Westminster Cathedral is not only one of the finest churches in the capital, but one of London’s best buildings of any kind. The exterior is glorious, with its neo-Byzantine domes and bold patterning. The mosaic over the west door — liturgical west, at any rate — portraying Christ the King is quite unlike anything I’ve seen on the outside of an English church. That whole west front is a triumph, with the Romanesque shape around the doors working particularly well.
The inside is wonderful too. It is still unfinished. John Bentley, the architect, had intended that the interior would contain many beautiful mosaics, but he died in 1902 before work was complete and had not left clear instructions for the decoration. A friend of mine used to joke that at the current rate, the job would be complete sometime in the twenty-fourth century.
I’m fairly sure this is the first place where I ever encountered Eucharistic adoration, and what an extraordinary setting it was.
I must confess I rather like the idea of a cathedral as constantly a work in progress (honourable mention here for Gaudi’s extraordinary La Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona, construction of which began in 1882, more than a decade before Westminster Cathedral, and is still going). It seems to me to reflect in a rather profound way the long continuity of the church, the process of sanctification in the individual believer, and the Holy Spirit leading the Church into all truth.
The gradual work of completing the interior has meant that over the last century or so, various artists have left their mark, notably in the Lady Chapel, on the south side of the sanctuary, which is a remarkable place.
I used to attend Mass at the cathedral on a regular basis but had somehow managed to completely miss the Lady Chapel until I went to Confession there once and was looking for somewhere to say my penance – the confessionals are close by. Since then I have never visited the cathedral without paying at least a short visit.
The marbled walls and blue mosaics make it a place of real serenity. On the other side of the altar is the Blessed Sacrament chapel, decorated largely in gold and with finely-executed mosaics of vines picked out in the window niches. I’m fairly sure this is the first place where I ever encountered Eucharistic adoration, and what an extraordinary setting it was.
I cannot possibly hope to do justice to the whole of the cathedral in these few words.
I am a strict amateur when it comes to art and architecture. The outside is attractive enough; but once you enter, amid all the artistry and the grandeur, there is a palpable atmosphere of prayerfulness and holiness. Those high gloomy domes, as well as providing fantastic acoustics, give a sense of mystery and power that few places can match.
I rather like the idea of a cathedral as constantly a work in progress.
I have read that every year well in excess of 150 million passengers pass through London Victoria, London’s second busiest railway station, and any time I am in the vicinity, I can believe it. A fair number of them, I expect, continue their journey along Victoria Street towards Parliament Square, whether on foot or by bus or taxi. I wonder how many ever glance to their right and catch a glimpse of what may at first strike them as a rather odd-looking building.
In case you haven’t, you must.
Niall Gooch is a regular Chapter House columnist. He also contributes to UnHerd.