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Museum of Oxford Digital Exhibitions

Emptied niches

"Bodleian, G. A. Oxon. a. 48, p. 61", Image: “Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford", CC-BY-NC 4.0

The Reformation in Oxford is in many cases a story of loss and return. Some absences and empty spaces have been filled, replaced, or covered over. The wall behind the altar in the chapel of All Souls College features an extraordinary set of statues, also known as a reredos. It is made up of a series of niches filled with figures of saints and monarchs from Christian history. At its centre is a carving of Jesus being killed on the cross: the crucifixion. You could be forgiven for assuming that this survives from when the chapel was first built in the fifteenth century. In fact, it was built by the Victorians and is the last stage of a long series of transformations.

The medieval chapel had featured a stone carved reredos painted in a variety of bright colours. This lasted less than a century. Influenced by European Protestants, King Edward VI (1537-1553) set about reforming the Church in England and authorized widespread iconoclasm or destruction of what were seen as idolatrous images. The statues at All Souls were removed and its niches stood empty. This photograph from 1872 gives us a vivid and rare insight into what Oxford’s churches looked like after their images had been destroyed or removed; rare because often they were replaced.

In the seventeenth century the empty reredos was covered with a large painting of the Last Judgement. This lasted for two hundred years – far longer than the medieval stonework. By the late nineteenth century, tastes had changed. After fierce debates among the College Fellows, George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878), designer of the Martyrs’ Memorial in St Giles, was hired to restore the medieval reredos. The story of the All Souls reredos is a familiar one; as the College’s current chaplain John Drury puts it ‘the east ends of English churches and chapels are historically restless places, altered again and again under the pressures of devotion and denial, notions and rituals.’