The best history of Bristol’s architecture published in recent years praised St Paul’s as “until recently, an untouched Victorian interior.” Even presuming that the ‘recently’ refers to the erection of the present dais, this statement is not strictly true.
In the Victorian era, the chancel was the visual and liturgical centre of attention in the church. The priest stood at the altar, and the choir – at least semi-divine, being seated within the chancel – led the congregation’s gaze towards him. But to further concentrate attention on the chancel, most of the colour in the church was concentrated there. At St Paul’s we still have the reredos, these days the largest concentration of colour in the church. But when the church was built in the 1860s, the whole of the chancel was rich with colour and decoration, and it is this which has largely disappeared. As in so many churches, the colour has been greatly toned down, strong colours and ebullient decoration being as foreign to today’s taste as Certainties of Faith and Muscular Christianity.
The decoration of the chancel at St Paul’s was as elaborate as that of most Victorian churches. But a wealthy parish like St Paul’s could provide fittings which were not merely impressive but also expensive and often of high quality. The reredos, for example, incorporates pieces of mother-of-pearl within the mosaic work, and the patches of gold are – a common Byzantine technique – clear glass backed by, presumably, gold leaf. The tiled floor of the chancel contains eleven different patterns of inlaid tiles and nineteen different varieties of plain coloured tiles, laid in a splendid and unusually intricate mosaic, the levels being separated by steps made probably of Serpentine. The patterns of the tiles are inspired by 13th century originals from Westminster Abbey Chapter House and from Chertsey Abbey, and include a number of unusual designs. The walls of the chancel were originally extensively painted, with different designs to each of the three tiers above the level of the reredos. These have been whitewashed over for many years, apart from the four very fine angels holding scrolls, in the spandrels of the arches.
All this decoration functioned as intended and even today, as a backdrop, concentrates attention on the present position of the altar. The chancel is used today in a very different manner to the 1860s, but that, too, was markedly different to the way it had been used during the 17th and 18th centuries, when the priest conducted most services from a stall just outside the chancel arch, the chancel only being used – although then for the whole congregation – for the infrequent communion services. This, in its turn, was a totally different way of using the church building to that of earlier periods. And, no doubt, in 50 years time our successors will be experimenting once again in preparation for a Church Reorganising, and the use of the chancel may by then be fashionable again.