Most visitors and worshippers at St Faith’s would probably agree that the church’s chief glory is the great screen behind the High Altar, known as the Salviati Reredos. This fine piece of work was not present when the church was built and consecrated, but was brought here the following year and installed on All Saints’ Day by Douglas Horsfall, the church’s founder and continuing benefactor. Very little certain information is known about the reredos, despite continuous efforts in recent years, both locally and nationally, to trace its exact origins, manufacture, purchase and, indeed, its value,
What is known is that it is the work of Salviati of Venice. Antonio Salviati lived from 1816-1890, and was a lawyer whose interest in mosaic glass led him to set up in business in Venice. He restored the mosaic work in St Mark’s there, and later his firm made the mosaic glass for Westminster Abbey’s high altar screen. This led to much work with glass, and the creating of a fashion among the Victorians for ornate, brightly-coloured glass and a renaissance in Italian glass-making. It would therefore seem likely either that Salviati himself created our artefact, or that it was craftsman from his firm who created our reredos, using Salviati’s mosaic techniques. Presumably they produced the designs for the angels and other figures, including the central crucifixion panel, all of which are clearly individually painted or applied.
An early church magazine records that the carved framework of the reredos was made by Messrs Norman and Burt of Burgess Hill, Suffolk, who ‘received instructions from the artists as to completing its painting and gilding’ - an intriguing statement which does not make it entirely clear how much of the work was done abroad, and how much in this country.
The reredos tryptych consists of a large central panel, with two wings which may be folded over to conceal the main panel. The base, or predella, features the central representation of the Lamb and Flag symbol for Christ, seated on a green hill from which water issues in three streams. On each side is a kneeling angel, while below are the heraldic representations of the four evangelists: Matthew (a human figure), Mark (a lion), Luke (a bull) and John (an eagle) they are identified by their Latin names of Mattheus, Marcus, Lucas and Joanne. Above is the central crucfixion scene, with Christ flanked by the figures of the Virgin Mary and of St Mary Magdalene. This is flanked by the human figures of the four evangelists: from the left St Matthew holds his gospel, St Mark a quill and a book, St Luke his staff and a book, while St John carries a chalice which contains an eagle. All this work is set in intricate and colourful gold and royal blue mosaic; the main figures are surmoumted with 12 elaborate carved canopies.
The wings of the reredos feature figures of angels, representing the six-winged seraphim of the Book of Isaiah. The outermost have two raised wings; the others folded; although the faces of them seem identical, each figure would appear to be individually painted, since close observation reveals many detail differences in the figures and in the IHS monograms, and the golden stars, surrounding them. The faces of two of the figures have been transposed, possibly during the cleaning and regilding of the reredos in 1959. There are also canopies above these figures, and there is elaborate freestanding gilded decorative carved flower head and pinnacle work above the whole screen.
The wooden frame is painted in the same shade of light blue used elsewhere in the church. There is, however, a strong belief that the original colouring may have been a deeper one: there are early references to ‘dark red panels’, and this colour survives on some of the woodwork, while the reverse of the whole screen is painted in a dark green shade. Mr Robin McGhie, designer of the votive candle stand, believes that the main colour may have been ‘Bodley Green’: he is one of several experts who have suggested that the reredos would look better in its original colours. It was taken away for repainting and regilding in 1959, when the blue colour (then apparently in widespread use) was probably applied. Those experts who have seen the reredos have said that it is in basically excellent condition, but might benefit from careful cleaning to its paintwork: we still await a definitive judgement on the whole issue of the care, colour, inportance and ultimate value of our most treasured artefact.
The reredos, with its candles beneath, is displayed in all its splendour for most of the year. During Lent the wings are folded across and the whole thing is covered with a black hanging cloth, in front of which the Great Crucifix is placed during Holy Week, providing a moving and powerful contrast to what it conceals. Its annual Easter resurrection and reappearance is for many one of the great highlights of the central feast of the Christian year.
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