Image of New altar curtain across east wall of Chapel

College Chapel celebrates the historic installation of a new altar curtain

The curtain is a re-creation of one depicted in a painting of the inner chapel following a redesign by Augustus Pugin in the 1840s.

Now adorning the east wall of the Chapel is a new piece of Chapel and College history. An ornamented cloth suspended behind the high altar, the new dossal curtain is a re-creation of one depicted in a painting of the inner chapel renovations that took place in the 1840s (see below). These renovations, which included an entire refit of the inner chapel in an imaginative medieval style, were carried out by the British Catholic architect Augustus Pugin, who also played a major role in the design of the Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament) as well as Gothic revival buildings, redesigns and renovations across the country. In response to the need of conservation in the furnishings at the high altar of the Chapel, the College became aware of this painting through consultation with the Victorian Society. Most of the design in the painting was effected during the 1840s, but there is no evidence to suggest this dossal curtain, designed for the rear of the altar, was ever installed. (There are other sketches from the mid-19th century in which a decorative curtain is in its place, but of a different patterning.)

Painting of Chapel renovations

Consultations revealed that the rich gold and red tapestry fabric, in a thistle pattern, of this painted design was still in special production. Last year, College Council – some 180 years on – commissioned production of the curtain, with fabric supplied by historic ecclesiastical furnishers Watts & Co. and sewn by the Royal School of Needlework at Hampton Court Palace. It is estimated to weigh around 60kg. The curtain installation accompanies the major conservation work currently underway by conservator Melanie Leach on the altar frontal, also designed by Augustus Pugin, the main fabric of which, an exquisite green silk velvet, has long believed to have been retrieved from the wreckage of the previous Palace of Westminster that was destroyed by fire in 1834 – perhaps a clever act of recycling by Pugin whilst working on the new Palace. Together, these two commissions are part of a larger project to renovate and revivify the high altar space.

The Dean of Chapel, the Rev’d James Crockford, commented: ‘For over eight centuries, Jesus Chapel has been a place of beauty, sanctuary, and community for the College, the local community, and visitors from across the globe. It is a treasure of a place that takes constant attention, expertise, and love, to honour the legacy we have inherited. This particular high altar project is close to my heart, as it adorns what is the focal point of the Chapel for worship – the altar, a place of encounter between heaven and earth. For visitors, worshippers, and all who enjoy the peace and beauty of this space, we hope our conservation and care enrich their experience of the Chapel.'