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Westminster’s crib of reconciliation

18 December 2015

Pamela Tudor-Craig on the Abbey’s figures and their back story

© Dean and Chapter of Westminster

To human view displayed: the Westminster crib figures set up for Christmas and the adoration of the shepherds

To human view displayed: the Westminster crib figures set up for Christmas and the adoration of the shepherds

I am the undefeated heart of weakness
Kneel and adore, fall down to pour your praise
You cannot lie so low as I have been always.

(John V. Taylor, “Christmas Venite” in A Christmas Sequence and other Poems, Oxford, 1989)


HOWEVER small a place Christianity still holds in the minds and hearts of this country, we still observe Christmas. It may be only an excuse to see the relatives and to revel — it was not much more in the Protestant centuries before the Gothic Revival — but, wherever there are children, there is a Christingle service, and there are carols.

More mysteriously, the churches are thronged for midnight mass, and most churches display a crib, be it only a mass-produced plaster assembly. There are the Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s, and wonderful carol services up and down our country.

Do these also show forth “the undefeated heart of weakness” in the touching simplicity of their cribs? What an opportunity for a serious artist to express that amalgam of earliest memories and simple delight that should be the essence of Christmas.

A crib, even for a cathedral, does not have to be forged of luxurious or even long-lived materials. The original was not. One of the most hauntingly simple cribs I have ever known was made for a learned and discriminating congregation at St John’s, Church Row, in Hampstead. It was loved literally to bits in the 20 years it survived.

It was made of wire coat-hangers, cotton wool, and string, covered with offcuts of simple but appropriate fabrics. All the figures looked to the manger at the back (suggested by a light bulb within a reversed A-frame); so no faces were visible.

A solution for the short purse is frequently used in Bavaria, where very extensively populated cribs are collected by families, one figure a year, till they are complete. The steady occupation of Oberammergau, that village punctuated every decade by mass involvement in their Passion play, is the carving of wooden figures and groups of religious subjects. The sculpture conforms to rigidly followed designs. It is technically fine, to a professionally high standard, the style a sober memory of the great High Gothic of Veit Stoss and Tilman Riemenschneider, the colouring discreet.

My Bavarian friends proudly told me that a crib set had been made there for Westminster Abbey, that it was the largest that Oberammergau had made, and had been carved as a gesture of healing after the Second World War.

You might feel that 1965, the year Oberammergau made the Westminster Abbey crib, was a long time after that war to be thinking still about forgiveness. But a Bavarian voice from Munich on the radio on 18 October this year, speaking about their flood of Syrian refugees, said: “Perhaps this new image of a compassionate Germany will help to heal the memory of Nazi cruelties.”

Christmas has been celebrated very specially at Westminster Abbey since at least 1245, when the new south-eastern radiating chapel was founded and dedicated to St Nicholas. Ever since his remains had been purloined from Myra and taken to Bari in the early 12th century, the cult of St Nicholas had spread through Europe along the routes of the Benedictine, and specifically Cluniac, houses; and Westminster had strong links with Cluny.

By the 14th century, Westminster Abbey had two croziers for the Boy Bishop, one new and one old, proving that he had been wielding it for some time. The Boy Bishop carried his crozier in no uncertain manner for the whole season of St Nicholas, which ran from his feast on 6 December till Boxing Day. The climax was on Christmas Day, when the boy was allowed to take part in the eucharist, except for the consecration.

The crib itself may have been an idea of St Bernard, but it was taken up and spread by St Francis in 1224. Like most joyful Christian customs, it disappeared again at the Reformation in Northern Europe, to resurface since the Gothic Revival, largely in the 20th century. Before 1966, Westminster Abbey had a crib, which was then put aside for the present array.

It so happens that I have never seen the Westminster crib. When images of it were kindly sent to me, they came as something of a shock. I have now heard the story from the English end. This crib, which has been displayed ever since 1966, was the initiative of Christopher Hildyard (1901-87), a Minor Canon of Westminster Abbey, generously supported by Lady Waechter de Grimston. The Hildyards moved in her Yorkshire circle.

These figures were indeed carved in limewood in Oberammergau, by the sculptors Hans and his son Adolf Heinzeller, who had set up their workshop in 1958-59. The occasion for this big commission was the 900th anniversary of the death of St Edward the Confessor.

Hildyard sent over his own drawings for the figures. These were sent back unpainted, and Hildyard provided the colour scheme for his English painters. He saw himself primarily as an artist, and a priest second, going by the inscription on an oval tablet to his memory by Paul Cooper in St Faith’s Chapel. There we read that he had “an eye for beauty, a heart for friendship and a tongue for wit”. He was Sacrist, and his love of rich vestments is recorded in his self-portrait, where he wears a cloth-of-gold cope with richly embroidered orphreys.

As a child, he had sung in the choir of St George’s, Windsor, where his father was also a Minor Canon, and his great-uncle General Sir Henry Hildyard had also sung there. So the liturgical life ran in his veins, and the sacristy was his kingdom.

These figures are taller and slenderer and more highly and glossily coloured that they would have been if designed in Oberammergau. The dumbstruck shepherds display more rippling muscle than would be seasonal: it is not that warm in Galilee in December. They are accompanied by three of their flock, one lamb in a sling, too newborn to attempt the journey on foot.

The ox is suitably bovine, and the ass stoops gently towards the crib. These two were carved from tie beams from the nave roof of Westminster Abbey. That roof (above the stone vault) had just been entirely replaced by the architect Stephen Dykes Bower, to the dis- may of members of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.

As the scene changes for Epiphany, the ox and ass have found alternative accommodation, and the stage is set for a fanfare of kings.

