De-Altaring at Cambridge?

King’s College Chapel 1515-2015: Art, Music and Religion in Cambridge

by Jean Michael Massing and Nicolette Zeeman
2015 Brepols Publishers, 422 pages, €75.00
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King’s College Chapel 1515–2015: Art, Music and Religion in Cambridge, a large-bound, brilliantly illustrated history coedited by Jean Michael Massing and Nicolette Zeeman, is a clearly written and sharply organized work that offers much for the interested reader.1 It is perhaps best suited for alumni of or visitors to Cambridge University, and herein lies a basic problem with the text. It seeks evidently to be more than a coffee table tome for cocktail party consumption, but it fails to meet the standards of academic rigor one expects from a serious scholarly study. It falls, as a result, in a sort of uncomfortable terra media that leaves the more-than-casual reader ultimately unfulfilled.

For the popular audience it provides ample rewards. The chapters are divided among a range of interesting topics, with vivid descriptions of historical developments and with the contemporary artistic events—primarily choral—staged in the chapel ably documented and rightly celebrated. Each chapter provides a wealth of detail and attractive photography or still paintings of historic images of King Henry VI’s magnificent collegiate chapel.

However, when we remind ourselves of the ambitious subtitle of the work—Art, Music and Religion in Cambridge—we realize its superficiality. As a work for a scholarly audience, it falls seriously short. This is so because although it touches on important issues raised by the chapel, it does not explore them in nearly enough depth. It starts out promisingly enough, noting that King’s College Chapel is a barometer of the wider culture’s views of religion.2 However, one wishes for a deeper investigation of this exceptionally interesting and important point about so iconic a college chapel.

Sorely lacking, for example, is a sufficiently detailed treatment of the renovation of the chapel resulting from the real estate magnate A.E. Allnatt’s gift in 1961 of an exceedingly large Rubens painting, Adoration of the Magi, and its positioning immediately behind the altar. With its ambitious title, one expects a rigorous treatment of this development and how it indeed serves to reflect ambient changes in the relationship between religion and wider culture. Yet the reader fails to learn in this book that the prime movers in the 1960s seeking to change the chapel were self-described radical theologians of modernist liturgical reform (Alec Vidler and Victor de Waal). It was they who drove the Fellows to accept the exceptionally large Rubens painting and demanded that it be positioned behind the altar. Nor does the reader learn that the radicals’ desire was rejected by the architects commissioned to update the chapel, who voiced a grave concern about the large art piece’s negative impact on liturgical and architectural meaning. Nor do we learn that the architects were overruled by the radicals and a new architect was retained—a designer of country houses and inner city housing projects—who stripped the altar of its primacy by raising behind it this ill-fitting painting of stupendous proportions, and who did so without even retaining so simple and traditional a symbol as a single altar cross (a cross was later supplied). The overshadowed altar, in turn, was reduced in length to match the dimensions of the real estate mogul’s massive benefaction, and the altar was fitted with a modernist frontal featuring a complex pattern of modern octagons. Nor is there amplified in sufficient detail the strident architectural resistance to the radicals’ designs. We do not learn, for example, that classically trained architects bemoaned how the altar became, in the words of architectural critics Robert Plowright and Bryan Little, “an embalmed art gallery . . . diminished in stature, in mystery, in reverence, and transformed into a picture gallery . . . with celebrity art replac[ing] spiritual symbolism, and architectural meaning replaced by interior design.”3

Were these points explored in greater depth, the reader would be reminded of an interesting continuity between reformers in the Anglican tradition in the twentieth century and the Protestant reformers of the sixteenth. As Fincham and Tyacke document, de-altaring was central to many Protestant reformers.4 And here, in the 1960s, we see a kind of recapitulation of the de-altaring of sacred space—not through iconoclasm as such but through a museumification of sacred place. By overshadowing the altar rather than complementing it, the prodigious Rubens piece transforms a sacred canopy into something far different. Though itself a powerful religious image, the Rubens piece and its location distract from the altar, decentering it and thus, in a curious way, mirroring radical Protestant reform. As a result, the chapel is transformed into a kind of show piece, a secular salon for the idle gawking of beautiful forms and vivid color.

In all, the book is a welcome addition for all seeking a reference source on the highlights of the chapel’s history and a resource of attractive images of the changes in the chapel’s grandeur across the centuries. Buy it, therefore, for a grandson who graduates from Cambridge, or as a momento of a lovely vacation near the Cam. Just do not expect anything like a serious academic treatment.