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Elegantly written: Lord Cormack reviews 'Palace of Westminster: Faith, Art and Architecture'

Central Lobby Mosaic of St George | Alamy

3 min read

Richard Hall is to be commended for this handsome and stimulating guide to the Palace of Westminster’s Christian cultural heritage

Richard Hall, an architectural historian and devout Christian, has produced what is truly a unique guide to our place of work. He has mined the Christian heritage which underlies so much of the symbolism and art of the Palace. It is a deep and rich mine.

As he reminds us, the Commons had a variety of meeting places in and around Westminster Abbey, including its great Chapter House, where the first real parliament assembled in 1265. It was only when the Reformation led to the expulsion of the canons from St Stephen’s Chapel in 1547 that the Commons acquired a permanent meeting place, one which they occupied until the disastrous fire of 1834. Charles Barry created the processional route to the Central Lobby, St Stephen’s Hall, precisely on the site of the chapel and his son worked on the restoration of the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, which is still the Palace’s own place of worship where generations of MPs have been married, or had their children baptised.

But this is not the only reminder of our medieval Christian legacy. The cloisters of the old Palace still survive, including the Oratory Chapel where the death warrant of Charles I was signed, after his trial and condemnation in Westminster Hall, in January 1649.

Perhaps its greatest value is in its transcription and analysis of the paintings and mosaics

Perhaps the greatest value of this special guide is in its transcription and analysis of the paintings and mosaics which adorn so many of our walls and ceilings. Wherever you go you cannot escape constant reminders of the Christian heritage of this extraordinary building. Go into the Central Lobby and, above each doorway, is a mosaic of one of our patron saints; St George for England, St Andrew for Scotland, St David for Wales and St Patrick for Ireland. Above the entrance to the Central Lobby from St Stephen’s Hall is Anning Bell’s mosaic of King Stephen and Edward the Confessor, dating from as recently as 1925.

One of the virtues of this handsome publication is that it not only jolts the memory but stresses things to which many have barely given a thought. When we stand in the Central Lobby and look at the mosaics, we are standing not only on wonderful encaustic tiles but on a Latin verse from Psalm 127: “except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it”.

palaceThere is a particularly interesting section on the Royal Robing Room and William Dyce’s murals, illustrating the knightly virtues with scenes from the Arthurian legend. Even in the Royal Gallery, in many ways the most secular of great rooms, there are inscriptions in Latin from the Bible such as Cor Reginae in Manu Domini: “The Queen’s heart is in the hand of the Lord.” And the author points out the moving scene in Daniel Maclise’s great Waterloo picture of a chaplain offering the last rites.

This is a stimulating guide, clearly and elegantly written, and beautifully illustrated. I commend it most warmly: read, mark, learn and inwardly digest. How many boisterous Members of Parliament on a Wednesday morning look at the Latin inscription on top of the Speaker’s chair: Domine Dirige Nos – Lord guide us? 

Lord Cormack is a Conservative peer and life president of The House magazine

Palace of Westminster: Faith, Art and Architecture
By: Richard Hall
Publisher: Bible Society

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