When Trinity College's chapel was consecrated in 1694 it was hailed by contemporaries as the University's most magnificent. Its dynamic integration of architecture, sculpture and painting is unrivalled among England's surviving ecclesiastical interiors, and has recently been brought back to glory with a sympathetic restoration.
By Olivia Gordon
Like most of the University this summer, Trinity College Chapel is packed with tourists. They troop in for a few minutes at a time, taking in a general sense of beauty and history, as their tour guides explain basics like ‘You don’t have to be Christian to study at Oxford University’.
Its chaplain, Reverend Dr. Emma Percy, smiles benevolently at the tourists as they file out again, and then, in the echo of their fading chatter, starts the real tour.
The 17th century building has just reopened after a year-long £1 million restoration (thanks to some of Trinity’s most generous old members). And in every respect, the aim of the restoration by expert craftsmen has been to return the chapel to how it originally looked when it was opened in 1694. Apart from the Victorian stained glass and the 1960s organ, the chapel, partly designed by Sir Christopher Wren, has otherwise not been changed since it was built.Trinity’s chapel has undergone an extensive programme of renovation, and is now reopened to the public
‘Oxford chapels are very different,’ says Dr. Percy – ‘what’s particular about this one is that it’s an example of English baroque architecture, and it’s not been fiddled around with. It’s got an architectural integrity.’
A stand-out feature is the extensive lime-wood carving around the reredos by Grinling Gibbons, the celebrated sculptor who also worked on St Paul’s Cathedral, Hampton Court Palace and Windsor Castle. ‘What’s unusual here is there’s a lot, and statuary as well,’ notes Dr. Percy. Oxford's first classical chapel, Trinity is particularly renowned for its harmonious interior decoration
The skill of Gibbons’ intricate carving at Trinity is remarkable, and repairing parts that had deteriorated was a major job for specialist wood carvers. All Gibbons’ carvings were carefully taken out to a workshop in Northamptonshire where the sculptor Alan Lamb and his team painstakingly restored them. The team learned about the different craftsmen who originally worked with Grinling Gibbons and grew to understand their various styles, which they then tried to replicate.
Four sculptures by Gibbons of the evangelists had originally been carved from Bermudan cedar, a wood which is no longer available. Thankfully, a Trinity alumnus with Bermudan connections sourced some old furniture made from it, which was used to restore the sculptures. A Victorian window has been returned to its original position above the entrance and the organ has been refurbished
Another exceptional piece of restoration involved the painting of Christ’s ascension on the high roof, which had been covered in varnish in the 1960s and was now yellowing. The art was painted directly onto the roof in the 1690s, so could not be taken down to repair – instead, scaffolding was put up and restorers had a difficult job working at an angle. When Dr. Percy climbed the scaffolding herself, she realised what a feat this work of art had been for the original painter: ‘you’re so close and you can’t get a sight of the whole picture.’
The renovation also involved repainting the plaster ceiling to an authentic looking stone-coloured cream (it had been painted yellow in the 1960s), and cleaning the stained glass windows, which the Victorians had installed and painted black.
The stained glass windows were all taken out during the Second World War for fear of bomb damage and when they were put back after the war, one slightly darker window that doesn’t match the others was left in pieces in a box in a College attic, ‘because the fellows didn’t like it,’ says Dr. Percy. Now, it has been reinstated above the chapel door, for the first time since the war. Dr. Percy says: ‘The glaziers were over the moon when they put it back in; only two pieces were damaged.’
Perhaps the most intriguing thing, though, is that this is the only Oxford University chapel to house the tomb of its college’s founder. If you visit, see if you can get permission to view the tomb of Sir Thomas Pope (above), who died only four years after he founded Trinity. He rests in a wooden cupboard to one side of the altar along with both of his wives. The elaborate stone carvings on the tomb depict Pope as a knight in chainmail, next to one of his wives (it is not known which), who is dressed with a ruff around her neck and stone jewellery. They are surrounded by Pope’s emblem, a double-headed dragon.
Pope was originally buried elsewhere, with his first wife. But his second wife, Elizabeth, a great supporter of the college, asked for his bones and those of his previous wife to be brought here and put in a tomb in the chapel. She, too, was eventually interred in this tomb.
The chapel at that time was a 1410 relic from the College’s previous incarnation as Durham College, a place of study for Benedictine monks since 1286. When Pope, a lawyer dealing with the dissolution of the monasteries, bought the buildings and established Trinity, the new College used the original chapel for around 100 years. Then, says Dr. Percy, a Restoration president, Ralph Bathurst, ‘decided it wasn’t big or grand enough, so he had it knocked down and built this.’The final stages included fitting the flooring around the pews, waxing the woodwork, and refitting the furnishings, including a new altar frontal
Reverend Percy believes that the somewhat closed-off location of the tomb in Bathurst’s chapel was due to the chapel’s designers thinking the tomb ‘was a bit old-fashioned, a bit out of keeping with this modern baroque style they were going for - it was very cutting edge at the time. So they rather boxed him in.’
On the opposite side of the altar, hidden behind some of the oldest sash windows in existence, is a small wooden chamber where Bathurst’s wife could sit when she attended chapel services. ‘The service was for the college and women just weren’t part of the college,’ says Dr. Percy. ‘It was probably much more convenient for her to sit here; I think she probably had a nice seat in there. She could lift the windows, listen to the service, even receive communion without coming into the chapel.’ Such extensive work on a Grade I listed building required a team of specialist craftsmen to work on the chapel for a year
The chapel, says Dr. Percy, was worth every penny of its million-pound renovation. ‘It is Trinity’s most prestigious building and one people have a lot of affection for.’
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Images: Trinity College, Oxford
Video: Red Spire Films