In 2023 Newcastle Cathedral completed a £6M Heritage Lottery Funded re-development programme, entitled “Creating Common Ground in Sacred Space”
In consequence of this project, we were commissioned to design and manufacture a new suite of liturgical furnishings – an altar, an ambo and a set of choir Stalls.
We worked very closely with the Reverend Canon Clare Maclaren and Dean Geoff Miller to develop our concept, whose brief is summarised as:
- Sculpturally striking – and should stand, when not in use, nested or tessellated together as a work of art in their own right.
- The altar and ambo must work as “a piece” with the existing font – in some way referencing it so as to make a connection between baptism, word and sacrament, and the sense of liturgical journey.
- The Altar and Ambo need to be furniture of ‘great strength and dignity’
- The design should be modern and simple
- In discussion in April 2019, Chapter had requested that the commission bear the the following characteristics:
- statement pieces,
- non-standard shape,
- should reflect the building,
- should avoid ‘blocky’,
- simple and stunning
- The Altar should have no conventional ‘back’ or ‘front’; it should be a piece that the people of God may gather around and where the president’s standing position is not prescribed by its shape.
- The materials used should be of the highest quality and craftmanship.
- The finished product should look like stone rather than a traditional ‘wooden table’
- Use of contemporary materials that display a high level of craftmanship and technological innovation.
- The design and the materials used should be inspired by the city’s mercantile and maritime history especially:
- coal mining,
- or the Tyne’s bridges
- The pieces should be ‘forwards as well as backwards looking’ – showcasing some of the city’s current artistic, design and technological prowess.
- Both when in use and when not, the pieces should be ‘sculpturally striking’, retaining dignity and speaking of their purpose. When moved aside and not in use, the pieces must retain dignity and sit together appropriately.
- Both pieces need to easily moveable without being damaged or in turn damaging the Nave floor.
- Chapter would encourage the use where possible of local materials and suppliers.
- The size needs to ensure that the furniture looks commanding in the Nave. The dimensions of both pieces need to be substantial and in appropriate scale to their Nave context.
Our final design was based on cast-aluminium construction which allowed us to create something sculptural, with real heft and prominence.
After approving 3D CAD models we 3D printed 1:10 scale models to test casting and to measure shrinkage on the components.
We then CNC-carved the 1:1 moulds in foam, nad had the pieces cast in 3 sections each. These were then welded together to form a shell, and finished with an aluminium patination system. The blue enamel detail to the fronts was applied as a specialist system, and the blue inset crosses were vitreous enamel fired in-house.
Both pieces also contain an integral trolley jack to allow for moving around the space.
The choir stalls were [produced in Richlite - a composite paper-based material. They are modular in design and feature a 3D rendering of an actual soundwave of a choral recital recorded at the cathedral. This was created digitally and then “sliced” into layers and arrayed across the fronts of the salls.
The stalls also feature gold detailing with enamel crosses.
Here follows some notes from Clare Maclaren on the Design Narrative, as submitted as part of the application to the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England
"Raskl initially began work on the altar, and a ship-shaped form quickly began to emerge. This connects, of course, not simply with Newcastle’s maritime history – and the proximity of the River Tyne, but with the “ark” of the Church as a place of salvation and sanctuary. This brings logistical challenges in terms of maintaining the stability of an object which is much wider at the top than at the bottom.
Raskl has proceeded to model, and work with these to come up with the current designs.
The weight of the altar and ambo needs to be such that they can easily be moved by one person, on a regular basis. Dan and his team brought a sack-barrow and bags of sand to the Cathedral and experimented with the vergers to ascertain the maximum acceptable weight for each.
Picking up on the geological motif of Newcastle’s mining past, and our aim of creating an Altar and Ambo that would “nest together” sculpturally, in some sense while not in use, we explored the idea of a geode – a dull piece of rock which splits apart to reveal a glittering cavern of crystals within. In the “breaking of the Word” at the Ambo and the “breaking of the Bread” at the Altar, precious treasure is revealed amidst the “ordinary” of life. An invitation to look closer.
The Raskl team were keen to work with enamel – especially when we said we would encourage them to explore using “live” candles in their design. (Something which risk assessments do not usually permit them to do, but which is a quite normal aspect of Cathedral life!) Of course, there is a rich tradition of using enamel in the adornment of religious artefacts – and vitreous enamel is made with ground glass powder, so this makes a nice connection with the glass-making heritage of our region, and the traditions of our Celtic forbears.
It is important that the Altar and Ambo connect in some way with the existing Font – and so
Raskl has echoed in his pieces the dark grey of the marble font, and the blue of the heraldic shields on it. We were keen to use blue, as it is not one of the traditional liturgical
colours, and so would be acceptable at every time of the Christian year. Newcastle Cathedral (because of its putative establishment by Osmund of Salisbury in 1090) does use Sarum Blue in Advent and Lent – but the special nature of these seasons could be signalled by the removal of the lit candles during that period, or by replacing them with some alternative seasonally significant item. (Or, indeed, by a blue candle. Our Advent ring is deep blue, not purple.)
This iteration of the Ambo and Altar further develops the nautical theme, with a subtle, but powerful wave, deep within the cavity of the Altar, reminiscent of the “Calming of the Storm”, of the Cathedral’s Lantern Tower guiding sailors safely home up the River Tyne, and of Psalm 107’s : “they went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters” The courageous
candle, burning in the trough of the wave, a reminder of the persistent light of faith which supports us through times of peril. The candle in the Ambo, meanwhile, seems more sheltered in its enamel cradle – a symbol, perhaps, of the protection and guidance of the Word of God: “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”"
Photography by Jack Storey