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Piccirilli’s Reredos at Saint Paul’s Cathedral

Updated: Jan 12


The erection of the reredos and the casting and assemblage of its many elements were undertaken by the firm of Farmer and Brindley, established in 1851 by William Farmer (1825-79), later joined by William Brindley (1832-1919). Farmer and Brindley were Bodley and Garner's contractors of choice for this type of work, as they enjoyed a very high reputation for the best-quality architectural sculpture work, mainly in marble, but also in materials such as wood. The Cathedral's Verger Robert Green recorded in his diary the start of work on assembling the reredos in the Cathedral on 9 August 1886 and the service of dedication of the completed altarpiece on 25 January 1888. According to contemporary reports in the Times and the Illustrated London News,' the sculptural elements were designed by a French sculptor Jean Guillemin, who also undertook the carving of some of the most important elements, including the Crucifixion scene and the statue of the Virgin and Child. Guillemin must also have undertaken the carving of the very beautiful panels with the Nativity, Entombment and Resurrection, executed in a dignified neo-Gothic style, quite different to the graceful Italianate mood of the angels. These on the other hand were the work of two brilliant young Italian sculptors, Attilio and Furio Piccirilli, who in 1887 when they joined the teams working on the St. Paul's reredos, had just arrived in London from their native Carrara. - Dr. Jeremy Waren, Trinity Fine Art. Honorary Curator of Sculpture at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford and Sculpture Research Curator for the National Trust, UK. September, 2021

During the Victorian era, London underwent an unmatched surge in urban development, culminating in an unparalleled building boom. This growth necessitated the construction of government establishments, churches, and homes, leading to an exceptional demand for artist-craftsmen. Large workshops equipped with the skills to tackle contemporary architectural styles thrived throughout the city.

Within this vibrant backdrop, brothers Furio and Attilio Piccirilli established their presence, setting up a home studio in the historic Old Chelsea. From August 9, 1886, over the next eighteen months, they meticulously crafted no less than twelve bas-relief panels for the altar and reredos of Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Their work was completed in time to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, was presented to the congregation and celebrated by an elaborate Te Deum service in the morning of the last Sunday of January 1888, followed by a grand performance of Mendelssohn’s “St. Paul” in the evening.

According to reports published by the press throughout Great Britain, the reredos cost 24,000 pounds, of which 10,000 pounds was contributed out of the general fund of the Cathedral and the reminder subscribed by the public. “It a beautiful structure, the top of which is 67 feet above the floor. In the center is represented the crucifixion, carved in high relief, with the figures of St. John the Virgin Mary and a Roman soldier at the foot of the cross. Beneath the arms of the cross are ranged four angels.” The unsigned notice published on the Devizes and Wilts Advertiser on February 2, 1888 continues "The central panel is surrounded by twisted pillars of grey Brescia marble, wreathed with gilt bronze. These pillars support a classical roof of entablature. On the richly-colored frieze of Rosso-antico marble is the inscription “Sie Deus dilexit mundum,” in gilt bronze letters. Over the crown of the entablature is a niche are the Virgin and Child, which group is again surmounted by the figure of the risen Christ. On the right and left of the central panel are open semi-circular colonnades, the points at the extremes being nearest to the west. Under these colonnades is elaborately carved work in colored marble, with doors to give access to the apse behind. Over these doors, which are to be pierced brass, are angels supporting shields bearing saltirewise the sword of St. Paul and the key of St. Peter, and they are flanked by sculptured festoons of fruit and flowers separated by marble panels. The general idea of the sculptured subjects is to express the Incarnation and life of Our Lord, beginning with two figures at the extremities of the colonnade, the Angel Gabriel and St. Mary, which represent “The Annunciation.” On the north side of the panel is the “The Nativity;” the center panel, “The Crucifixion,” with “The Entombment” underneath it; and the group on the south side, “The Resurrection,” whilst the panels of the pedestals are filled with angels. The communion table in front is approached by white marble steps, and the pavement is of colored marble. The reredos is executed in white Parian marble, with bands and panels of Rosso-antico, Verde fi Prato, and Brescia marbles. It is intended to place wrought iron screens at the sides of the sanctuary, using some fire iron gates of Sir Christopher Wren’s design now in the crypt."

