Votive Atmosphere

The Chapel of Saint Rita in Great Britain

A private Catholic chapel recently erected next to a country house in North Britain is among the most remarkable new classical buildings in Britain. Designed by the award-winning architect Craig Hamilton, it was commissioned as a birthday present for the owner’s wife and is dedicated to Saint Rita of Cascia, an Italian fifteenth-century saint. It forms part of a group of estate buildings isolated in a seemingly untamed landscape of bare hills and moors.

The private chapel is on an estate in the north of Britain. The bronze bust of Saint Rita of Cascia above the door was sculpted by Alexander Stoddart. Photo: Craig Hamilton Architects

Craig Hamilton is unusual among young British architects—most of whom are self-taught, “born again” traditionalists in the classical manner—in that he was trained in proper drawing as well as art history at architectural school in South Africa, where he was born and brought up, and where more “old-fashioned” educational standards then still prevailed than in Britain. He has some of the universal artistic personality of an Italian Renaissance master, painting in oils and carving in stone to a good standard, as well as designing buildings. His architecture also draws on an unusually wide range of scholarly sources, including ancient Greek and Roman architecture, the work of Palladio and Scamozzi and the Renaissance masters of Venice, the early Mannerism of Michelangelo in Florence, and especially the Neo-classicism of Northern Europe: Hansen’s Denmark, Schinkel’s Germany, and Georgian England. These sources and systems of proportions are synthesized and integrated in his work to produce organic and original works of art in a manner that recalls the early nineteenth-century designs of C.R. Cockerell at the Ashmolean in Oxford or the former University Library at Cambridge.

When he first arrived in England, Hamilton worked for the well-known conservation architect Michael Reardon, in whose office he had the practical opportunity to explore traditional English building crafts and techniques, including the use of lime, varied mortar mixes, brick bonds, and stone masonry. Since setting up an independent practice, in addition to conservation work, he has designed many new classical buildings of distinction and is currently working on a series of large country houses in different parts of the country: Shropshire, Northamptonshire, Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, and Berkshire. He is also consultant architect to the Duchy of Cornwall and has carried out a comprehensive repair and rehabilitation of the derelict buildings on the duchy’s new estate at Harewood in Herefordshire.

This commission was for a small but monumental chapel which recalled the basilican architecture of Italy but met the liturgical requirements of the Second Vatican Council—for instance, in the furnishing of the sanctuary with a free-standing altar, celebrant’s chair, and lectern for the readings. This liturgical formula can often be an architectural disaster, especially when crudely applied to the “re-ordering” of historic chancels. Not least among the successes of this particular chapel is that the result looks timeless and has all the traditional richness inherited by the Catholic Church from the Temple at Jerusalem and the Roman Empire, and synthesized over centuries by some of the world’s greatest artists.

The architect’s aim was to design a building like those one sees alongside the villas of the Veneto, with a plain, stuccoed exterior, pedimented west front with bellcote, and rich temple-like interior. The result is strikingly similar to the early nineteenth-century Catholic chapel designed by the Roman architect Agostino Giorgioli for the 10th Lord Herries at Everingham in Yorkshire. Interestingly, the Everingham chapel was unknown to Craig Hamilton and so did not in fact form a source for the design. The striking parallel is due to two architects using similar architectural language 150 years apart for parallel architectural commissions. The new chapel was begun at Easter 2005 and was completed and consecrated on the Solemnity of the Assumption in August 2006, though some of the works of art have been added subsequently.

The oak entry door is carved with the thistle of Scotland and the rose of Saint Rita. The bronze door handle is a sculpted stag’s head by Richard Eastland. Photo: Craig Hamilton Architects

The west front is dominated by a large stone doorcase which, with its scrolled ends and central bronze bust of the chapel’s patron, Saint Rita, makes reference to Venetian Renaissance doorcases with semi-circular pediments, such as the one on Santa Maria dei Miracoli in Venice by the Lombardo family of architects. The bronze bust is by the distinguished contemporary Scottish Neo-classical sculptor Alexander Stoddart, whose work here represents one of his most complete groups of statuary, and is a remarkably generous piece of private artistic patronage. The semi-circular band of glass, or “fanlight,” has the effect of isolating the door as an architectural stele. The drooping cartouche above the door makes reference to Michelangelo’s architecture in Florence in the 1520s. The sides of the chapel are plain, apart from well-scaled, round-arched windows, and the east end is an austere Neo-classical apse. The stone cornice all round is derived from the lost Temple of the Ilissus in Athens, as recorded by Stuart and Revett in the mid-eighteenth century. The walls have lime-based stucco render, washed a rich ochre colour, while the architraves and other architectural details are of Stanton Moor stone from Derbyshire.

