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St. Paul's: Looking for Piccirilli

Updated: Jan 12


In traversing the hallowed corridors of St. Paul's Cathedral, one embarks upon a journey through time—a pilgrimage of architectural evolution and artistic aspirations. Recently, I had the pleasure of spending five days immersed in the contemplation of what are believed to be the remnants of the work undertaken by Attilio and Furio Piccirilli for the grandeur of St. Paul's Cathedral. This odyssey of discovery delves into the meticulous details of the Cathedral's interior, with a particular focus on the high altar and its elusive altarpiece.

The specter of Sir Christopher Wren, the mastermind behind the Cathedral's design during the 17th century, lingers over every arch and alcove. Not all facets of Wren's visionary plans were realized during his lifetime, prompting a lingering debate surrounding the architect's intentions for the high altar—a debate fueled by a model from 1696 that survives to this day. The marble altarpiece, featuring tall twisted columns, envisioned by Wren, never materialized, leaving scholars to grapple with the ambiguous contours of his artistic vision.

The Italian Factor
St. Paul’s Cathedral | Documentary Archive

The late 19th century, marked by the fervor of the Gothic Revival, witnessed a concerted effort to breathe new life into the Cathedral's altar. George Frederick Bodley, a prominent figure in this architectural renaissance, appointed his partner, Thomas Garner, to lead the renovation in the 1880s. It was Garner who, in collaboration with the firm of Farmer and Brindley, orchestrated the creation of a magnificent reredos—a tall structure standing at the apse's entrance. This structure, completed in 1888, stands as a testament to the era's inclination towards embellishment and revitalization.

Garner's account of the reredos, penned shortly after its unveiling, casts the monumental structure in a grand light. Stretching 75 feet, the central altarpiece unfolds the Crucifixion, surrounded by celestial angels, while below, figures of profound biblical significance find their place. The architectural composition ascends to a tympanum and an aedicule, cradling a statue of the Virgin and Child, flanked by Saints Peter and Paul, culminating in the Resurrected Christ.

The narrative of embellishment extends beyond the central altarpiece, woven into the frieze that spans the width of the reredos. Sculpted narrative reliefs depict pivotal scenes—Nativity, Resurrection, and the poignant Entombment beneath the Crucifixion. Twelve reliefs featuring angels, bearing instruments of the Passion, adorn the frieze, providing a visual counterbalance to the structure's verticality.

At the heart of this visual symphony lie the twelve angels meticulously carved by Italian sculptors Attilio and Furio Piccirilli. Executed in 1886-87, these angels stand as ethereal sentinels, bearing instruments of the Passion with a timeless elegance. The reliefs, depicting angels engaged in musical harmony, add a layer of divine resonance to the sacred space.

Yet, the journey of these creations took an unforeseen turn. Crafted for St. Paul's Cathedral in 1888, the reredos, along with the sculptures by the Piccirilli brothers, faced dismantlement in the aftermath of the Second World War. A chapter of rediscovery unfolded when these pieces reemerged in New York in 2015, narrating a tale of displacement and eventual resurrection.

This intricate narrative of St. Paul's Cathedral weaves together the unrealized visions of Wren, Garner's transformative endeavors, and the enduring craftsmanship of sculptors like the Piccirilli brothers into a palimpsest of artistic intent and historical circumstance. The echoes of the past, unveiled through scholarly lenses and archival revelations, beckon one to appreciate the nuanced subtleties that history unveils, layer by layer.

St. Paul's: Looking for Piccirilli

Continuing on this immersive journey, the remnants of the Piccirilli brothers' artistic legacy within the cathedral set the stage for a profound exploration into the intricacies of their collaboration. The sculptures, 'The Mother and the Child' and 'The Christ in the Cross' believed to have been designed by Jean Guillemin for the architectural firm overseeing renovations to the main altar, encapsulate the Piccirilli brothers' artistic prowess during their stay in London before their transatlantic voyage to New York.

The Italian Factor
Mother and Child | Designed by Jean Guillemin possibly sculpted by Attilio and Furio Piccirilli

The Heritage Film Project: The Italian Factor
Christ in the Cross | Designed by Jean Guillemin,possibly sculpted by Attilio and Furio Piccirilli

These exceptional works stand as the solitary Piccirilli remnants within St. Paul’s Cathedral, adding an intriguing chapter to the ongoing narrative. Of particular significance is the 'Mother and Child' sculpture, a recurring theme that reverberates through the Piccirillis' broader body of work. From the 'Mother and Child' at the USS Maine Memorial to the 'Mater Amorosa' gracing the family plot at Woodlawn Cemetery, this thematic continuity invites further exploration into the emotive depths of the Piccirilli brothers' portrayal of the mother-child relationship—a profound and timeless subject that resonates across their sculptural repertoire.

As I concluded my day within the confines of St. Paul's Cathedral, the ascent to the pinnacle of the dome provided a fitting denouement. From this elevated vantage point, a panoramic view of the cityscape and the gentle flow of the Thames River unfolded before me—a breathtaking panorama, seamlessly capping off a day steeped in artistic immersion within the sacred precincts of this historical landmark.

Photos by Eduardo Montes-Bradley

Article Updated on November 30, 2023

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