The Chapel

Work started on our Chapel in 1639, as part of the building of our south range. We commissioned for it a set of painted windows from Abraham van Linge, a Dutch artist who had produced splendid windows in various places in Oxford, including Lincoln, Queen’s, and Christ Church. A contract was drawn up with van Linge to produce eight side windows and one grand east window.

The side windows were finished in 1641, but before van Linge could begin the east window, the English Civil War broke out, and all work had to be suspended, so that his project remained unfinished. The windows which van Linge had managed to complete were all put into storage, and nothing more happened for twenty years. All we know is that in 1651/2 the College bought a new lock “to lock up the new Chappell glasse in the storehouse”.

In the 1660s, after the Restoration of the Monarchy, work resumed on the Chapel: the windows were now brought out of storage, and a roof and furnishings built. The Chapel was consecrated on 20 March 1666.

A few changes were made in the Chapel shortly after its completion: an east window was installed in the 1680s, and in 1694 a splendid screen separating the Chapel from the Antechapel was installed. It was designed by Robert Barker, a London joiner.

It was the Victorians, however, who changed the Chapel the most. In the early 1860s, Sir George Gilbert Scott, fresh from having designed our Library, was commissioned to refurbish the Chapel. He installed a new roof and east window (both still in place), as well as a new window at the east end of the south side, but he also installed a stone reredos at the east end, totally out of character with the rest of the Chapel. Fortunately, in 1843, just before Scott set to work, the pioneering photographer William Fox Talbot took a photograph of the east end of the Chapel from the Master's Garden which shows the original seventeenth-century window with its rather curious tracery. It can be seen here.

Scott’s east end was covered up by the original wooden reredos, and some red curtains, in the 1920s, and remains an object lesson in how one generation can completely misunderstand an earlier one.

The Chapel was originally built without an organ; it was not until 1863 that one was installed. The current organ was created in 1955.


Monuments in the Antechapel

Univ’s Chapel is typical of Oxford and Cambridge in having several memorials to its former members in its Antechapel. Some memorials relate to people who are buried here (at least four Masters lie under the High Altar, for example), but others are memorials to people buried elsewhere.

These are some of the most striking monuments in the Antechapel:

On the South wall: To the left at the top, is a marble memorial to Matthew Rolleston, a Fellow of Univ who died in 1817 aged only 30. This monument was given by a former pupil and is one of four in this Chapel created by the great neoclassical sculptor John Flaxman.

Below this memorial is a brass tablet to commemorate William Donkin (1814–69). Donkin was the first scientist, in the modern sense of the word, to become a Fellow of Univ. His poor health deprived him of the eminence which was his due, but all his contemporaries praised him for his intellect and his kindly nature.

Directly below the window is the second of Flaxman’s monuments, this one for Sir Robert Chambers (1737–1803), who had been a Fellow here in 1761–75. On leaving Univ, Chambers worked as a judge in India, and this memorial was given to the College by his widow.

On the West wall: To the left of the wall is our memorial to members of the College killed in the First World War.  The list includes men who had been accepted for matriculation, but never came up.  It bears 173 names in all - almost a quarter of all the Univ men who joined up.

In the centre of this wall is Flaxman’s third memorial in the Chapel, and his grandest, for Sir William Jones (1746–94). Jones, a former undergraduate and Fellow of Univ, was one of the greatest polymaths of his day, knowing over two dozen languages, and devoting himself in particular to the study of oriental literature. In 1783 he joined Robert Chambers to work as a judge in India, and there became fascinated by Indian language and culture, as reflected by the relief on this monument, which shows him eagerly taking notes from three Indian scholars. The monument was intended for Calcutta Cathedral, where Jones is buried, but it was offered to the College instead.

To the right of Jones’s monument are two more war memorials. The first one honours the Univ men who were killed in the Second World War, and bears 89 names. Its inscription translates as: “So that you will not remain in ignorance of the alumni of this College who preferred faith and justice to life, read their names here”.

The second one is a memorial to the College dead from the Boer War. This war was the first occasion since the 1640s that Oxford undergraduates were allowed to interrupt their studies by joining up, and one of the people on this memorial, Charles Toller, was the first Univ undergraduate to die in action for over 250 years.

James “Dusty” Miller, our former Head Porter, has compiled a biographical register of Univ’s war dead, We Will Remember Them (Twin Serpents, 2008).

On the North wall: At the top of this wall is Flaxman’s fourth monument, this one to Nathan Wetherell, who was Master of Univ in 1764–1807. This was presented by one of his daughters. It originally hung by the altar, where Wetherell lies buried, but was moved here in 1862.

Below Wetherell, to the right, is a memorial to another of Univ’s Boer War casualties, Cecil Boyle.

Below Boyle, this time to the left, is a memorial to Jonas Radcliffe, Fellow of Univ from 1600–26. It is a special monument, because it is the only one to survive from Univ’s old Chapel, and it says much for Radcliffe’s memory that the College re-erected it. Radcliffe was himself an unusual man: he was quite badly disabled and had great difficulty in walking, and yet he was a highly regarded Fellow and Tutor, who played a central role in College life.


The Chapel Windows

Abraham van Linge prepared eight windows for the sides of Univ’s Chapel. They were his last work in Oxford, and, in many people’s opinion, also his finest.

The subjects of the windows are as follows, starting from the south side of the Chapel, by the Master’s Garden, standing nearest the altar, and going round in a clockwise direction:

1 - Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden

2 - Adam and Eve after the Fall.

3 - Abraham saved from sacrificing his son Isaac.

4 - Christ in the house of Mary and Martha

5 - Christ expelling the moneychangers from the Temple.

6 - Jacob’s Dream.

7 - Elijah is taken up into heaven.

8 - Jonah and the Whale.

As originally conceived, the Antechapel would have taken up a larger proportion of the space, so that on entering one would have seen windows (4) and (5) side by side, instead of window (5), as one does now.

The choice of subjects was evidently carefully thought through. The two New Testament images, which were intended to be seen together, would have reminded visitors that they were now about to enter a Chapel, with their messages of how to receive God’s word and to behave in his holy place.

Many of the Old Testament scenes in other windows prefigure scenes from the New Testament: Elijah’s ascent to heaven in window (7) prefigures Christ’s ascension; Jonah’s spending three days in the whale’s belly before re-emerging, as seen in window (8), prefigures the three days spent by Christ in the tomb between Good Friday and Easter; and Abraham, in window (3), was like God, willing to sacrifice his son. No doubt van Linge’s east window, if he had had time to produce it, would have made these connections more obvious (his east window at Lincoln College, for example, explicitly pairs up some of these scenes).

The windows regularly include several parts of the same story: in window (8), for example, Jonah is seen in the foreground emerging from the whale, but in the background of the same picture he is seen being thrown out into the sea with the whale ready and eager to swallow him up. One window, number (2), is unique in including two quite different stories. In the foreground are Adam and Eve contemplating their fallen state, but in the background Abraham is seen entertaining two angels.