A striking feature of the chapel is the specially commissioned craftsmanship in wood, marble, and bronze, which enriches and enlivens the design. The west door is an introduction to this. It is of oak, with carved panels incorporating the Scottish thistle, the rose of Saint Rita, and acanthus leaves—the work of Houghtons of York, who were also the contractors for the internal joinery. The door handle in bronze with a stag’s head is a little reference to Plecnik’s twentieth-century architecture in Prague. It was modelled by Richard Eastland from Radnorshire, who was also responsible for much of the internal modelling and carving, including the pew ends and the ornaments of the sanctuary furniture. The principal contractors were the firm of Aneley’s of York, well-known for exciting, modern classical work—notably many of the buildings of the late Francis Johnson.

The interior is remarkably monumental, and the very well-managed proportions and scale give an impression of size which is illusory. The principal source and parallel is George Dance the Younger’s All Hallows, London Wall, with an attached colonnade supporting a coffered, segmental vault. The order employed here is the unfluted Greek Ionic of the Ilissus. The simple rectangular interior is given spatial complexity by being divided into three zones: a vestibule screened by Ionic columns, the nave with seating, and an apsidal chancel. This progression is reflected in the Roman barrel vault where the plaster coffers, executed by a firm in Leeds, diminish in size from west to east—large in the vestibule, smaller in the nave, and smallest in the apse. This trompe l’oeil effect also helps to exaggerate the scale. The plaster rosettes within the nave coffers are modelled on those of the Temple of Mars Ultor in Rome; those in the apse reflect the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli. They were cast from a clay prototype modelled by Dick Reid and his students.

The Ilissus Ionic columns are monoliths of Stanton Moor stone. The walls are lime-plastered, and in the vestibule and nave there is a dado of polished walnut made by Houghtons. The panelling below each of the windows is treated to an individual tapering plinth. The pews, made at Whitney Saw Mills under the direction of Will Bullough, are of polished and carved walnut, and have needlework cushions and kneelers designed by the architect and made in Bulgaria under the supervision of the carpet-makers David and Sara Bamford of Presteigne. Much of the quality of the building comes from such unusual attention to detail, as well as the carefully balanced unity of the whole scheme. The altar silver, including chalice, ciborium, thurible, incense boat, and water and wine cruets, was also designed by the architect and draws inspiration from Roman silver found at Pompeii and Herculaneum in the eighteenth century. They were made by the leading contemporary Scottish silversmiths, Hamilton and Inches of Edinburgh.

The Ionic columns are monolithic, while the floor is paved with three different stones. The coffers in the plaster barrel vault diminish in size from west to east toward the apse. Photo: Craig Hamilton Architects

The aura of a small Roman basilica is enhanced by the extensive use of marble, mainly carried out in Carrara under the direction of Maurizio Fontanilli. The floor is paved in a pattern of polished stones and marble. The three floor stones are Rosso Impero for the large panels and Hoptonwood from Derbyshire and Fossil Limestone from Ulverston for the banding, both of which were used as “English marbles” in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At the west end, the holy water stoup is of Sicilian onyx and the font of Fiore de Pesca. In the chancel apse the central niche for the tabernacle is lined with Rosso Impero and is flanked by pedimented aedicules containing bas-reliefs, all of white Carrara marble with contrasting green-black Purbeck for the pilasters, to form a tripartite arrangement set off by surrounding panels of curved slabs of Giallo Antico. The clou is the tabernacle in the niche behind the altar. It takes the form of a little pedimented and domed tempietto, a fusion of Greek detailing with a Renaissance domed form. It is constructed of Bianco P white marble from Carrara, with pilasters and frieze of green porphyry, the pediment of red porphyry, and the little lantern in the dome of Lapis Lazuli. On the door is a gilt-bronze statuette of Saint John the Baptist by Alexander Stoddart.

This forms part of a programme of sculpture by Stoddart throughout the chapel, including life-size statues of Saint Nicholas of Tolentino and Saint Augustine of Hippo (as a Platonic philosopher)—the traditional attendants of Saint Rita, who was an Augustinian nun—in the vestibule, and the basso-relievos in the apse depicting the Annunciation and the Visitation.

