A History of the College Chapel - Part Two

Posted on: 30 April 2019

The President of St John’s College – Dr Frank Salmon, FSA – has written programme notes for the Choir’s new recording, Locus Iste, telling the story of our College Chapel. The recording marks the 150th anniversary of the Chapel’s Consecration.

In this second of three serialised parts, Frank explores the architectural highlights of the College Chapel, designed by renowned architect George Gilbert Scott.

In 1862, architect George Gilbert Scott was approached without competition for a design of the proposed "new" College Chapel. His solution to fitting a larger Chapel into the existing First Court of St John's College was ingenious. By abutting a transept onto the end of the Hall block the new building could be placed north of the old Chapel – which could therefore continue to serve the College during the construction period. The model is that of Merton College, Oxford, where the nave was never built. Merton was also the model for the niches placed on the buttresses resemblance to that of the smaller Exeter College, Oxford, which Scott had built a few years previously – and both share a generic source in King Louis IX’s Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, with its short but high proportions and eastern chevet. Scott, however, defined the overall style in Cambridge as late thirteenth century Decorated, “the best variety of pointed architecture” as he described it, justifying his choice by reference to fragmentary remains of the chapel of the Hospital of St John that he found on site.

Inspiration for the design

As at Exeter College and Paris, Scott initially proposed a flèche (small spire) for St John’s, but the “princely gift” from one alumnus of a massive tower was accepted with alacrity by both College and architect alike in 1864, notwithstanding that the building’s foundations had already been constructed by then. Although the source for the tower was Pershore Abbey (on the restoration of which Scott was advising at the time), he again adduced an Oxford example – this time of Magdalen College – to argue that a large tower would not dwarf the surrounding buildings. It is a matter of opinion as to how true this was and is but, at a height of 163 feet, Scott’s tower certainly gave St John’s a between the windows, into which Scott placed statues of famous persons connected with the College, as well as for the varied tracery of the windows themselves – although Scott went one better in producing different tracery for every window in the south and north flanks.

The design for the Chapel of St John’s was also recognised at the time as bearing close dominant feature in the Cambridge skyline and, indeed, one that is visible the moment one enters the county of Cambridgeshire from the south on the A10 road.

What was the Chapel made from

The Chapel was built in Ancaster Stone offset by red Mansfield stone colonettes, with especially fine decorative carvings around its principal, south-west doorway by Farmer and Brindley. The building has been authoritatively described as “without a rival” when it comes to the “display of Victorian ecclesiastical art in Cambridge” and this becomes even clearer once one is inside. The great variety in colour and composition of the different stones used for colonettes and capitals, mostly from British and Irish quarries, would provide a demanding examination paper for a geologist.

Interior features, from floor to ceiling

The rich sanctuary floor, designed by Burlison and Grylls, adopts an Italian Renaissance style with its beautiful inlaid scenes from the Old Testament and Zodiac. Whilst the sixteenth century wooden stalls were transferred from the old chapel (the most notable of a number of features carefully preserved by Scott), Rattee and Kett were commissioned to double their number with Victorian stalls that are full of entertainment in the misericord and spandrel carvings. Above this the painted windows, mostly narrating New Testament stories, are almost all by Clayton and Bell and paid for by donations from alumni. At the springing of each rib of the vault are Farmer and Brindley’s sculpted figures of apostles. Finally, the timber vault received a scheme painted by Clayton and Bell, in which gold-ground figures representing the Christian centuries from the second to the nineteenth are surrounded by decorative scrollwork.

The President’s complete introduction to the College Chapel appears on the Choir’s new recording, Locus Iste, which is available to order here.

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Recorded on
30 June 2019
  • Responses and Preces: Leighton
  • Psalm 148 (Robinson)
  • Fayrfax: Magnificat Regale
  • Nunc Dimittis primi toni
  • Weir: Vertue
  • Hymns 383 (omit v. 3), 401 (omit v. 3)
  • Voluntary: J.S. Bach Fugue in E flat major (BWV 552ii)​
Choral singing comes no better

Fiona Maddocks, The Observer