Lady Chapel looks divine after a good waxing
A 750-year-old part of St Patrick’s Cathedral has had a dazzling makeover
From left: Emmanuel Dascalu, Sam Ulogwara , Cameron Lally, Geroge Ndegwe and Thomas Mazwell, members of St Patrick’s Cathedral choir school, in the refurbished Lady Chapel yesterday. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
The lady has had a waxing and is looking pretty good. Not bad for a 750 year old, it might be said.
The lady in question is the Lady Chapel of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, built in 1270 and dedicated to Our Lady by the then Archbishop of Dublin Fulk de Saundford but closed to the general public for many of the intervening years.
Yesterday, after a €700,000 facial, she was open once again. Now her walls of yellow sandstone, brought all the way from Caen in Normandy, are a pristine bright cream, in marked contrast to the dull grey, pollution and time-stained walls of the rest of the cathedral. Conservation architect John Beauchamp, of Benjamin and Beauchamp architects from Somerset in England, used Arte Mundt, a carbon-starved latex formula that, when brushed on to stone, sucks in carbon, removing stains without damaging the walls.
“It’s a process perhaps not too familiar to you and me, I suspect,” remarked Dean Victor Stacey yesterday morning during a preview opening. “Rather like waxing hair from a lady’s leg. . .” In both instances, the result is rather attractive.
The Lady Chapel is a little gem behind the cathedral’s main altar, sanctuary and choir. As the ambulatory gates have been closed for many years, the chapel has not been generally open to the public. While it is used for early morning Sunday service, occasional weddings and other events, religious and secular, visitors were otherwise unable to enter and experience the full majesty of Ireland’s premier Gothic building.
That has now changed and the 345,000 paying visitors to the cathedral annually (making it among the top five tourist attractions nationally) will be able to enjoy its charms.
The Lady Chapel is in fact three chapels: the Lady Chapel itself, mirroring the central position of the main altar and sanctuary, and two lesser chapels to its right and left – the Chapel of St Peter, reflecting the position of the cathedral’s north transept, and the Chapel of St Stephen in like position to the south transept.
Red and black tiles cover the floor. Eight pillars, each comprised of four columns of lightly polished black limestone (fossils clearly visible) hug a central core of white stone. The columns hold aloft the vaulted ceiling with its interlocking groins, the defining visual characteristic of Gothic architecture.
The chapel, and much of the rest of the cathedral, was restored in the 1860s, funding coming from the Guinness family. The Victorian influence is evident in the arcade, 36 ornately-framed panels that girdle the sanctuary, designed by the Irish architect Sir Thomas Drew. Several contain memorials to notable women, Florence Sophia Tottenham, Florence C Ovenden and Jane Thompson among them, who devoted their energies to helping feed and nurse Dublin’s poor.
Coloured light floods through 25 lancet windows of 19th-century stained glass, telling an eclectic collection of Biblical stories. The main group, dating from 1863, is known as the Packenham Windows, named after Dean Henry Packenham whose gambling problems prompted him to flog fireplaces from the deanery to settle debts.
A more edifying legacy to his restoration efforts are the windows that carry his name. They, like all others in the chapel, have been cleaned and restored and now shine in the sun. Through a blaze of electric blue, red, green and yellow, they show the Baptism of Christ, John the Baptist preaching, Moses with the Ten Commandments, Christ blessing children, building the temple, the Good Shepherd, and, from Genesis, Melchizedek with bread and wine.
The chapel has been witness to much history. In one spot stands King William’s Chair, in which he is reputed to have sat during a service of thanksgiving for certain events on the banks of the Boyne. And from the mid-17th century to the early 19th century, the chapel was used by French Huguenots, Protestants refugees who fled after the 1685 revocation of the Edict of Nantes, a measure that briefly gave them rights in Catholic France.
The current restoration has “brought the building back to its original form,” says Gavan Woods, cathedral administrator. John Beauchamp agrees and notes the great contrast that now exists between the gleaming bright area behind the altar and the rest of the Gothic building. “I think we’ve let the genie out of the bottle,” he says with an eye to those things left undone.