The Chapel of Christ the Redeemer sits atop a hill overlooking a serene stretch of the Thames in the deer park of the Culham estate near Henley. Designed by the architect Craig Hamilton, the chapel was consecrated by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor in December 2015. In order to explain the chapel’s purpose, the trust behind it invokes architectural historian John Martin Robinson: “The aim of church art is to express divine beauty through human endeavour and thereby help turn men’s thoughts to God”.
The architecture critic Gavin Stamp has heaped praise on this “beautiful building”, composed in the language of classicism, but full of “subtle originality”. The Architecture Foundation has described it as a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art, “without recent parallel”.
Trained eyes visiting Culham will spot its ancient Greek models, such as the temple at Bassae (a favourite of the architect’s), along with allusions to Michelangelo, whom Stamp calls Craig Hamilton’s “expressive muse”. There are deliberate homages to the Italian master’s Laurentian Library and the Capella Medici in San Lorenzo.
Untrained eyes like mine need help in appreciating these finer points, but can still marvel at the overall effect. The chapel has an air of simplicity, yet it teems with detail.
It takes its place peacefully in the pastoral landscape, while quietly transforming it. Small in scale, it is monumental in feeling. There is a tremendous sense of unity, but none of uniformity. Above all, the chapel is much more than a formal exercise: the very stones exude an atmosphere of intense care, reverence and devotion.
I find it hard to know where to start (or end) in describing the riches it contains. But there can be no doubt that most visitors will leave with Alexander Stoddart’s massive statue of Christ the Redeemer, seated and pensive, permanently imprinted on the mind’s eye. John Martin Robinson, writing in Country Life, has speculated about its impact on the viewer perhaps matching that of the lost statue of Zeus at Olympus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
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