Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

The Moral Shecinah: The Social Theology of Chancel Decoration in Seventeenth Century London

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

The Moral Shecinah: The Social Theology of Chancel Decoration in Seventeenth Century London

Article excerpt

At a recent liturgical conference no one was surprised to hear a cleric describe worship in an Anglican church with a traditional altarpiece with the decalogue and attendant decorations as "standing to attention while God's brigadier points to the rules, which are painted right there on the wall." Although one could understand how this uninspiring, low-church perception of the altarpiece evolved from the Oxford, neo-gothic, and liturgical movements, there is much more to seventeenth-century Anglican altarpieces and chancel decoration than clerical hierarcicalism and "rules." This paper utilizes existing altarpieces, contemporary accounts of the decoration of altarpieces, canons, theological works, and architectural theory to show that the late stuart chancel expressed a complex, sacramentally high-church, socially royalist theology, rooted in the Anglican rites, Holy Scripture, and Anglican doctrine. To limit the scope of this study to a manageable size, the altarpieces considered will all be from London. During the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, a large number of such altarpieces were constructed there, some of which survive. Many more in London are described by contemporary witnesses.


Although there were Lutheran altarpieces which included the decalogue, and even some evidence of Roman Catholic altarpieces that used at least parts of it, it was considered sufficiently important in the Church of England that the canon of 1603 requires

...that the Ten Commandments be set up on the east end of every church and chapel, where the people may best see and read the same, and other chosen sentences written upon the walls of the said churches and chapels.1

The painting of scripture sentences on the church wall was a post-Reformation practice. In the church accounts of the commission of 1552, charges for repairs to London churches, the removal of illegal furnishings, and often the whitewashing of the church interior, were listed with charges for "paynting the Church with Scryptures."2

Paintings usually only replaced the Ten Commandments in private chapels.3 The Ten Commandments were part of the altarpiece of the church, and prior to the Restoration, they always appeared alone, usually on two panels, with little additional decoration even in St. Paul's Cathedral, as seen in Wenceslaus Hollar's print in Londinopolis (1657). After the Restoration, the altarpiece became much more elaborate, as seen in the altarpieces discussed below. At this point, the Decalogue became flanked by panels with the Apostles Creed and the Lord's Prayer, and further decorations were added.

The Decalogue was suppressed by numerous pieces of Puritan legislation, and thus its prevalence in Restoration churches may be something of a reaction.4 The use of the Lord's Prayer and the Decalogue at the altar in the ante-communion rite was offensive to some Puritan writers, and so there is a possibility that placing them together above the altar may have emphasized the importance of the altar prayers to high-churchmen.0 This would have been more effective as a symbolic affront to the Puritans than as a practical aid to the practice itself, since the prayer book of 1662 required the priest to stand at the north end of the altar from whence it would be very difficult to read the texts of the altarpiece.

Although the liturgy included the Decalogue as a part of the introductory rites, and the Apostles Creed and the Lord's Prayer, and although at the time there were probably few parishioners who possessed a copy of the prayer book, the texts were probably not mainly meant for congregations to read, simply because they were poorly placed and executed too richly for this purpose.6 Neither does it seem likely that the commandments were intended (despite the canons), as bald moral exhortation, since they were not plainly painted on the wall, but ornately painted on panels in gold cursive script, and accompanied by a host of angels and other decorations, usually including Moses and Aaron. …

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