First new altar in 500 years

FOR the first time in 500 years, a new altar has been consecrated in Salisbury Cathedral nave – around 20 years since the decision was a taken to re-order the Cathedral. It is located at the spire crossing, and a second new altar, also by sculptor William Pye, has been consecrated in the Trinity chapel. Both were formally unveiled and consecrated by the Right Revd Stephen Lake, Bishop of Salisbury, during the Eucharist on Sunday 14th January.

The altars are a unique collaboration between sculptor William Pye and furniture maker Luke Hughes, a former Cathedral school pupil. The commissioning process began in response to a Liturgical Plan drafted in 2014 and updated in 2016. Design competition entries were invited in August 2018 and presentations made to the Very Revd Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury and the Cathedral Chapter (or governing body) in December of that year.

Luke Hughes, who won the design competition, agreed with the Dean and Chapter that the new altars should be linked in form and material to the William Pye font, installed in 2008, making good use of the Cathedral’s magnificent end-to-end vista, and from this proposition grew the artistic collaboration that resulted in these two exceptional pieces.

At their first meeting in February 2020, the two makers agreed a division of labour – Pye was to concentrate on the detail design of the altars, while Hughes took on the task of space-planning and designing the daises. Hughes also took responsibility for the clergy seating, movable choir music desks and supporting furniture for the Trinity chapel. Some of this additional work has yet to be commissioned.

William Pye says: “The collaboration with Luke has been a very fruitful one – and his instinct to mirror the materials, architecture and magnificence of the space is very much in line with my own thinking, particularly in relation to the original font – but I also wanted the altars to feel intimate, using the words and symbols that have been inscribed around the base to capture the inner, individual experience of faith as well as the shared experience.

“The lettering that forms the texts and the way they are deployed aims to arrive at something akin to a Roman tablet, avoiding the suggestion of contemporary design or gothic pastiche. It is deliberate that the altars strongly echo the vernacular of the font and the Cathedral architecture.”

Luke Hughes says: “My passion lies in creating and crafting ‘furniture’ that enhances ancient spaces like Salisbury Cathedral. The platforms had to be easy for the vergers to dismantle and move, and sturdy enough to withstand being regularly taken apart and reassembled. So, the challenge was practical as well as aesthetic.”

The daises are made in oak and shaped to mirror each altar and have been designed and constructed in such a way that what looks like a solid structure is in fact made up of a series of interlocking parts that sit on wheels. The elegance of the design is breathtakingly simple and like the Cathedral itself, a feat of engineering as well as being beautiful to look at.

The Dean says: “We are delighted with the work of these two exceptional artists and craftsmen, which so beautifully and simply complements the aesthetic and design of the Cathedral. By mirroring the shape and materials used in the font – Purbeck stone and inscribed bronze – William Pye has created a sense of permanence and simplicity. And just as the font’s still water reflects the Cathedral’s vaulting and the stained-glass windows, the darkened glass surface on each altar also echoes both vaulting above and stained glass, so that this lofty space and the altars become one.”

The Spire Crossing altar is octagonal, as is the space it occupies beneath the Cathedral’s tower and spire and the oak dais around it. The stone base is inscribed with a text from St Matthew’s Gospel: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (St Matthew’s Gospel 11: 28-30)

The altar in the Trinity Chapel also carries an inscription – lines from The Altar by George Herbert, one of England’s greatest poets, who worshipped in the Cathedral and whose statue stands in a niche on the West Front.

Photographs by Douglas Atfield.