Unlike Saint John the Baptist, which is cast in bronze, these were carved in Bianco P marble at Carrara by the Cervietti workshops in Pietrasanta. Alexander Stoddart’s sculpture programme also includes a votive figure of Saint Rita, the Stations of the Cross in plaster, the corpus in silver and bronze on the processional cross, and a painted bronze lunette of Saint Monica (mother of Saint Augustine) set into the inner tympanum of the west door. Stoddart was consulted by the architect early in the design process, and together they built up a programme of iconography for the sculptures that is closely integrated with the classical architecture of the chapel and reflects both its purpose and symbolism, as well as the dedication of the building to Saint Rita.

The sanctuary is divided from the nave in the traditional manner by low altar rails of gilt-bronze anthemia set into polished Ulverston surrounds. The anthemia were cast from a wooden prototype carved by Richard Eastland. The anthemion is of Greek origin, but the immediate inspiration was Schinkel’s anthemion panels at Glienicke in Potsdam. The pair of large brass chandeliers, made by Durner & Hamlyn of Croydon to the architect’s designs, also sport the anthemion and were likewise inspired by Schinkel. There are small branched candlesticks on the pew ends and round the walls below the consecration crosses modelled by Richard Eastland.

The altar rail and anthemia are gilt bronze while the anthemia at the chandeliers are brass. Photo: Craig Hamilton Architects

The architect’s control also involved the fittings of the chancel: the altar, lectern, priest’s chair, and servers’ stools. These are of strongly archaeological inspiration, reminiscent of the Danish Neo-classical furniture of H.E. Freund and M.G. Bindesboll. The lectern is supported by a fluted Paestum Doric column. The altar is carved with an anthemion frieze, and the seat furniture has strong Herculaneum references. All were made in polished walnut at Whitney Saw Mills, with carving by Richard Eastland. The priest’s chair is inlaid with pearwood and has cast-bronze arms in the form of rams’ heads on Herculaneum supports. The fastidious design and unified quality of the fixtures and fittings are matched by the admirable quality of their execution and craftsmanship, which is worthy of comparison with the highest standards achieved in Europe in the nineteenth century.

Such perfect execution and unified control of design can lead to a hardness of finish which is difficult to lose. This is not the case with Craig Hamilton’s chapel, partly because of its domestic scale and perfect proportions, and the views through the partially clear-glazed windows to the surrounding hilly landscape. Moreover the specially commissioned work is partnered with antique Baroque silver candlesticks on the altar and flanking the tabernacle, as well as some earlier Italian paintings and carvings, including the crucifix, giving something of the votive atmosphere of an old country chapel that is the much-loved spiritual focus of its family.

Bas-reliefs in the apse depict the Annunciation and the Visitation. Photo: Craig Hamilton Architects

The work of Craig Hamilton, as exemplified in this beautiful chapel, ranks among the most accomplished and exciting modern classical designs currently being produced in England. Some commentators find it difficult to understand this type of work. The word pastiche is bandied around—a specifically musical term which should rarely be applied to architecture. Like figurative painting or tonal music, classical architecture is a valid alternative tradition which survived, and sometimes flourished, alongside “modern” experimentation throughout the twentieth century. Classical design is a system of proportions and an architectural language which is capable of almost infinite adaptation to produce new and original compositions. Craig Hamilton is one of the living artists who is able to do this. Though steeped in learned references and precedents, this chapel is completely original and sui generis. While the apse may look like an Italianate Renaissance basilica, it is entirely modern with a free-standing altar-table and the tabernacle in a wall niche behind, supported on an abstract, sarcophagus-shaped plinth. Large-scale anthemia, used by the Greeks for acroteria on the roofs of temples, are adapted for altar rails. The tapering pew ends are steles, based on Grecian gravestones transformed into furniture. All this is novel and not copied from anything in historic English architecture. The architecture of the chapel and its sculptural programme have a strong and coherent intellectual underpinning particular to this building. The words of its sculptor, Alexander Stoddart, concerning the sculptures, can be applied to the building as a whole: “Without disregarding function it puts beauty before function as its primary aim.”

John Martin Robinson is a British architectural historian. He has written twenty-eight books, including the definitive history of James Wyatt, architect to George III, published by Yale University Press in 2012. He is currently writing the official history of the Travellers Club, Charles Barry’s first Italianate masterpiece. He lives in London and Lancashire.