Discover The Screen
Such is the general description of Sir Ninian Comper’s masterpiece which occupies the east end of the nave. In fact “the screen” consists of three sections, which successfully merge to form a unified harmony of carving and colour, lauding and glorifying the High Altar. The reredos is set against the east wall of the nave; above it is the tester, reaching welcomingly westwards, and above the tester is the rood, resting on the mediaeval brackets which supported the pre-dissolution rood.
“Wow” is the word uttered by almost everyone who first sees the screen, especially when its lights are switched on, or the sun, streaming through the south clerestory windows, catches Comper’s inimitable and gorgeous array of painted figures and canopies.
When the east tower of the Abbey was rebuilt at the end of the fourteenth century the monks constructed its west wall in and across the town nave, preventing worshippers in the nave from seeing any conventual services in the choir or presbytery. This solid wall thenceforth became the east end of the town’s church, featureless and, until the advent of Comper’s screen, unadorned.
Sir Ninian Comper (1864-1960, knighted 1950) was one of the best English ecclesiastical architects of his time. He was a pupil of George Bodley, who led the Gothic Revival. Comper’s father was an incumbent in Aberdeen, and at the forefront of the Oxford Movement. It is not surprising therefore that Comper’s work largely suited Anglo-Catholic clients.
In 1913, Wymondham’s then vicar, the Revd S. Martin Jones, chose Comper to design and produce a screen for the Abbey, to rid his congregation of the plain east wall. The 1914-18 War interrupted the commission, but in 1919 work began. Appropriately the reredos was to become a memorial to those from Wymondham who had died in the war. The tester and rood were later to be memorials to the benefactress who had largely paid for major repairs and improvements to the church between 1901 and 1908.
The screen is Comper’s notion of heaven, as described in the Revelation of St John the Divine. The central and dominant figure in the reredos is that of Our Lord, enthroned in Glory. Beneath stand Our Lady with the infant Jesus, St Thomas of Canterbury and St Alban. St Thomas is the current co-patron of the Abbey, with Our Lady, whilst St Alban was his predecessor in the role. Other figures in this and the row above, are saints associated with the early Wymondham Guilds. At the top of the reredos, and almost hidden by their intricately-carved niches, are the small figures of five East Anglian saints ( Felix, Etheldreda, Edmund, Hugh and Fursey) and Mother Julian of Norwich.
The town’s history is depicted in the heraldry prominently featured in all three parts of the screen.
On the tester appear the Angels of the Apocalypse, whilst underneath is The Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, surrounded by clouds and tongues of fire which proclaim the seven gifts of the Spirit.
On the rood stands the figure of Christ crucified on the Tree of Life. Standing on each side of Him are Our Lady and St John, the Beloved Disciple. Beside them are winged cherubim.
The commission was not completed until 1934, fifteen years after it began. Money was scarce and the cost of work had escalated after the war. The screen was dedicated in an un-finished state, by the Bishop of Norwich, on 5th October 1921. Modifications to the design were made as the work progressed. The most radical proposal came from the screen committee which, unsuccessfully, tried to persuade Comper to leave his work in unpainted oak. The architect remained resolute. However the paucity of funds enabled the committee to stand firm in its refusal to lower the floor of the sanctuary, envisaged in Comper’s plans, thereby preventing him from executing his idea of placing new oak doors on either side of the High Altar, and an alabaster retable over the Altar itself.
By 1934 the decoration was still unfinished. Whilst the figures were more-or-less painted, the gilding of the niches and frames remained to be done. In that year, an anonymous legacy providentially came in, enabling the finishing touches to be made.
The resulting tour de force, as its creator intended, brilliantly and successfully draws the observer’s attention to the focal point in the building, the High Altar.
During his years at Wymondham, Comper became a familiar figure in the Abbey. Its minutes show that the PCC frequently sought his views about diverse matters, as their mentor rather than the architect of their screen. Two other pieces by Comper stand in the church, both in the north aisle: the painted statue of Our Lady and Child, given by Maurice Parker in 1946, and the gilded Paschal candlestick, given by a former curate, the Revd. A.M.Rumball, in 1935.