BY THE 16th century, visitors to All Souls College Chapel in Oxford were able to view a set of treasures: a tooth of St John the Baptist, relics of St Bartholomew, St Jerome, and St Sebastian, and an image of the eleven thousand virgins. The chapel had seven altars, a screen, a rood loft, and a sculpted reredos, filled with statues of the saints. Suitably edified by all this sanctity, the visitors could leave, claiming an indulgence for their pains.
All this changed at the Reformation. The relics were removed. The rood loft was destroyed. The indulgence went then, too, of course; as did the altars, broken down by a certain Jefferye Whyte. Visitors today will see somewhere very different: a far emptier, less colourful space, framed by an elaborate, classical, black and gold 18th-century screen.
In all this change, the one apparent point of continuity is the reredos. But appearances deceive. The great array of statues standing at the east end of the chapel are not the remains of pre-Reformation faith, but products of a Victorian restoration. They include an archer from Agincourt and an image purporting to be John of Gaunt, which is actually modelled on the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury. The original reredos was broken down in the 16th century, replaced with a painting in the 17th, which was itself removed to make way for another work of art. Only in the 1870s was the current setting installed.
The outcome of an academic conference and focused on the nearly 600-year history of a single wall in one Oxford college, this book could have been nightmarishly dull. Instead, it is a joy: a real revelation and a genuine pleasure to read. The editor has assembled an expert cast of contributors who, between them, brilliantly tell the story of how changing tastes in art, education, and religion played out at All Souls, superbly illustrated in a slew of colour pictures. The reader can witness the transformations that occurred in a place that might otherwise seem timeless.
Here is the garishly multi-coloured pre-Reformation reredos, analysed by archaeologists and radically re-dated by the art historian Christopher Wilson. Here, too, are essays on the wider context by Eamonn Duffy and Diarmaid MacCulloch. The 17th-century painting by Isaac Fuller and its 18th-century successor by James Thornhill are also rediscovered, and the 19th-century restoration is expertly explained. It is, all told, a triumph.
The Revd Dr William Whyte is Senior Dean, Fellow, and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.
The Reredos of All Souls College, Oxford
Peregrine Horden, editor
Paul Holberton Publishing £80
Church Times Bookshop £72