The Woodwork of the Catherdal

The Woodwork of the Cathedral

By the Architect, , RALPH ADAMS CRAM, Litt. D., LL.D F.R.G.S.

From the Cathedral publication

One Hundred Years

A CHRISTIAN CHURCH is a great artistic unity, a synthesis of all the arts brought together under the control of the master art of architecture to the glory of God and the spiritual  stimulus of His people. As we see them now, the cathedrals and churches of northern Europe are bare and barren wrecked and mutilated by Reformers and Revolutionists.  Robbed of their once splendid furnishings of altars, shrine and tombs, they are empty and desolate. Except in a few cases, such as Chartres Cathedral, even the glass is gone and they are left cold and barren, mere architecture without the manifold other arts that work with this primary and controlling art. Only in Spain, and in a measure in Italy-, may one see now what a Mediaeval church was intended to be and was. France, England, Germany show only the sad remains of a once perfect and comprehensive art.

Detroit Cathedral is fortunate in having an almost complete furnishing not only of stained glass windows, but of work in wood and metal. Of course, the crowning element is the High Altar and Reredos. This typifies the missionary function of the church, and it stands as one of the most notable products of Mr. Kirchmayer, a great artist surviving from the Middle Ages and producing work today not unworthy to compare with that of the great periods of artistic activity. While the woodwork throughout the Cathedral was designed by the architects, all the sculpture  is from the hand of Mr. Kirchmayer, and forms one of the finest expositions in America of his consummate craft.

The principal statues in the Reredos are the six Apostles and other Saints who, directly or indirectly, were concerned in the Evangelization of Britain and the establishment of the Church in England. The central figure is of Christ, while on one side stands His Blessed Mother St. Mary, and on the other St. John, the Beloved Disciple and Evangelist. From the left as one faces the altar the figures are St. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles; St. Peter, the Apostle to the Hebrews; St. Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, the Primal See of the Anglican Church; and St. Columba, the founder of the first Christian mission to the wild Picts of Scotland. The significance of these figures is the development of the idea of the two lines through which Christianity first came into Britain.

The figure of Our Lord is shown holding in His left hand the golden orb surmounted by a cross indicating world dominion, while His right hand is raised in benediction. Our Lady and St. John stand with clasped hands, looking upward in adoration. St. Peter holds the two keys given to him by Our Lord, in testimony of his power in the two kingdoms of Heaven and Earth. St. Paul bears “The Sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God.” St. Augustine wears the cope and mitre of an Archbishop, and holds in his left hand the Arch Episcopal cross of two bars, and in his right a chalice. St. Columba appears as a cowled monk, bearing in his arms the Celtic cross. He stands in a small gilded corracle around the prow of which play silver waves. In the rest of the Reredos appear sixteen smaller figures of angels, some in prayer, some bearing censers, musical instruments and the emblems of the Passion.

The general motif of the richly carved woodwork throughout the entire chancel is that of the vine and grape, emblematic of the Passion of Our Lord, and voicing the text, “I am the vine, ye are the branches.” Here and there, as will be seen, quaint and even humorous elements are introduced in accordance with the Mediaeval precedent, which saw life and joy in everything.

The Bishop’s Throne is an example of the richest sort of decorative wood carving. Like the Reredos and all the rest of the furniture, it is of solid dark oak. The pinnacled canopy is particularly rich in design, and in the back of the throne is a large carved and painted panel of the Diocesan seal.. The Dean’s stall is somewhat similar, though less elaborate. The pulpit vies with the Reredos and Bishop’s throne in richness of design and elaboration of carving. There are two rows of carved figures, the upper series representing the heroic expounders of the Catholic Faith. In the centre is St. Chrysostom, in cope and mitre, as a Bishop. On his right St. Francis of Assisi in the hood of the Brothers Minor. On his left Savonarola, with his face partially concealed by his cowl. Next to him stands St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, mitred and carrying his pastoral staff. The lower series represent the Prophets of the Old Dispensation; Isaiah, a bearded figure in princely robes; Hosea and Amos in their prophets’ mantles; and John the Baptist with his garment of camel’s hair.

The lectern, which is as sumptuous in design as the rest of the woodwork, shows figures of the four Evangelists with their heraldic emblems. Below are those who were instrumental in the translation and dissemination of the Bible – Origen, Justin Martyr, Wycliffe and Tyndale. Beautifully bound copies of the Old and New Testaments rest on either side of the revolving double desk.

As has been said, all the woodwork was designed by the architects of the Cathedral, and made by William F. Ross and Company, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, while the statues are amongst the finest products of Mr. Kirchmayer.  It is a very wonderful thing that the Cathedral should possess so perfect an exposition of the work of this great sculptor, who is, in a sense, the last representative of the great Mediaeval schools of wood carving, though throughout all his work appears a vitality which gives it modern quality and removes it from the category of mere archaeology. As a whole, the woodwork of the choir constitutes a great sermon in oak, fragrant with the beauty of the old Bavarian wood carvers of Oberammergau, and is a striking example of the revival or rather the persistence of the true and vital sense of Mediaeval art revivified by modern spirit.