The Abbey of St Laurence in Ampleforth is a great Benedictine monastery in the north of England, about 20 miles from York, and situated in a serene valley on the edge of the Vale of Pickering. Although the monks settled here in 1803, they trace their lineage to the monks of Westminster Abbey in London. One of the largest Benedictine abbeys in Europe with almost 80 monks, Ampleforth is also home to an important Catholic school, and the monks run St Benet’s Hall in Oxford. Among Ampleforth College’s notable alumni was Cardinal Basil Hume, who was also abbot of Ampleforth from 1963-75.
The Abbey Church was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (1880 – 1960), who also designed Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral. Known for his monumental structures, evident in that cathedral, Cambridge University Library, and Battersea Power Station, the abbey church also bears the hallmarks of his style which skilfully blends Gothic with the modern. Scott is also famous for having designed the iconic red phone boxes in London.
A smaller church by Hansom stood on this site in Ampleforth, but it had to be replaced because it was too small for the needs of the growing community and school. The choir was completed in 1925, and for a few decades this was attached to the old church until its eventual demolition in 1957. The interior of the choir is picked out with beautiful Blue Hornton stone from Oxfordshire. The rest of the building was to have had the same treatment but because of the great cost of this stone, the nave and transepts are just covered in a rough white plaster. The church was completed and consecrated in 1961.
The centrepiece of the church is the Blue Hornton baldachino arch which surmounts the double-altar. The west side faces the monastic choir, and the altar is dedicated to St Edward the Confessor, who founded Westminster Abbey. The east side, which faces the nave, has another altar, which is dedicated to St Laurence of Rome. The baldachino is finely carved with angels, saints, and a frieze with scenes from the life of the titular saints, and a double-sided crucifix, carved by Stuflessers in Austria, hangs over the altars. The choir stalls were crafted by Robert Thompson of Kilburn, who is called “The Mouseman” because his work featured a small carved mouse as a trademark; these mice are found on each of the bays of monastic stalls, and even on the new free-standing altar in the monastic choir.
The newest additions to the church are the stained glass windows on the north side, which are entirely by Patrick Reyntiens, a former pupil of Ampleforth College, and one of the greatest living stained glass artists in Britain. They were installed over a period from 1961 – 2004, and so they allow one to trace the development of Reyntiens’s style. The window shown here from the Holy Cross chapel, in which hangs a crucifix carved c1500, was installed in 2004.
The liturgy at Ampleforth has a noble simplicity that matches the architecture. Vespers is sung in Latin every evening from the Antiphonale Monasticum, and the other offices are sung in English, beautifully adapted from plainchant and subtly accompanied on the monastery’s four-manual organ. Many of the psalm tones, which are widely sung in England, were written by Dom Laurence Bevenot OSB. Examples of his music, and chants sung by the monks, can be found online.
More photos are available on my Flickr set, and this will be added to over the next few days. There are also some lovely photos, including archival material, on the abbey website.
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