prophet Isaiah.

The Baptism of Christ depicted in stucco relief in the Baptistery in the Church of Saint Nicholas of Myra, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The reading:

The introductory verses (1-3) emphasise John’s preaching, not his baptising. John first and foremost is a preacher, calling us to repentance, μετάνοια (metánoia), true conversion, turning around and reorienting ourselves (see verses 1-2). Compare this with Mark 1:4, ‘John the baptiser appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism if repentance for the forgiveness of sin.’

John is the one described by Isaiah who is ‘the voice … crying out in the wilderness’ (verse 3). Yes, we go on to hear a description of John’s baptising, but this reading does not include the verses describing the Baptism by John of Christ; instead, it places a greater emphasis on the meaning of that baptism and on the message of John.

In this passage, parallels are drawn constantly between Saint John the Baptist and the Old Testament prophets, particularly Isaiah, as we have seen, and Elijah.

The description of John’s clothing of ‘camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist’ (verse 3) draws on descriptions of Elijah as ‘a hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist’ (see II Kings 1: 8). Although John positively denies that he is Elijah (see John 1: 21), later in this Gospel, Christ speaks of John in terms of the ‘Elijah who is to come’ (Matthew 11: 14; compare with Matthew 17: 10-13).

Unlike Elijah, though, John performs no miracles; it is because of his preaching that John is identified as a latter-day Elijah. He fearlessly confronts the powers of the day, both secular (compare Ahab and Herod) and religious (compare the prophets and priests of Baal with the Pharisees and Sadducees). But John also heralds the coming Day of the Lord – which is part of the prophesy drawing on Elijah at the very end of the Old Testament (see Malachi 4: 5-6). In this way, John acts as a bridge between the Old Testament and the New Testament.

John’s preaching emphasises the coming of the Kingdom of heaven (βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν, basileía tou ouranou, see verse 2). The Greek word for kingdom, βασιλεία (basileía), points first and foremost to God’s rule or reign, not to the realm over which he rules. As the Lord’s Prayer reminds us, where God’s will is done, there his kingdom comes (see Matthew 6: 10). When God’s kingdom comes, his will indeed shall be done on earth as in heaven, and justice shall be firmly and truly established. And Advent is a time to prepare for, to anticipate, to look forward to the coming of those days.

Because the kingdom is at hand, John calls those who hear him to repentance (verse 2). The Greek word for repentance, μετάνοια (metánoia), means a change of direction, a change of heart, a change of mind. Those who take John’s preaching seriously must reorient their thinking, their priorities. Their whole outlook must changed once realise the nearness and the demands of God’s reign.

They express that change by confessing their sins and being baptised (verse 6).

What about the Pharisees and Sadducees who come to the baptism (see verse 7). Did they receive John’s baptism? The phrase ἐπὶ τὸ βάπτισμα αὐτοῦ (epí tó báptisma autou, verse 7) means literally ‘to his baptism’ rather than ‘coming for baptism’ (NRSV) or ‘to where he was baptising’ (NIV). Were they spectators, or were they baptised? Did they receive the baptism to signal that they were ready for the coming of the Kingdom of God, or were they hypocrites who had failed to repent?

Is John trying to shock them Pharisees and Sadducees out of their false sense of security (verse 9), and into spiritual awareness by the strong language he uses: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’ (verse 7).

Christ has not yet arrived at the Jordan, but John’s message already is not primarily about himself, but about the one who is to come (see verse 11-12), who is spoken of in apocalyptic images of the final judgment.

Some questions for discussion:

Did Isaiah actually prophesy anything about the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God?

At what point in the life of Christ does Saint Matthew place these events? Is this timing significant? Why?

What was the content of John’s preaching? How does John’s preaching compare to Christ’s?

Do confession and repentance prepare people for the coming of the kingdom?

What does the coming of the kingdom have to do with making the Lord’s paths straight (see verse 3)? How do we make the Lord’s paths straight?

Is John too judgmental of the Pharisees and Sadducees? Would you be so harsh with people who come to church to look and learn?

Why did Jesus have to be baptised?

Did he have to be baptised for repentance?


Father in heaven,
who sent your Son to redeem the world
and will send him again to be our judge:
Give us grace so to imitate him
in the humility and purity of his first coming
that when he comes again,
we may be ready to greet him with joyful love and firm faith;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(Revd Professor) Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with Year I and Year II MTh students on 23 November 2016.