The significance of the sculptures in town church

St Robert's Church, in Oldgate, was open for this year's Heritage Open Days.

Friday, 29th September 2017, 2:07 pm

It’s full of vibrant art, including a wealth of stained glass, but today we look at the sculpture.

According to the leaflet that you can get in the church, the first known Roman Catholic chapel in Morpeth, recorded in 1767, was in a house in Bullers Green.

The date is significant. James Francis Edward Stuart, the Old Pretender, died in 1766. The Pope did not recognise his son, Charles Edward, the Young Pretender, as King of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, as he had done the father, but accorded recognition to the Hanoverian dynasty instead.

The penal laws against Roman Catholics were still severe. Priests, for instance, could be sentenced to death for celebrating the Mass.

But the laws were not generally enforced — as, indeed, the existence of the chapel in Bullers Green suggests.

The second chapel was founded in St Bede’s Place in 1778. It still exists, but is now purely residential.

The date is, again, significant. The Catholic Relief Act, 1778, did not specifically allow Roman Catholics to build chapels for public worship, but it repealed many of the hindrances to parochial life, such as the prosecution of priests and unlimited imprisonment for anyone keeping a Catholic school.

St Robert's is the work of Fr George Augustine Lowe. He had drive and enthusiasm, and might, in another sphere, have been a highly successful businessman.

He began fund-raising in 1847, and the church opened the following year.

Before you enter the church, look across to your right at the two statues on either side of a tall, pointed window.

The left-hand one wears the Triple Crown, and is thought to represent Pope Gregory the Great. Gregory saw some fair-haired English boys in the slave market in Rome and asked where they came from. When told they were Angles, he famously said, “Not Angles, but Angels”, and determined to send missionaries to convert the pagan English to Christianity.

The right-hand statue, which wears a mitre, is thought to be St Augustine of Canterbury, whom Gregory chose to lead the mission.

There are several representations of Fr Lowe in the church, but the liveliest is a sculptured head that terminates the left-hand side of the hood mould over the window between Pope Gregory and St Augustine. Unfortunately, you need binoculars to see it.

In this little sculpture, he is shown wearing a biretta. The face beneath is intelligent, vigorous and realistic. It may be a portrait, but even if not, it still conveys a strong sense of the man.

The other label stop is a woman, thought to be Mary Bell, one of the chief benefactors of St Robert’s.

The face is again comely and intelligent. She wears a mob cap of a plain type, with a caul covering the hair and what seems to be a high collar coming up to the chin.

There is a statue of Fr Lowe in the porch as you enter. Beside it is a statue of the Sacred Heart, about 3ft tall, beautifully moulded and richly coloured.

There are other statues in the church of about the same size, including the 12 apostles. These stand up a height, on corbels between the side windows.

Two life-size statues stand on either side of the chancel arch, Christ the King, and Our Lady, Queen of Heaven.

Our Lord as Christ the King wears a simple white cassock, with over it a royal robe and a richly ornamented stole. He holds the orb and sceptre, and wears a crown. His right hand is raised in blessing.

Our Lady, Queen of Heaven, is one of the most beautiful statues I have ever seen. The colours are muted, and by subtle contrast bring out the richness of the subject.

She wears a wimple, which, however, does not cover the hair or throat, and would be extremely difficult to keep on in real life.

Her dress is simple, white, and reaches to the ground. Her cloak is of cloth of gold with a contrast lining. On her head is a crown, and in her hand a sceptre.

The infant Jesus looks very like a real toddler.

He has a halo and holds an orb, but you feel that if Our Lady put him down, he would drop them straight away and run off looking for the toys.

In short, this is art that works on more than one level, and encompasses both the human and the divine.

Both statues are, of course, allegorical. It is in the nature of deity that we can only imagine it in earthly terms, which in turn can only dimly convey what the reality might be.

The altar rails are of marble and bronze, and were designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott.

They are a memorial for members of the congregation who died in the Great War. Their names can be found in the porch.

Behind the altar are two more statues, each about 4ft high. One is St Joseph, the earthly father of Our Lord. The other, pictured, is St Benedict.

In it, Benedict wears the black habit of his order with a gold pectoral cross, and carries a crosier or pastoral staff. In his other hand is a wine goblet, which he holds in a rather casual way.

Benedict was invited by the monks of a nearby monastery to become their abbot. He declined, being certain that their ways were not his. They begged him, and he eventually accepted.

But he was right. They found his rule too strict and tried to get rid of him by giving him a cup of poisoned wine. He blessed it before he drank, and as he did so, the cup shattered.