Sea-going memory

19 September 2014

MEDIEVAL ships once filled the waterfront close to St Mary Redcliffe, in Bristol. The city is proud of its maritime past, and especially of John Cabot, the Italian explorer commissioned by Henry VII, who sailed from there across the Atlantic in the Matthew, to land somewhere on the east coast of America and claim it for England. He is believed to be the first European to land on the American mainland.

And so a new altar to celebrate Bristol's maritime heritage has been specially designed for St John's Chapel in the great medieval Church of St Mary Redcliffe. The new altar replaces a wooden table, and the shape of the top is derived from the ancient seal of St Mary's, suggesting the shape of a boat.

Created by Robert Coles (above), a master-craftsman from Congresbury-based Church House Furniture Makers, using English oak and cedar of Lebanon, both from the Mendip Hills, the design is full of ancient symbols, including the Stella Maris, or Star of the Sea (a title for Mary). And the wave-like carving cut into solid oak, connected by gold-leafed cruciform joints, can be, he says, "regarded as anchors of security amid the ebb and flow of daily life".

The new altar is part of a programme of refurbishment of the church which has been going on for some time. Besides restoring the medieval floor, and cleaning the vaulting, says the Vicar, the Revd Dan Tyndall, they have cleaned and repositioned a number of historic monuments, including the "ancient wooden statue of Queen Elizabeth I, who, having visited St Mary Redcliffe in 1547, is said to have described it as the 'fairest, goodliest, and most famous parish church in England'."

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