The are countless notices printed on newspapers and magazines, however, the names of Furio and Attilio Piccirilli, sculptors or carvers of the magnificent reredos are not mentioned except on the records of the Archives of St’ Paul’s Cathedral where Ms. Sarah Radford, current Archivist with the Collections Department was able to inform us.

Courtesy of Sarah Radford, Archivist Collections Department. The Chapter House St Paul's Churchyard,  London
Original Drawings by Bodley and Garner

Critical reception

Critical opinion was divided. Some were limited to describing the scene, the ambiance, the mass, and the unveiling, and the object d’art being presented to the congregation. Others lauded the panels as some of the most remarkable additions to St. Paul’s during the nineteenth century. One review even heralded the bas-reliefs as “the most significant work of its kind erected in England since the early sixteenth century.” However, there was also discord airing disagreements amongst the clergy regarding the “catholic” nature of the work itself—apparently, too many saints, angels, and virgins for the Anglican taste. Were the Piccirilli brothers to blame, indeed not, the designs were handled to them by the new-gothic architects Bodley and Garner. But I suspect that being Italians did not help the sculptors in a time when a large Italian presence in London was seen as problematic. Thirty years later, the commission in charge of creating the Lincoln Memorial will also object to mentioning the Piccirilli as the carvers who executed Daniel Chester French’s design of the seated Lincoln and delivered it to Washington, D.C. The name of the Piccirilli has often been obscure, and the deference started in London way before they disembarked in New York in the Spring of 1888.

From The Italian Factor by Montes-Bradley
The impact of Piccirilli’s reredos in London

The Dalkeith Advertiser. Thursday, February 2, 1888. "London Letter: The ugly sheet of canvas which had so long made a desert scene of the east-end of St. Paul’s Cathedral has been taken down, leaving exposed a very fine piece of ecclesiastical art. The new reredos, nevertheless, gives no pleasure to those of the evangelical party who see in its panels and niches of angels, saints, and Saint Maries; its groups of marble sculpture, the florid friezes, and gilded bronzes; its crossed swords, keys, fruit and flowers, and encouragement of tendencies which they deplore. The general public will not probably be troubled by doctrinal qualms of consciousness but will admire the costly piece of ornamentation as a fitting feature of Christopher Wren’s great edifice. St. Paul’s, however, is always a trifle “high,” and as the building is often used as a huge sacred concert hall, the erection of a work like this does not seem so incongruous as it would in a church simply used for purposes of worship. The huge space under the dome naturally suggests the use of the area as a kind of ecclesiastical Rialto, where big church festivals may be celebrated. What is wanted really is more, rather than less, ornamentation, and the addition of every fresh covering for the blank walls must have the good effect of making the dreary portions of the interior so conspicuously bare that for the very shame, they will have sooner or later to be finished. The completion of the new reredos was celebrated by an elaborate Te-Deum service in the morning and by a grand orchestral performance of Mendelssohn’s “St. Paul” in the evening."

The bombing of St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1941

Tragedy struck in 1941 when the German Luftwaffe's bombardment of London saw two bombs devastate the cathedral's dome.

Eduardo Montes-Bradley
Angel, from St.Paul’s reredos. London 1888

Eduardo Montes-Bradley
Angel, from St.Paul’s reredos. London 1888

Eduardo MOntes-Bradley
Angel, from St.Paul’s reredos. London 1888

While much of the chancel lay in ruins, the Piccirilli reredos and altar miraculously survived. Yet, during subsequent reconstructions, it was deemed that the Piccirilli panels were excessively catholic for Anglican preferences. Consequently, they were either sold or, astonishingly, left on the sidewalk for anyone to claim.

Decades later, some other panels reemerged and were auctioned off at a renowned New York auction house. In an exciting turn of events, between the completion of their iconic work and Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, the Piccirilli brothers embarked from Liverpool, crossing the vast ocean. This journey marked the beginning of a fresh chapter, with the rest of the Piccirilli family soon following in their wake.

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