Every picture tells a story: Cardinal Vaughan’s painting arrives in Arundel.

May 20, 2024

Two workmen hanging a painting that is about twice their height, on a blank wall. The painting shows a Madonna and Child venerated by three saints, with a cherub

Writing in The Tablet, Elena Curti charts “The journey of a painting from an altar to a staircase to a cathedral chapter room exposes some turbulent episodes in English Catholic history.

"When Cardinal Herbert Vaughan, Archbishop of Westminster, attended the grand opening of the new chapel at St John’s Seminary, Wonersh, in 1896, he came bearing a special gift. It was a very large oil painting to serve as the chapel’s altarpiece. Measuring 10 feet by six feet, it depicted the Madonna and Child, enthroned on a plinth, and venerated by three saints, with a cherub.

"Earlier, the cardinal had been involved in a bitter row with Wonersh’s founders and the gift was something of a peace offering. But it was not appreciated. As soon as was decently possible, after five years the picture was relegated to a spot halfway up the seminary’s main staircase, where it was largely ignored.

"Vaughan’s altarpiece was replaced with a frame of red plush 'which everyone agreed was a vast improvement', according to Sean Finnegan’s 2011 history of St John’s, In Hope of Harvest. Finnegan writes that the painting is 'not really very good', and he repeats an early rumour that it had been painted by a seminary workman. This damning appraisal endured at Wonersh until it was announced that the seminary was to close in 2021. When the rector, Mgr Gerry Ewing, invited experts to examine the contents, it was realised that Vaughan’s gift was, in fact, rather fine and contained iconography that was redolent of meaning for Catholics at the time.

"The painting was unveiled in its new home in Arundel last month. It now hangs in the chapter room at Cathedral House, next door to the cathedral."

Click here to visit The Tablet website and find out more.

Image: Marcin Mazur/CBCEW