St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne, Victoria

The nineteenth-century Gothic Revival Cathedral of St Patrick’s, Melbourne, Victoria (1858-1899, 1930s, 1970s, 1990s) is a place for Christian worship.  It is a house of prayer, a dwelling-place of the Lord among God’s people.  St Patrick’s has been part of my life since before I was born.  In 1950, my Swiss-Polish parents, new post-WWII immigrants, were married in the cathedral sacristy by a Polish priest.  The architect of the cathedral, William Wilkinson Wardell (1823-1899), became the topic of my doctoral research in the 1980s; and in the early 2000s my youngest daughter was married in the cathedral.  It was in the 1990s that I began visiting the Ladye Chapel whenever I was in Melbourne.  My younger brother was diagnosed with cancer in his mid-twenties and I found great comfort in simply being present with Mary, mother of us all.

The Ladye Chapel too had special significance for Wardell.  He had a personal devotion to Our Lady, which had already been documented in England prior to his migration to Australia in 1858.  Wardell had his own copy of the traditional manual used by English speaking Catholics in the nineteenth century, Hortus Animae or Garden of the Soul being a Manual of Spiritual Exercises and Instructions as commonly used by Christians, who living in the world, aspire to devotion, etc., (published by John Philip, London, nd.).  It contains Wardell’s handwritten ‘Offering of a family to Mary’ and a ‘Prayer to Our Blessed Lady’.  The Wardells knew tragedy in their own lives, with the early death of a number of their children.  Mary is invoked as ‘my patroness, my mother, and my advocate with God’.  Further, Wardell consecrates himself, and all that belongs to him, to Our Lady’s service.

For Wardell’s parish church of Our Blessed Lady and St Joseph in Poplar, London (1850-56), Wardell himself paid for the fitting out of the chapel of the Immaculate Conception as a ‘thank offering’ for his and his wife’s conversions to Catholicism.  Wardell, who kept no personal diaries, noted this together with the detailed specifications, on his architectural drawings for the church (now held in the Mitchell Library, SLNSW, Ref ML DF382 f52).  The church at Poplar was destroyed in 1940 as a result of WWII bombings, so with this chapel no longer extant, the Ladye Chapel at St Patrick’s is of even more significant heritage value.

The Ladye Chapel at St Patrick’s Cathedral is the central chapel of the seven grouped in a semi-circle around the ambulatory or walkway behind the sanctuary, and is located directly behind the high altar as tradition demanded.  The inscription across the front arch of the chapel is a text from Luke 1:26, Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum, Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.  The Ladye Chapel is the largest, as well as the most richly adorned, of all the chevet chapels at St Patrick’s.  Archbishop Goold laid the foundation stone on 8 September 1879.

Wardell’s detailed instructions to the ornamental carvers are still extant.  The altar came from the workshop of Messrs Farmer and Brindley and is made of English red and white alabaster.  It is 4.11m high and 2.36m wide.  From a predella of white Sydney marble, the moulded plinth, the frontal and the table rise to a total height of 0.99m.  The table of the altar is a massive richly moulded and highly polished block 2.13m long.  The altar frontal has three deeply sunken panels ornamented with carved lilies and patera.  The monogram of Our Lady appears in mosaic in the centre, with the smaller Star of the Sea/ Morning Star and the Tower of David, two titles from the Litany of Loreto, on either side.

The diaper-patterned reredos features a beautifully-moulded canopied Gothic niche with a nodding ogee arch, sculpted by Jaguers of London.  This provides the setting for the marble sculpture of Our Lady Queen of Heaven, again specifically ordered from Messrs Farmer and Brindley to Wardell’s personal specifications.  Our Lady is regal, serene and statuesque in her demeanour; yet she is also clearly a mother, balancing the Christ child on her hip and tenderly holding his small foot in her hand.  The mosaics to either side of the Madonna and Child depict the birth of Christ and the crowning of the Virgin Mary respectively.  Carved across the top of the reredos are the words Mater Salvatoris, Ora pro nobis, Mother of the Saviour, Pray for us.

The stained glass windows of the Ladye Chapel are from the workshop of Hardman & Co, celebrated English manufacturer of stained glass and ecclesiastical fittings.  Five two-light windows show scenes from the life of Mary: (from L) the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, the Presentation in the Temple and the Adoration of the Magi. In the uppermost tracery quatrefoils are representations of Mary as the Immaculate Conception, the Magnificat, the Assumption and the Queen of Heaven. Just below in the side quatrefoils are angels bearing shields depicting Mary’s various titles. In the lower section of each window panel are depicted the valiant women of the Hebrew testament: Eve and Sara, Miriam and Deborah, Judith and Esther, the Queen of Sheba and Ruth, and the Daughter of Jeptha and the Mother of the Maccabees. Following the tradition of the great medieval Gothic cathedrals, these windows too play a didactic role. The windows tell the story of Mary’s early life, link her to the Hebrew Testament and clearly show the honour bestowed on her as Mother of God.

In the best tradition of his mentor and friend, Augustus Pugin, Wardell designed every aspect of the Ladye Chapel, including the altar rails, the windows and the monogram on the gates.  The trefoil and quatrefoil patterns used on the exterior of the cathedral are repeated internally to contribute to an overall unity of design, threading disparate elements together.  The Ladye chapel was conceived as a total work of art, a Gesamtkunstwerk.  Here architect, artist and craftsman, through design, architecture, sculpture, mosaics, metalwork and stained glass, accomplished a complete synthesis of multiple art forms.  A variety of materials contributed to the overall concept: stone, mosaics, glass, metalwork and inlaid tiles.  For example, the role of the stained glass windows is not only to be fitting and beautiful, but to play their part in the adornment of the Ladye Chapel by being subordinated to the effect the interior is intended to produce as a whole.

Thus, glass is one of many parts that contributes to a complete result, where design intent, process and realisation harmoniously come together. The light in the cathedral is no ordinary light – here in the Ladye chapel it is filtered through sacred pictures, representing the bejewelled light of heaven. As Abbot Suger ecstatically discovered so long ago at St Denis in medieval Paris, in this rich muted chromatic ambience we humans are meant to be transported out of this world. Physically, symbolically and spiritually this beautiful nineteenth-century Ladye Chapel continues to contribute to St Patrick’s as a living place of worship.

Architectural historian, Dr Ursula de Jong, is Honorary Associate Professor in the School of Architecture and Built Environment at Deakin University, Geelong.