Those English people who cared for Italian Renaissance art, and trembled for it throughout the Second World War, made their way back to love it again as soon as it was safe do so. I can but imagine that Hildyard was among them. I can see him spellbound in Cosimo de Medici’s Chapel in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, rejoicing in the glorious Italian brocades of Benozzo Gozzoli’s superb evocation of the annual Epiphany procession through the streets of Florence. As it turns towards the little chancel, secular pageantry gives way to choirs of angels.

But what of the climax, the destination? Can you remember the altarpiece? You have every excuse if you can’t; for the little dark picture on the altar now is a copy. The original, by Fra Filippo Lippi, has been in Berlin since the time of Edward Solly, the Napoleonic collector.

It shows a gentle Virgin kneeling before her plump baby in the deep pine wood where the Camaldolese monks and hermits made their home in the hills near Arezzo, and where the Medici family escaped for prayer. Their 11th-century founder, St Romauld, prays above the child Baptist. You could hear a pine needle drop.

I doubt whether Hildyard spent much time in that quiet wood. The blazing magnificence of his regal display at Westminster holds our attention. By a happy stroke of imagination, he fused his ideas of the Old King with St Edward. And for an image of the Confessor he must have walked up the road to the National Gallery, where, except during the war, the Wilton Diptych had shone for nearly 40 years.

There, surely, the Confessor introducing Richard II to the Virgin and Child was his model. Here is an upright old man, with full white (Hildyard) or grey (diptych) hair and beard, showing his ear. He wears in the diptych a robe and cloak of cream-coloured velvet with blue sleeves and ermine lining and cape.

The crib figure is dressed likewise, except for the velvet. Have you ever touched Westminster velvet of the later 1390s? There is among the Westminster documents a manuscript dated 1400. It has its seal and seal bag of blue velvet. Such a bag would have been made from the offcuts of a royal or liturgical garment of yesteryear: a fabric of a perfect softness never to be forgotten.

You cannot convey the effect of velvet in painted wood. Hildyard’s old king wears a cream-coloured brocade cloak ornamented by a repeat floral pattern in gold set diamanté. His gift is his ring, the Confessor’s emblem.

The middle-aged king kneels and displays his gifts, a bewilderment of bouffant sleeves, a maroon robe dotted with daisies, a gold turban and gold cloak ermine-lined: Hildyard had no model I recognise for him. I tentatively suggest, however, that in studying St Edward in the Wilton Diptych, he also noticed the slight figure of St Edmund, King and Martyr, robed in green over blue brocade, immediately behind the Confessor. There is some recollection of that gentle figure in the face and hair and green robe of Hildyard’s young King, though, again, there is further embellishment.

One more detail speaks of Hildyard’s study of the Diptych. Quite unusually, he has placed the crib itself with the Child’s head at the back of the Westminster crib. By the insertion of a cushion, it is possible to see the face of the Holy Child. He is loosely swaddled: his right arm is free, and so are his feet. We can see the soles and his ten little toes from below. For that detail I would forgive many overstatements.

He could have learned this touch from the Diptych, where the Virgin holds between delicate thumb and forefinger of her left hand the Holy Child’s right foot with the sole visible.

The double entendre of the Diptych has only been fully appreciated since Hildyard created his crib. Under the microscope, it has become clear that the young king, Richard, is no laggard in bringing his gift to the Infant. His hands are empty because he has already passed over the banner of St George to the heavenly realm.

On its knop, one centimetre across, we now know is painted a green island with trees and a turreted white castle, the whole set in a sea of silver leaf (now, of course, black).

I have “seen” our country as Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt, Richard II’s uncle, and the Diptych artist saw it, “set in a silver sea”. Flying home from the United States, we approached our coast (probably western Cork) at dawn. The land was edged by miles of silver foam.

In this peerless painting, Richard II, shown at the age (11) when he inherited his kingdom, is formally introduced by his patron, the ragged Baptist, his bare feet on the rough ground stretching behind them to Dante’s Dark Wood. In his guise as the Young King, his gift the realm, Richard is further supported by the Old King, doubling as the Confessor giving his chaste life in the form of a ring, and a middle-aged King doubling as St Edmund, martyr, his gift the arrow that killed him.

What, therefore, of Hildyard’s Mary and Joseph? His Virgin has a lovely face, and a Quattrocento pose. Joseph is rapt in adoration. They both wear cloaks of cloth of gold and rich brocades. (Fortunately, this stable has red carpets rather than straw.) It is a pity there was not room for the camels, which, alone of their kind, had indeed slipped through the eye of a needle.

The incarnation slid very quietly into our world. Admittedly, the shepherds heard the singing of the heavenly host. They had the ears of simplicity. No one else did. As for the Kings, they were learned in matters of the heavens, but not in those of the world. To paraphrase Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings: “It is scarcely wise in bringing news to a mighty lord to speak overmuch of the coming of one who will, if he comes, claim the kingship. . .” Their diversion from the clear starry path to consult Herod was disastrous for Bethlehem.

It is easier for a building such as Westminster Abbey, girded as it is with splendour and ancientry, to display those same qualities in its seasonal works of art. But that it can, by one simple stroke, restore the balance is proved by the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. At the head of this article, the simple quotation by Bishop John Taylor, whose life, like Hildyard’s, spanned most of the 20th century and its terrible wars, voices that other approach to the crib: “I am the undefeated heart of weakness. . .”


Dr Tudor-Craig is grateful to Linda Proud for her scholarly recognition of the context of Filippo Lippi’s Virgin and Child for the Medici Chapel, for which see her The Gift for the Magus (Oxford, 2012); to Christine Reynolds for help in the Westminster Abbey library; to Oliver Marriott of Grimston Garth for an account of Lady de Grimston; and to Dr Richard Foster, who looked up the Oberammergau dimension.

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